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Feb 26 / Michael Wright

Sometimes leadership needs a push

We all want to do the right thing – take the right step – especially when it might help other people.  But sometimes, it’s inconvenient. Or hard. Or dangerous. Or all of the above, and we hesitate. At that moment, we need an angel on our shoulder, even when that angel is a person, telling us what we know is right, but perhaps don’t want to hear. Because that extra push can mean the difference between life and death, despair and dignity. That’s the story Alberto Cairo tells brilliantly in his TED talk:

“There are no scraps of men.

Actually, there are two themes woven together in Cairo’s story. The first is about that push leaders sometimes need to move forward. In this case, Cairo’s right-hand man, Najmudin, provided that push.

In the early 90’s, Cairo led a Red Cross orthopedic program that provided artificial limbs and rehabilitation to victims of the war in Afghanistan.  When the violence closed in, the Red Cross closed shop.  The need was still there, and growing, but bombs were falling. Bullets were flying. Cairo was understandably scared. But Najumdin (let’s call him Naj) wasn’t. He prodded Cairo and they reopened the shop to help “just a few people.” The few became many, and in the midst of the war, Cairo and his team were running at full tilt.

The other theme in Cairo’s story is one of healing — two kinds of healing, really. The physical healing, of course, that comes with the restoration of a limb. But more important is the emotional healing that comes with the restoration of dignity.

One day a man named Mahmoud visited the shop to thank Cairo for his new arm and two new legs. These things gave him mobility again, and for this he was grateful.  But he needed more.  He needed purpose. He needed meaning. He asked for a job.

Once again Cairo hesitated. How could he employ a man with such profound disabilities?  But Naj thought otherwise. He again gave Cairo that extra push, and Mahmoud was given a one-week trial on the assembly line. After just one week, he was the most productive worker on the line. Cairo thought it was a trick, and asked to see the proof. He got it, along with a profound lesson in the human spirit.

Men and women like Mahmoud are given the label of “disabled,” but they don’t see themselves that way. They see themselves as people who have more to give. Who need to give in order to hold their heads high. To feel the pride that comes with productivity and independence and self-sufficiency.

Mahmoud had already faced great trials, and overcome great hardships. He, and other Afghan men like him, were hungry for a chance to prove themselves. To work again. And prove themselves they did.

Pretty soon the shop was filled with “disabled” men who were happy to stand on their own two legs, even when those two legs were made of plastic and metal.

Cairo was the leader of this operation, but he freely acknowledged that he was also a trainee. It took a few nudges from Naj before he did what his heart told him was the right thing to do. And it took the spirit of a triple amputee to teach him that the strength of the human spirit can overcome the weakness of the body.





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