Real Leaders

What Can A Six-Year-Old Teach Us About Leadership?

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Years ago, I met a six-year-old who would become one of my greatest teachers. “Melissa” showed me what real leadership is all about.

Back then, I volunteered at a rehabilitation facility in Morristown, NJ, assisting a gifted physical therapist in a heated pool while she used the warm water to stretch the muscles of children challenged with cerebral palsy and other muscular disorders. When Melissa arrived for the last session of the day, I remember her waiting patiently for her turn in the pool. Her calm demeanor and watchful eyes caught my attention. She remained still as she seemed to be quietly taking everything in. But when we got her in the pool, her energy shifted at the same time as her smile lit up the room.

When we started the session, she displayed a discipline and focus on her task that matched any of the best leaders I had ever known. She had clarity about her one goal—she wanted to extend both arms together to enable her hands to grasp a small sponge basketball, drop it in a floating net, and score two points. At first, both of her hands were rigidly held close to her shoulders. During her first session, we were able to get just one arm to relax—and it moved only a few inches. She was determined, but patient. Melissa gave it 100%, but this was going to be a long process.

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In subsequent weeks, I looked forward to Melissa’s session. Of our many times in the pool together, I particularly remember the impact she had on me when she spoke. Her words were always positive, and she seemed to use them to help create her future.

I also remember how others were affected by Melissa. We all watched as Melissa entered the water with that same enthusiasm every time. Staff would stop to peek in to see her progress. Her passion and zest were contagious—she influenced everyone around her.

It took Melissa nearly six months to reach her goal. When she finally succeeded, she let out a cry of joy that I can still hear to this day. She reminded me that those with disabilities have amazing abilities to share with those of us whose challenges aren’t as visible. She is what I refer to as a Chief.

Melissa served as a role model in so many ways. She sure helped me, even when I started with the belief that I was there to serve her. She reminded me that real power has nothing to do with your title or position. It’s focused on influence, clarity, energy, confidence, and impact.

In the second edition of Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title, I share tips and tools to help anyone understand, measure, increase, and spread real power. And in Melissa’s honor, I’m donating 100% of the author proceeds to Easterseals in support of their mission to help everyone become Chiefs.

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