In my Disaster Response class the students have to do a short leadership presentation. Each student selects someone they believe embodies leadership characteristics that they have studied and that shed light on leadership in the practice of emergency management. Once a leader has been selected by a student, no other student can select that person.
Today, my student Katie Schulz was signed up to present about Gene Kranz. She went in a different direction though and instead presented on her friend Alex Hermstad. Students will often select leaders from their own lives for their leadership presentation – family members, coaches, bosses, teachers, etc. – so-called “regular” folks. I often ask these students after these presentations whether they plan on sharing their presentation with the person they selected. I think these “regular folks” would be touched to learn that they were the topic of a leadership presentation.
I was touched by Katie’s presentation today so I asked her if I could share it with you. Here are Katie’s words:
Well, I was all set to speak today about Gene Kranz, the Flight Director of Apollo 13. I was so confident in my choice that I even put that down on the sheet so that no one else could claim it. Well as you can see, I’m not talking about Gene Kranz so if any of you still need a topic he is available. When I chose Gene, I thought who could be more perfect? He displayed incredible amounts of courage, influence, and calm acceptance in the face of change. He was the logical choice. At some point however, I had time to think about the significance of today. February 14.th Two years ago today, one of my best friends died of Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 17 and as my blank word document stared me in the face, I knew I had to talk about Alex. If leadership is about courage, I can think of no one better. If leadership is about calmly accepting and dealing with change, I can think of no one better. If leadership is about influence, I can think of no one better.
Courage can be defined as strength in the face of pain or grief. As Emergency Managers we will potentially be faced with situations rife with the raw emotions of grief, loss, and pain. As humans, it will be almost impossible to be strong in the face of such palpable displays of emotion. If and when I am faced with these situations, I hope to draw lessons from Alex.
At the beginning of her battle with ALS, the doctors didn’t know what was causing her loss of mobility. Alex faced the prospect of paralysis with immense courage. As the disease progressed, that prospect turned into reality. As time progressed further and treatment after treatment failed, Alex had to accept a far more frightening prospect: the prospect that this illness would ultimately end her life. This is where Alex’s true courage shown through. As she accepted this reality, she did not waste her time bemoaning her fate, wallowing in self-pity, or questioning why. She faced death with courage and resolved to use what time remained to do something worthwhile.
The FEMA IS course states that true leaders compensate for their weaknesses and wield their power to empower others. For Alex, her physical weakness was her strength and power. She wielded that power to empower everyone who came into contact with her. People all around her began to wake up and realize that each day is a gift not to be wasted or squandered on meaningless pursuits. She used her illness to empower those around her to find their gifts and talents and to use them.
Change is almost always difficult. Calmly accepting and dealing with change, especially negative change, is almost impossible. As her body became weaker and weaker, Alex calmly accepted what was happening and took things one day at a time. Not only did Alex have to accept these changes, she also had to help her family and friends accept them as well.
According to the IS course, a vital part of leadership is helping those around you accept change. I’ll admit, it was a hard sell in this case. It looked so easy for her to accept the fact that she would never walk across the stage to receive a high school diploma. It looked so easy for her to accept the fact that she would never walk down the aisle at her wedding or have a family of her own one day. It looked so easy for her to accept to fact that she was going to die sooner than any of us would have anticipated. In reality, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her to accept any of those things, but she assumed the role of a leader with wisdom beyond her years by putting her own feelings aside in order to help the rest of us along.
Which brings me to my final leadership characteristic – influnce. Alex didn’t have position influence or domineering influence like most traditional leaders I could name. She had no job, no title, no rank or position. All she had was interpersonal influence. The IS 240 course explains that interpersonal influence has to be developed or earned. It does not come with a job title. You build interpersonal influence as you demonstrate your own qualities and skills, such as good listening skills and a sense of humor. Well that’s Alex. You’d be hard pressed to find a better listener and you’d be hard pressed to find someone with a better sense of humor. You see even when she was bed ridden, too weak to lift her arms, legs, or even a finger; she still found ways to harass her nurses and all those around her, managing to bring smiles and laughter.
I believe a key aspect of influence is the ability to inspire others. Alex was one of the most inspirational people I have ever known. Instead of letting her illness define her, she used it to inspire others. She inspired us to enjoy our lives, to work hard and make a difference, to not squander our time and talents. She inspired us to live, and she taught us how to say goodbye.
Are leaders born or made? We could spend the rest of class debating this question and still not come up with an answer. In the traditional sense, Alex was not a leader. She was just a girl living her life the best she could under tragic circumstances. But for those of us who were there, those of us who saw and interacted with her, she was more of a leader than we can ever hope to be. Someday, I hope and I pray that I will be able to handle a disaster either personally or professionally with as much courage, acceptance, and dignity as she demonstrated throughout those last years of her life.
Sometimes unconventional leaders are the best kind. They appear out of the necessity of the situation and do what they have to do. Perhaps these leaders are the best kind because they never expected to be there. They have no illusions of fame or glory. Their goal is simply to live and help others do the same. Throughout her short life, Alex demonstrated how to live life courageously in the face of change. She led by example. She never took a day in her life for granted and by doing so, she influenced those around her to do the same.
I believe the words engraved on her tombstone sum it up best: Alex, unable to move, but moving hearts, moving souls, and inspiring lives every day. And in my eyes, that is the most important thing a leader could ever hope to do.
Your legacy lives on Alex and your story is still inspring others. Thank you Katie for sharing Alex’s leadership lesson with the class and with the readers of The New Forty.
Day one thousand three hundred and eighteen of the new forty – obla di obla da