Owning Your Own Story
Leaders come in all varieties and backgrounds. When I was young, I had this notion that leaders were perfect and in some kind of way, other-worldly. Eventually, I realized that leaders are people. Imperfect, “doing the best we can” kind of people. Sure, most effective leaders have spent time building skills like communication, critical-thinking, dependability, problem-solving, and many others, but ultimately, leaders are human, and humans, inherently, aren’t perfect ourselves and don’t live perfect lives, lives that contain a lot of circumstances which are out of our control. It’s so hard to lean into our human imperfection, though, isn’t it? Putting into practice that trying hard every day to do my best is enough doesn’t always come easy to me, but it’s something I’m constantly striving to remember. Even the best leaders have challenges in life, and that’s not only OK, but going through those challenges naturally teaches lessons and builds character that might never have developed otherwise and just might set people up to be even better leaders.
Over the years, I've learned that who I am as a person, because of and not in spite of the twists and turns of my life, have actually impacted my leadership in positive ways.
Are there at parts of your life and of yourself that make you wonder if you won’t be seen as a successful leader if someone knew the whole story? I’m not suggesting that you have to tell everyone every detail of your life story. Sometimes it’s not the right moment for that. I’ve seen the professional world be more open to embracing authentic life stories, but you get to choose how much you share. However, I am here to tell you that you are successful both with and because of some of the not so bright and shiny parts of your life, and regardless how much of that you share to the people you lead, you can be confident that many of those parts of your life have influenced your leadership ability for the better.
What you probably don’t know about me just by reading this blog is that I was born with a disability called spina bifida and have used a wheelchair my whole life. I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, went to college at Furman University in South Carolina, and moved to Nashville in 2004 to pursue a career in the music industry. I worked at a record label for 12 years before joining the long list of music industry professionals who were affected by company layoffs. In those 12 years, I held the title of Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee, I started training for and completing half marathons, I started rock climbing, I took up snow skiing, among many other things. Now, I am the Executive Director of ABLE Youth, a youth wheelchair sports and independence nonprofit. I often hear the word “overcame,” as in “She overcame her disability” to reach accomplishments. But that isn’t true. I’m living life as an active and successful person with a disability. Having a disability and living a full life aren’t mutually exclusive. There are lots of versions of what successful, vibrant life looks like, and you can live it while having a disability.
Sometimes people say, “I don’t see your disability; I just see you as a person.” That isn’t necessarily the compliment that it seems to be. Seeing only my disability when someone sees me certainly isn’t a full representation of who I am, but neither is not seeing my disability at all. Not seeing my disability at all perpetuates the belief that having a disability is inherently bad, which I can assure you that it’s not. Sure, there are difficult aspects in the moment like health concerns, inaccessibility, and ableist thinking of others, but as we’ve established, challenges are just part of everyone’s life. I don’t see the challenges in my life as worse than those of other people, just different. And I can certainly see how experiencing the difficult aspects of my life have made me a better leader. As just one example, from day one, I have lived in a world isn’t built for someone who uses a wheelchair, so in order to live life in a way that I want to live it, I have had to learn to adapt to my surroundings, to figure out my own way of doing things rather than following the “normal” way, and to persevere through difficult times. I don’t know anything different than to think in those terms every day; I was literally born to do it. As a leader, adapting, having to figure out new and unique ways of doing things, and perseverance are often necessary qualities, and as a person with a disability, those are some of the things I excel at most, things I see that I might not excel at if I didn’t have a disability.
Maybe your life has taken you down a different path (Although, disability is the largest minority group in the world and the only one that anyone can become a part of at any time, so I think it’s worth noting for everyone that valuable qualities can grow out of disability.); can you find the positive ways that your challenging life circumstances have influenced your leadership? Maybe difficult family situations have made you an expert at being compassionate and empathetic towards others. Maybe having experienced financial hardships in life have made you hard-working and detail oriented. I mentioned the word “overcoming” before. If your circumstance is something that you feel you have overcome, that is wonderful! If your circumstance is something you’re still experiencing and don’t feel you have overcome, that’s absolutely OK, too. It is possible to be currently living through some difficult times and to currently be a successful leader. One does not invalidate the other.
Recognizing that those rocky roads in your own life have led to some unique strengths that benefit the work that you do, know that the same can be said of other people. When you see someone who looks different than you, who has a different life story than you that might be hard to understand, or who you can feel has traveled down a long and difficult road, see those hard times, but remember to look for the gifts in their soul that life has given them. They might not yet have seen the positive influence those times have had on them, and just by being appreciative of who they are, you can lead them to understanding themselves and their value a little better.
Amy Saffell is the Executive Director of ABLE Youth, a Nashville non-profit that teaches kids who use wheelchairs to lead happy, healthy, and independent lives. Under her leadership, ABLE Youth ensures that the needs of our kids and their families are being met so that they can grow into their full potential. Amy is also a half marathoner and an avid rock wall climber.