Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Learning about Leadership by Leading the Blind

This is the story of the time (I had) when I ran into a blind man.

I was the director of a program and was responsible for several staff both professionals and support staff.  I hired a man named Tim who had been completely blind from birth.  He taught me a great deal about the experience of living with a visual impairment, and about life.

I knew enough to ask him to tell me how to work together to address accessibility.  He reminded me that he was capable of asking for help and together we developed an understanding in our relationship of boundaries, though this was a bit different process than the development of other relationships, at least for me.  I learned to remember to offer him a ride if our co-workers decided spontaneously to go out for lunch.  I also learned not to hover or do anything for him that he didn’t ask for.  He taught me how to lead him holding on to my elbow, which was necessary if we left the building.

Early on, he needed this just outside the building as the sidewalks were a bit complicated on the campus of our work place.  I was new at guiding him but he seemed confident when he took my elbow and I knew he would tell me what to do next.  He assumed, however wrongly, that I would stay on the sidewalks.  I absentmindedly took a habitual short cut, cutting a ninety degree angle short by about two feet.  This caused him to stumble on the edge of the sidewalk and tumble across the concrete scrapping a knee and both hands.

Bloody and probably bruised, he refused the help I offered in righting him but picked himself up, brushed himself off while laughing and joyously informing me that he now had a great opportunity to tease me about my mistake, which he did for many years after.

I learned much from this friend and his disability, but what strikes me in this reflection is what I learned about leadership:  1. If you agree to lead, pay attention.  2.  If you make a mistake, laugh it off and move on.  3.  If you make a mistake, learn from it.  4.  If someone leads you into a fall, forgive him or her.  5.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.

There is something more in the part about his refusal for my help getting him up from the fall that is a metaphor for the brokenness that happens when leaders fail.  The other options would be for him to have 1. Let me help him up, 2. Walk away and blame him, 3. Ridicule him, 4. Shut down and not offer to reconcile the error.  I had to offer to help him up and he had to decline and do this himself.  We shared in the effort to get from the office to the car, we agreed on a plan of action; we were mutually responsible for the outcome, good or bad.  When things went wrong, we were mutually responsible for repairing the wrong.  Making too much fuss over him and insisting I get a wheel chair or some such overreaction would have made matters worse by insulting him further.  Leaving him with out offering to help would have been rude and demeaning as well.  His wisdom to immediately turn the incident into a joke through gentle teasing of us both was his way of entering further into relationship and turning a loss into a gain, pain into grace, limitation into triumph.

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