By Dan Leidl & Joe Frontiera
While we all know the general story of Helen Keller, it’s worth exploring a slice of her early childhood and the impact of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Keller lost her ability to see and hear before her second birthday, and was imprisoned in her own mind. She was unable to communicate, isolated by the inability to see, hear or talk, and began lashing out as she grew older. There was little hope for the young child who became increasingly hostile and ultimately dangerous.
As her frustrations from her inability to communicate grew, her outbursts became increasingly aggressive. At the age of five, she overturned the cradle holding her infant sister out of jealousy (who was caught before hitting the floor by her mother), and once locked her mother in the pantry for three hours. She was becoming desperate, determined to somehow overcome her lack of senses but with no way of knowing how. She writes in her triumphant autobiography, The Story of My Life, “Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came – my teacher – who was to set my spirit free.”
Helen Keller first met Anne Sullivan when she was six years old. Through a mix of desperation, persistence, and hope, Sullivan strove to give Keller the keys to communicate. Immediately Sullivan would use her finger to spell out the names of objects in the palm of Keller’s hand. It wasn’t smooth. Keller notes moments of frustration, a complete lack of understanding for what Sullivan’s efforts meant, and how it could help her. But Sullivan never stopped. She kept trying different words and different ways to build associations. She kept trying to help Keller break out of her own head, and escort her into the surrounding world.
In her autobiography Keller recalls how Sullivan pumped a stream of water over one of her hands while spelling out w-a-t-e-r into the palm of the other. It was her first understanding of what Sullivan was trying to do and she says that “That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
Ultimately Keller went on to learn more words, how to write, eventually graduated with honors from Radcliffe College, and became recognized as an American icon, if not hero. But her path forward started with some simple steps. Sullivan’s early efforts were the foundation for all of Keller’s eventual achievements. At the initial stages of helping Keller to reconnect with the world around her, the process was rather straightforward: Sullivan used her finger to write letters in a young and desperate girl’s palm. It’s not glamorous, and in many ways it doesn’t even make sense. There was no guide for Sullivan to follow, she was just following her gut and not giving in. Her first attempts failed to produce, and her subsequent attempts failed to help Keller. But in not quitting, Sullivan and Keller eventually connected, Keller’s behavior began to change, and history was made.
In many ways, Sullivan provides a powerful and tangible example of what the most effective leaders do. Whether it’s leading a new sustainability effort within a large organization, working one-on-one with a high-potential subordinate, or teaching a young girl who is both blind and deaf how to communicate, a leader sees a path forward and continues to work and persist until others see that path just as clearly. Sullivan started with small steps, and she repeated her actions again and again and again, until the path was finally illuminated for Keller.
For all effective leaders, like Sullivan, it takes a degree of faith that efforts will eventually pay off, especially when results aren’t immediate. It also requires blinders, the ability to disregard the constant banter from others that a given task is too hard, impossible, or should be abandoned. But it’s in persisting that we break through barriers and eventually broaden the awareness of others. More importantly, in broadening the awareness of others, change becomes both possible and desirable.
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Dan Leidl & Joe Frontiera are co-authors of the Washington Post Leadership Playlist. Dan and Joe are also managing partners of Meno Consulting and authors of forthcoming book, Team Turnarounds, to be published in July of 2012 by Jossey-Bass.
Category: Sustainable Small-B