I have been leading people since I was a 16 year old in high school working at a restaurant in the town where I grew up. Leadership has always been a passion for me and after years of study, reading dozens of leadership books, listening to mentors and accumulating great experience on the way to a successful career I have come to understand one thing: I can still learn something new about leadership. In my case, the best source of ongoing leadership lessons is my 16 year old son Alex, who has high functioning autism.
With roughly 1 in 68 children diagnosed with autism (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls), it is likely you have parents in your extended circle of family and friends who are raising a child on the autistic spectrum. For clarification and perhaps education purposes, you should be aware that people suffering from autistic spectrum disorder will always present differently. These wonderful people are all unique and their symptoms can range from very low-functioning and non-verbal to very bright and verbal. A disorder that includes such a broad and varied range of symptoms is often called a spectrum disorder; hence the term “autism spectrum disorder.” The most significant and commonly shared symptom is in the area of social communication, which includes challenges with direct eye contact, normal conversation, communicating ideas, empathy and reading facial expressions or social cues.
I have not written specifically about Alex in the past and do so reluctantly now. My wife and I love Alex and his younger brother more than words can say and have always tried to protect them as best we can. We have both discussed Alex’s condition and challenges openly with friends since his diagnosis 14 years ago, but I feel compelled to share with others how he has inspired me to be a better person, a better father and certainly a better leader.
It dawned on me the other day after playing his favorite game of Trivial Pursuit and listening to an endless series of questions about my favorite foods, favorite songs and favorite Mythbusters’ episodes that the way I interact with and “lead” Alex has strong parallels to leadership in the business world. The skills I have developed and the lessons I have learned in working and communicating with Alex have been spilling over into my professional life for years. So, I would like to share with my peers, friends and clients seven vital leadership lessons I have learned from my gifted son.
- Be Patient. Children with autism are just like any other children and they can try your patience! Peers, friends and co-workers can try your patience as well. Does losing our cool ever really accomplish anything? Gaining an understanding of the motives or causes of the behavior that is causing your impatience will help you remain calm and achieve a faster resolution of the problem.
- Be a Clear Communicator. Being unclear and ambiguous in communicating with kids like Alex is incredibly frustrating for them. It is a sure bet that our team members feel the same way. Be clear in sharing your thoughts, don’t send an email that can be misinterpreted, have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish in your communication and always, always, always avoid ambiguity and vagueness. Having a trusted proof reader around can be helpful!
- Be Fair. Kids on the autistic spectrum require a lot of attention. Driving to therapists, providing structured and predictable days, facilitating appropriate conversations with others, dealing with a limited diet…the list is endless. Making sure our other son gets “equal time” and attention is a constant source of concern in our home. This has made me very sensitive to fairness in the workplace. Don’t play favorites, listen to all sides of an issue, give equal time, etc. An even-handed approach in your business and personal relationships will earn you trust and credibility over the long term.
- Honor Commitments. If you say you will do something you can bet kids with autism will remember…and hold you to it. We have to be very careful about announcing everything from future family events to what we are having for dinner. This has taught me to be very careful about honoring my commitments in the workplace. It is difficult, but colleagues and the people on our teams deserve this courtesy. Alex relies on my commitments, why shouldn’t everybody else?
- Celebrate Diversity. Alex is different and we have learned to celebrate his differences and recognize the special gifts he has to offer the world. Look around your organization. There are people with special skills, who come from different generations, who have different ethnic backgrounds and celebrate different religions. I am describing something bigger than traditional race and gender diversity. Our organizations are filled with unique and special people who have great value to offer, just like Alex, and we must celebrate their differences and harness their potential. My hope is that one day the world will advance enough in its thinking to welcome, celebrate and find the great value in Alex and other children with autism, too.
- Speak Up and Get Involved. Having a child with special needs will fundamentally alter your outlook on life-ask anyone who is raising one of these gifts from God and I believe you will hear a similar view. Alex has helped me recognize that he can’t defend or speak up for himself without my help. Therefore, for the last few years I have been outspoken about autism and educating anyone who will listen. I also speak up and have gotten involved in a number of causes and issues that affect me, my Catholic faith, my family and our community. How about you? What catalyst exists in your life to motivate you to speak up, get involved and make a difference?
- Practice Selfless Love. I love Alex unreservedly as a father should love his child-this type of love was called storge by the ancient Greeks and is the love that exists in families, often between parent and child. But, another kind of love exists between us which is called agape, or selfless and charitable love. Alex needs my unconditional and selfless love with no strings attached. I have learned to apply this type of love in the workplace as well. As a leader, I am here to serve my team, my company and my clients selflessly, thoughtfully and with a servant’s heart. Try putting all of your actions through the filter of selfless love and it will positively change you, your team and your organization for the better.
All of us could stand to learn important lessons from our children. Alex is a child with special needs, but first and foremost, he is a special child. The heroism he exhibits each day by simply interacting with a world that is often alien and unfriendly is a source of ongoing inspiration for me and the others who have gotten to know him. I am grateful that I have gained the humility to recognize that over the years I have been Alex’s father and supposedly the teacher in our relationship, he has been teaching me the entire time.
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