Driving change for disabled people, and to improve our life chances isn’t easy. It requires great skill, resilience, patience and impatience. That holds true whether we are a disabled employee network leader in a local NHS Hospital Trust, the director of a Centre for Independent Living in a large city, a civil servant introducing policies you don’t have your heart in or a senior disability champion in a large global multinational.
1. You have to know your landscape
One of the greatest gifts of successful leaders is that they are clear about their start-point and they focus on the present. If you know where you are you are more likely to create a powerful vision of where you want to be – and then take the right steps to get there. Get the landscape right, and you set off in the right direction of travel
2. You have to be responsible for your actions
Taking action, or not taking action, are different sides of the same coin. Successful leaders think through the implications of both of these things and take responsibility for their actions
3. You have to do good anyway
Every now and then your motives will be questioned, or you will be challenged in what you do, how you do it, what you say, what you don’t say, who you build collaborations with, who you don’t. Great leaders transcend the doubts of others and their view that you may be a threat. Great leaders stay close to their higher purpose and do good anyway
4. You have to feel the fear and do it anyway
The much-loved book by Susan Jeffers is the mantra of most successful leaders working in disability rights. Successful leaders tend to be individuals who have learned to overcome fear and to take chances. They feel that fear. Sometimes acutely. But guess what?… they feel the fear and do it anyway
5. You have to laugh
Great leaders laugh at themselves first and foremost. Laugh a lot. You have one life. It is gone in the blink of an eye. Enjoy it, enjoy the absurdity of human beings at the same time as changing the world.
6. You have to be open, transparent and to trust (sometimes in the face of the opposite)
Successful leaders are open, transparent and their start point is to trust others. Trust is the foundation of successful leadership. When trust is damaged or broken it can take years, if ever, to heal, though it is possible with commitment from both parties. Successful leaders start out by trusting – you have to trust before you can be trusted.
7. You have to be inquisitive and ask the difficult questions
Successful leaders understand that truth comes from asking the big questions. The difficult questions. The questions that remain unanswered. Don’t pre-cook the motives of others whether they are parliamentarians, potential employers, healthcare providers, airlines, shop assistants. Practice the art of asking the difficult question and give enough of a pause to allow others to answer. The best questions start with ‘why’, they start with ‘help me to understand…’ Many people do not like to be asked these questions – it often requires that they look to themselves and to take greater responsibility for their actions.
8. You have to ignite a fire, be positive and excite people to join a movement
Successful leaders paint a picture of what can be possible. They know how to excite others by inspiring others. And I am not talking about disability inspiration porn! I’m talking about how to inspire others to build a more equitable world, even when it feels impossible. Our friends and colleagues draw on the symbolism of the rainbow flag to do just that – and the unstoppable, positive and vibrant movement that they have created has had direct impact on the spread of human rights in countries across the globe. Successful leaders light a fire and help others to join a movement (not a campaign).
9. Invest in yourself
This might mean different things to different people. Great leaders tend to be those that invest in themselves – sometimes that might mean a treat such as a meal with good friends, or investing in a coaching course, or time out to think or read or watch The Apprentice (guilty as charged). For those of you who have read Steve Covey’s ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People’ you will know that habit 7 is to “sharpen the saw” – which is all about self-renewal and self-care. He used the analogy of a woodcutter who saws for several days and increasingly becomes less and less productive – the process of sawing dulls the blade. The solution is to periodically sharpen the saw. Whatever sharpens your saw, as a leader in disability rights, do it – feed your soul and give yourself the care you need.