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Leadership Insights from a Special Needs Parent

Raising a child with disabilities showed me what it takes to be an effective leader.

A number of high-profile business leaders have spoken publicly about their personal experiences with disabilities. Satya Nadella, the new Microsoft CEO, has two special-needs children (one is a quadriplegic). Virgin CEO Richard Branson has acknowledged having dyslexia. Carnival Australia CEO Ann Sherry says that her son with Down Syndrome “taught me that the world isn’t as neat as it seemed when I was growing up; that people have difficult lives thrust upon them.”

Why do leaders share these comments in public? In part, it’s to foster an organizational culture that promotes physical and mental well-being, which draws more commitment and loyalty from employees. When top executives acknowledge that they, too, have complex and challenging personal lives, it helps establish an authentic connection. I suspect the leaders are also trying to set an example of a more thoughtful, open frame of mind—or awaken it in themselves. The insights that stem from living with disability can lead people to be more generally attuned to others’ needs and motivations, at a deeper level than before.

I’ve felt that experience myself in looking after a son with special needs. Sachin, who is approaching three years old as I write this, suffered brain damage just after he was born as a result of HSV-1 encephalitis. Some doctors refer to him as a miracle boy who’s lucky to be alive. Most babies die of the condition. But it left our son with significant medical challenges, including epilepsy. Along the way, my wife and I have learned an incredible amount about leadership and managing uncertainty. Here are the ways I’ve applied this understanding to my “day job” of running a business and advising chief executives:

Live your purpose. It’s a major challenge for our son to speak, read, learn, make friends, and avoid seizures. At home, we focus intently on his happiness and health. This clarity of purpose enables us to direct our efforts to what really matters. We are ruthless and unsentimental in changing course when we see we won’t achieve our goals.

I see that same clarity in high-performing organizations. Companies with a clear purpose, bundles of energy, and, yes, ruthlessness are the ones that dominate their industries. Yet most companies I see, by contrast, are simply keeping busy, doing what they’ve done for years. It’s as if they are just waiting to be disrupted.

Reinforce your strengths. Sachin is an incredible runner. He has speed and stamina. He is cheerful; he smiles and laughs for much of the day. We try to support his strengths by putting him in environments that accommodate them. Big, open spaces are fine; crowded rooms are not. Rather than focus on what he can’t do—as hard as that can be when we see other children doing things that are way beyond him—we’ve had to reset our expectations and look for the venues that suit him best. We celebrate the seemingly small moments along the way—for instance, when Sachin looks me straight in the eye and watches my lips move as I say a few words. These moments represent hard-won skills and achievements, and they need to be recognized as such.

Not every organization is good at accommodating people’s strengths, especially in times of risk or uncertainty. But as research by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie has shown, when organizations focus on individuals’ strengths, they increase the chances that their people will be engaged (and perform better) eightfold. My PwC colleague Andy Woodfield has led a movement in our own organization that focuses on giving appraisals and day-to-day feedback based on proficiency: the opposite of what most organizations do. We’ve seen much higher levels of engagement and focus.

Let go of what you can’t control. There is always the temptation to wonder what I could have done differently, early in Sachin’s life, to prevent his problems, or what I could do better now. Guilt may sometimes spur you to achieve, but too much guilt drags you down. So I’ve learned to put bad moments in perspective, to distinguish between those issues you can control and those you can’t.

In business, my colleagues and I call these kinds of challenges “gray swans.” They are chronic—more predictable and less catastrophic than “black swan” risks, but equally devastating over time. To manage them, you need to accept that you can’t eliminate or control them. You can’t feel bad about your failure to do so. You can only continually improve your company’s ability to navigate these events and compensate for them, and train yourself to be more resilient and responsive to the gray swans as they occur.

Be present. Being fully present is a necessity, not just an aspiration, in our family. Knowing that at any moment Sachin might have a seizure, we try to remain consciously aware of him, watching and listening intently, at all times.

One CEO I have worked with exemplifies this in the meetings she conducts. She is always focused on the moment, paying attention to the proceedings, even if others in the room are surreptitiously responding to their email. Over time, as her colleagues have followed her lead, the meetings have become higher-energy, more insightful, and shorter.

Keep your aspirations pragmatic. My wife and I are researching every route to give Sachin the best life he can have on his own terms. We don’t want him held back by his disabilities—or the labels and doubts associated with them. But we also set our sights on realistic goals. We know that success in school may not be measured by academic achievement, but simply learning to live an independent life. If we tried to look into the future further than that, at this time, we might find ourselves overwhelmed by worries and possibilities.

The most impressive CEOs I work with are highly ambitious. They urge their people to be curious and to look beyond short-term horizons. But they also put boundaries around the exercise to avoid paralysis. They promote a balanced perspective between the long view and the here and now.

As the parent of a child with special needs, I have learned to embrace the things that make us different. Company leaders have an opportunity to do so, as well. They increasingly realize that their organizations are full of people with distinctive backgrounds, capabilities, preferences, and experiences. People’s individual strengths and weaknesses are part of what defines an organization—and high-performance enterprises tap into this diversity. Who wouldn’t want to work in such a place?

Leaders increasingly recognize that their organizations are full of people with special needs.

David Lancefield

David Lancefield is a strategist and coach who has advised more than 40 CEOs and has led 15 digital transformations. He hosts the interview series Lancefield on the Line and publishes the email newsletter Strategic Leader. Lancefield was a senior partner with Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business.

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