Yet Brittany Leads

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”  ~ John Quincy Adams

She has the use of only one hand
Permanently disfigured,
Fingers frozen, crooked

Yet Brittany leads

She is cortically blind
Seeing nothing but dim colors
And shadowy shapes

Yet Brittany leads

She must be lifted
From her bed to her wheelchair
And back again
Every morning and every night

Yet Brittany leads

She cannot brush her teeth
Or use the bathroom
Or even shower on her own

Yet Brittany leads

She is confined to a wheelchair
Held upright by a harness
Her disease-ravaged spine
Too weak to support her

leadership skills people with disabilities cerebral palsyYet Brittany leads

I was there to interview her about a leadership award she’d recently won. And I must admit I was a little nervous. I hadn’t been around many disabled people before and I didn’t want to do or say the wrong thing.

She seemed to sense my nervousness and wheeled her chair a little closer to me. Then she said without preamble, “People don’t realize the gifts they’ve been given. They should cherish every breath they take. We can all do something wonderful.”

We can all do something wonderful.

Her words carried the slight slur that is common in those whose vocal cords have been affected by Cerebral Palsy. But, in Brittany’s case, the words rang clear and true.

While many might believe it’s Brittany’s lot in life to need the help of others, she believes her life’s purpose is to lead and serve others.

As President of an organization whose mission is to foster community service among the disabled, Brittany leads a band of disabled souls who are changing the world – or at the very least, their small corner of it. Thanks to Brittany’s leadership:

  • Dozens of children with cancer now have dolls to hug for comfort while undergoing chemotherapy and other medical treatments.
  • Dozens of underprivileged children now have hand-knitted sweaters and mittens to keep them warm on cold days.
  • Hundreds of seniors in need now have the food they need to stay well-nourished and healthy.
  • Hundreds of homeless teens now have backpacks filled with basic life necessities, such as bottled water, socks, underwear, and a toothbrush.
  • Uncounted numbers of women in third-world countries have received life-saving immunizations.

As a leader in a national advocacy group, Brittany champions the rights of the disabled. As a leader in her community, she speaks before groups of up to 500 people about service leadership and faith.

How does one young woman, who can only move one hand, move so many others? Through kindness, grace and a sincere desire to serve. “Helping others makes me feel good in my heart,” says Brittany.

Since everything she does must be done with assistance, Brittany learned leadership skills at a very young age. Her philosophy? To truly lead where others will follow, one must have a sincere desire to serve and a love of mankind. “Understand who you are leading and why,” she says.

“Anyone can have a vision, but for others to buy-in to that vision, you must earn their trust.” Trust is earned through leading by example and by genuinely caring about those you lead and serve.

Though some business leaders may roll their eyes at Brittany’s lead-from-the-heart, do-good, style, perhaps they would do well to consider this: A study at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, according to Doc Childre and Bruce Cryer, in From Chaos to Coherence, found that compassion and building teamwork will be two of the most important characteristics business leaders will need for success a decade from now.

“More than anything else today, followers believe they are part of a system, a process that lacks heart,” says Lance Secretan, in Industry Week (10/12/98). “If there is one thing a leader can do to connect with followers at a human, or better still a spiritual level, it is to become engaged with them fully, to share experiences and emotions, and to set aside the processes of leadership we have learned by rote.”

For those working to implement leadership training such as Leader Effectiveness Training (L.E.T.) skills into their workplace and into their personal life, this may be a valuable lesson. As Secretan says, “Great leadership is about human experiences, not just processes. Leadership is not just a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the heart of others.”

Take, for example, the L.E.T. skill of Active Listening. For Brittany, who lives in a community with other developmentally and intellectually disabled individuals, the act of listening has become a most beautiful form of art.

For Brittany, listening means literally having to delve deeper than words. For example, one weekend, Brittany had made special plans to go home for a visit to see her family. Due to her disabilities, much upfront planning, at a significant cost, is needed for a visit like this – she requires special staff to accompany her to assist with her physical needs, special equipment for medical issues, handicapped-accessible transportation, and much more.

All the plans had been made well in advance for this trip. But, as Brittany was about to leave, her new friend and roommate, rolled into the room in her wheelchair. And, as Brittany headed for the door, her new roommate started crying.

Brittany’s friend is disabled as well, and in addition to Brittany’s disabilities, her friend cannot speak – at least in words most others can understand.

How does one listen to, hear, and understand, someone who cannot speak?

If, as current research suggests, 93% of all human-to-human communication is non-verbal, the answer to this question is important to us all – abled and disabled alike.

As the tears streamed down her friend’s face, Brittany turned toward her, wheelchair to wheelchair. She said, “You’re very upset.” And when Brittany said this, her new friend started sobbing and flailing her right hand wildly in the air and screaming.

Then her friend began to wail even louder and sob in shrill, rhythmic shrieks.

Brittany looked into her eyes silently for a long time, just listening to the sobs and screams. Then, suddenly, as she watched her friend’s body language, she realized her hand wasn’t shooting out randomly. Though her movements appeared sporadic and halting due to her disease, it seemed she was making a conscious, very concentrated effort, to reach out to her.

Brittany moved closer to her friend. “My heart went out to her. I tried to see through her eyes – to see what she was feeling,” says Brittany.

Her friend’s hand continued to jut out, seemingly uncontrollably, in spasms. Brittany reached out and took her friend‘s hand as it jerked out. They held hands silently for a few seconds and her friend’s sobbing began to lessen. Then after a long moment, she was finally still – and she brought Brittany’s hand to her mouth and gently kissed it.

Finally realizing, through reading her friend’s body language, what her friend wanted to say, Brittany said:

“You wanted to say goodbye to me…you are going to miss me…. is that right?”

Her friend smiled.

And Brittany smiled too.

“It gave me chills,” says Brittany. “I realized that this was her way of saying goodbye to me – and she was determined to say it before letting me leave.

“By trying to listen through her tears, through her body language – the only ways she could communicate – I was finally able to really hear her. After we said our goodbyes, she was okay with my leaving.”

Research has shown that words make up only 7% of human communication. Tone of voice makes up 38% and body language 55%. To be a truly effective listener, one needs to consider all three of these aspects of “language”, and then view them all through a lens of compassion and sincerity.

Brittany’s compassion, desire to help others, and her willingness to listen with her heart, inspires those around her to trust – and follow her – loyally. “People don’t care, until they know how much you care,” says Brittany.

Brittany has never considered herself to be disabled. She believes she just faces different challenges than others. And while it isn’t always easy, she charges ahead, despite her challenges – with two wheels blazing. “Sometimes I feel like I’m locked in a box and I can’t find the key to get out,” she admits. “Sometimes it makes me want to cry. But my job isn’t done here yet. I have so much more to do.”

It’s been a few years now since I met Brittany. Though her physical abilities have continued to decline, she has accomplished more than most able-bodied people I know. She has inspired me and so many others. While some might say her heart-centered brand of leadership wouldn’t apply in a fast-paced, profit-driven, corporate world, I would say maybe it’s time to change that.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from Brittany:

Success is not defined by your IQ
Or your EQ
But by doing the best you can
With what you have

Listen – sincerely – to everyone
With your heart first
Then your head
Without an iPhone in your hand

Remember that behind
The Performance Metrics and ROI
Stand human beings
Who all deserve to be happy


Expect miracles
Accept mistakes
Your own and everyone else’s

Let each decision you make
Be based on creating a better world
Not just a higher profit

Gen X, Gen Y
Millennials, Baby Boomers
All need the same –
Make each one feel special
And help make their dreams come true

And as you climb the corporate ladder
Leave something wonderful
On every step behind you

From the hallowed halls of Harvard Business School to the latest leadership training crazes, we search for the secret of effective leadership. As many of those who read this Blog may know, models and methods like L.E.T.’s Active Listening , are crucial in providing a comprehensive framework of techniques and strategies to lead and interact with others. And perhaps the real secret in applying these skills to lead more effectively is to do as Brittany does – to listen beyond words – and to be guided from the heart when using them.

Yes, Brittany leads.

Learn more about L.E.T.