“If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?” — Douglas Adams, British author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I was doing an assessment and planning retreat with one of the divisions of a large multinational company. The team was bitter about the limitations their head office placed upon them. They felt that their IT system severely restricted what their division could do. They thought that many rules and policies boxed them in too tightly. They all agreed that there was never enough money to invest what was really needed to move the company forward. Many times when I or another group member would give an improvement suggestion, somebody else would shoot it down with a snicker, snide bit of humor, or a comment like “New York (their head office) would never go for that.”

Clearly, this team’s lack of leadership was paralyzing the division and frustrating most people there. So I told them the story of W. Mitchell, who was severely burned and paralyzed in two separate accidents (you can read about him here). Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Mitchell speaks compellingly on taking responsibility for our choices in life – on what it takes to be a leader. We then talked about “mental wheelchairs,” leadership, and taking control of our situations. We discussed some aspects of head office they could try to influence. However, as a small division in a large company, they would have to live with many of the head office limitations. This was their wheelchair.

Unlike Mitchell, each person there had a choice; they could remain in the company and lead from their wheelchair or they could leave and go somewhere else. They finally agreed that as long as they remained in the company in a management role, they had an obligation to provide positive leadership around the things that they could control or influence, while letting go of those things they could not control.

During a workshop, the management team for a large municipality was very angry about the new council that had just been elected and would be with them for the next two years. The council had been elected on a platform of major reform and was micromanaging by getting into all kinds of details as they made a number of big changes to the municipality’s operations, services, and costs. The workshop conversation was all about how council wouldn’t let management do their jobs. Whenever new ideas for change and improvement emerged, someone would bitterly scoff at it and point out that council would never support it. The conversation often drifted into the larger realm of the stupidity of political interference and how difficult it was to manage in an environment where the media was constantly prowling for examples of inept management that would reinforce negative public perceptions.

We then talked about examples of people who had become outstanding leaders despite major obstacles. We discussed people like W. Mitchell, Alvin Law (a very successful speaker who was born without arms), or Carl Hiebert (a professional photographer, author, and philanthropist to Third World causes who lost the use of his legs in a hang gliding accident). We talked about how cynicism isn’t leadership. Leaders bring hope and possibilities. We discussed how leaders take responsibility in reacting to circumstances for which they are not responsible. We looked at how much easier it is to point fingers or throw up our hands and quit trying until “they” get their act together. We talked about how life in government organizations is full of maddening political interference. But, hey, it’s called democracy. Would anyone in the room prefer the alternative?

As we progressed in our discussions, the group began to change its tone and started to talk about what could be. We began sorting out what could be controlled, couldn’t be controlled, and what could be influenced. They brainstormed, clustered ideas together, set priorities, debated alternatives, and set action plans. They got on with it. Two years later, acting on these plans, they had made huge strides forward in changing and improving their municipal organization despite the obstacles, handicaps, and problems. It’s called leadership.