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Leadership: Leaders with Disabilites

Why is it that we do not see more CEO’s and Presidents of companies with disabilities? Is it because they don’t exist or are they not disclosing? Is it because, as a world, we are still un-accepting of disabilities and the ability of those who have them to lead? Is it because Boards and others, who make hiring decisions, don’t want that “image” of their company projected to the public?

Why is it that we do not see more CEO’s and Presidents of companies with disabilities? Is it because they don’t exist or are they not disclosing? Is it because, as a world, we are still un-accepting of disabilities and the ability of those who have them to lead? Is it because Boards and others, who make hiring decisions, don’t want that “image” of their company projected to the public?

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There has been a rapid increase of learning disabilities in our children. The rate of ADHD and ADD has skyrocketed in our society. The number of preschool children being treated with medication for ADHD tripled between 1990 and 1995. The number of children between the ages of 15 and 19 taking medication for ADHD has increased 311 percent over 15 years. Is it that we just did not have a name for it before, or is it truly that dramatic a progression in the number of people with ADHD and ADD? Parkinson’s, Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, and many others are all on the rise, and have been for many years, yet we do not see or hear about it from our corporate leaders.

I see only two reasons that this could be: we are not hiring people with disabilities, either on purpose or unknowingly; and people with disabilities are not disclosing, either out of fear that others will brand them incapable or that they will experience actual rejection of a job opportunity. These possibilities send dangerous messages, as disabilities increase and new generations enter the workforce and leadership realm.

Case in point: Jordon Sigalet, a player on the Boston Bruins’ farm team. In 2003, he announced that he has Multiple Sclerosis – a brave move. He got a lot of support from the Bruins. There has been talk of bringing him up to the Pro level and all kinds of sports analysts are questioning whether or not he can do it. They wonder if he can play the entire game.

It took Michael J. Fox quite some time to come out about his Parkinson’s disease; yet he continues to be a force both in advocacy for Parkinson’s and in his work as an actor. What kept him from disclosing, until symptoms started to become noticeable?

Whatever the reasons, we rarely see CEO’s and Presidents of companies with disabilities. The solution, as with all types of prejudices, is education. People need to understand that many disabilities have no effect on an individual’s ability to lead. Even diseases that are progressive should not limit a person’s opportunity to lead in the present. Take Ronald Reagan as an example. Would he have been elected, if we had known he was going to have (or had) progressive Alzheimer’s? Yet not knowing, he was elected to two terms and many people think he was a great President. If we could all look into a crystal ball and see our future, possibly none of us would be fit to lead 20 years from now.

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So what do we do?

We need to start by not stigmatizing our children. We need to make education of disabilities a priority. We need to embrace and support those who have disabilities and have the willingness to share them with us. The disabilities are multiplying and managers and leaders will have them. It is quite possible that it will make them stronger, not weaker or less effective.

One last thought:

I have Multiple Sclerosis. I did not tell most of my clients until a month ago. I did not tell them out of fear that they would think I was not capable. I am happy to report that that has not been the case, even in one instance. There are more people like me out there and fear should not stand in the way of disclosure; but that will only happen when there are more models of great leaders with disabilities.

I can’t wait to see Jordon play goalie for the Bruins this year.

Grace Andrews • Executive Coach/Corporate Healer • President, Training By Design • Boston, MA • gandrews@training-by-design.com • www.training-by-design.com

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