This article is brought to you by my left hand (I’m right-handed) – courtesy of a torn rotator cuff and surgery a few weeks ago. I am a firm believer that almost any hardship, unfamiliar situation or adventure offers lessons for life and leadership, and a few weeks with my right arm in a sling is no exception. Here are some lessons so far:
Just because pain is masked doesn’t mean that damage isn’t being done. Ibuprofen made me feel better, but an MRI revealed a rotator cuff tear, which never heals and only gets worse without surgery. A cortisone shot helped me engage in some magical thinking about how maybe the problem was going away; it was only after a second cortisone injection began wearing off and some coaching from the doc that I committed to surgery and actually solving the real problem. That got me to thinking about denial of underlying problems and their real causes in organizations; “shots in the arm” like motivational speeches or training here and there might feel good initially, but unpleasant realities always come home to roost. Without surgery my rotator cuff tendon would have eventually given way, or there would come a time when it couldn’t be repaired.
Think of organizations you’ve known or heard of where “surgery” or difficult decisions were put off and led to disaster. (There have been several notable examples in the news lately.)
Are there any tough calls in our organizations that should wait no longer, or root problems that need to be addressed?
Preparation pays. After research and talking with acquaintances who had the surgery, I prepared myself for a long, painful and frustrating recovery; my mantra became “expect the worst and hope for the best.” Most everything has been better than I expected so far, and I was reminded that anticipating unpleasant events is often worse than just getting on with them. I practiced brushing my teeth, dressing and other tasks one-handed, and got as many things that would require two hands done ahead of time; that made it easier adjusting to things the first few days after surgery.
What personal or professional tasks might we better prepare for?
Is there anything we need to do where fear is holding us back or we are over-anticipating bad consequences?
Are there upcoming realities in our organizations that we can better prepare for?
Are there potential scenarios for which we should develop contingency plans?
Disruption can be positive. It’s good to know that there are more ways to do things than just how we are used to doing them. For me lately those things have been tasks like personal grooming, eating and making coffee one-handed, dressing and computer work. Learning to do things differently increases our flexibility, open-mindedness about others’ methods, problem-solving skills and range of capabilities. Disrupting our patterns and usual routines also gives us the opportunity to examine traditional ways in a new light; we are likely to discover things we otherwise wouldn’t, and replace habitual ways with better ones. My world temporarily shrunk and became much quieter; I couldn’t drive for a while, I didn’t feel like engaging in much phone conversation (‘probably not a good anyway under medication!) and I had less energy than usual for customary tasks. That wasn’t all bad; I had more thinking and reflection time, and opportunities to knock some things off that had been neglected.
Are there things that we should try doing differently or habits that we should disrupt?
How might we create more thinking and reflection time for ourselves and others we work with?
Relationships matter. Tougher times remind us how important friends are; I am grateful for their cards, support and well-wishes. I was also surprised by the impact of unexpected kind gestures – like good friends who dropped off home-made lasagna on their way out of town, neighbors across the alley who delivered home-made venison stew, a neighbor with his two boys who raked our entire front lawn and my accountant who called the day before surgery to wish me well. (See my last article: “Random Acts of Kindness.”)
Are we investing enough in building relationships and paying sufficient attention to how we can help others in difficult times?
No pain, no gain. This lesson was of course driven home in post-op physical therapy. For a few days after surgery, it was hard to even imagine using my right arm and hand as before; sure enough though, each day I notice some improvement by disciplining myself to follow the therapist’s instructions. PT in my case is mainly stretching and reawakening traumatized tendons, muscles and shoulder parts.
How might we need to stretch or “reawaken” anything to make the gains that we hope for in life or work?
Where / how might more discipline help us make progress?
PT offers additional lessons; my therapist is good at providing feedback and reinforcing progress – a reminder of their important role stimulating growth. How can we use feedback and reinforcement to help ourselves or others grow?
I chose the title for this article with apologies to makers of the 1989 Academy Award winner “My Left Foot,” and to Christy Brown, whose autobiography by the same name the movie was about. Christy Brown was born with cerebral palsy, and despite having control of only his left foot became a renowned painter and writer. I think that above all my temporary condition has gifted me with more empathy. It is hard for me to imagine what courage and fortitude those with much more serious conditions muster – disabled armed forces vets, those borne with debilitating conditions, victims crippled by accidents or Gabby Giffords. They all deserve our admiration and no doubt have much to teach us.
What hardships have you experienced, and what lessons have they offered?