What does it feel like to be paralyzed?  Every once in a while, I ask myself this question.  And when I really try to put myself in that situation, I feel my chest tighten in a panic.  I have to stop this exercise in empathy, because it’s just too hard to imagine. You might think this is a bit morbid, but it is also inevitable because my husband, Riley, is a paraplegic.  We’ve been married 18 years this August.  When you live with such challenges, you can be so close to it that you do not see it or think about it very much.  It’s just who you are or what you do.  But every once in a while, I can’t help but think what it must be like, and it’s usually because someone has said how inspired they are by him. It causes me to open my eyes again and think, oh yes, this must be very difficult.

This gets me to thinking about how interesting it is that people, including myself, are so inspired by other people who manage challenges that seem impossible. We are intrigued by the unimaginable. We find ourselves inspired by people who appear to manage stress that is perceived to be worse than our own stress. The bottom line is that we are inspired by people who are motivated, despite their disabilities, challenges, and frustrations.  During Leadership Treks, we reflect on the factors that cause people to think you are motivated, such as your energy level, your desire to take initiative, your goals, and how you use your time.  After all, to motivate or inspire others, arguably, you must first be motivated.  In my classes, I kick off a class on "motivating yourself and others" by asking students to name the most motivated person that they know. I often use Riley as an example of someone who demonstrates motivation, and who therefore, inspires others.  For years, I’ve shared about his goals and triumphs, including traveling to Mt. Everest Base Camp in a wheelchair!  But today, I feel compelled to share how he’s handled recent challenges related to paraplegia - challenges he never complains about.

Riley just came home from the hospital, where he’s been bedridden for three months.  This was really hard on me and the kids because we missed him so much.  But, this had to be especially hard for him.  He was hospitalized in a city three hours away from home, due to a pressure wound - a complication that is apparently common among paraplegics, but that he had never experienced in the 21 years he’s been in a chair.  It was hard to be away from home, family, and work.  But, despite this, I was fascinated by his motivation level, and how he spent his time.   How would someone spend this much time alone and in bed?  You might be imagining a three-month Netflix binge, but this only lasted two days before he had had enough of TV.  The next thing he did was study complex estate planning.  He is a corporate attorney, so this was new area of law for him. He also studied day trading.  Then he read some kind of high level interactive math book, which I don’t even understand, while also enhancing his understanding of Morse code. That sounds like a lot already, and yes, one of the nurses said to me, “He’s a mega-nerd, isn’t he?” It took her a few weeks to figure this out. This is something I already know and love. But that doesn’t mean I expected the next thing he did. He made a dodecahexaflexagon as a gift for our  eight year old son. Yes, dodecahexaflexagon is spelled right.  And, if you know what that is, I’m very impressed.  I had never heard of such a thing. He also wanted to make something for our daughter, who is five.  She had a ballet recital coming up, so he made her very realistic looking flowers out of crepe paper, by watching Japanese You Tube videos on mute.  He presented these to her over Facetime when she was backstage before she performed.  By the time he left the hospital, his room would look like a crafting center, from all of the crepe paper and supplies he had us buy for him. All of this would have seemed amazing, but then he decided to design a tabernacle to scale, on Google Sketch Up, based on various theological theories, which he loves to explain.  Whew!  It’s exhausting to even imagine the number of hours spent developing this design! 

So, there you go.  That’s how Riley spent his three months in the hospital. Now he’s home and can’t wait to get back to work.

As a leadership development professional, I can’t help but ask myself, “What makes a person so motivated, despite their challenges?” All of us have challenges and shortcomings. But not everyone responds to them in such a way to let go of what they can’t control and make the best of a frustrating situation.  If you were to ask Riley, the truth is, he wouldn’t give you a bunch of self-leadership techniques like the ones in management textbooks.  He’d simply say that there’s always someone worse off, and that he’s grateful to God for what he has.  So, this is my quick list of lessons from Riley’s source of strength and motivation level – nothing from a research study – just pure observation and experience.

1.       Lean on God, instead of blaming God.  In leadership development, there are numerous examples of what we call, “self-leadership.” These behavior strategies can be transformational, however, the very premise of “self” leadership indicates that you are relying solely on yourself to make a change.  I am guilty of doing this. I often try to problem-solve by myself, because I’m so used to consulting and giving advice, that I find myself relying on myself first too often.  “Oh yeah, I should ask God about this.”  I think a little success with self-reliance can be a kind of positive reinforcement, that tells us that this is okay, that we should solve problems ourselves and not turn to God.  But this is not true.  We have to turn to God first. And this is what Riley does.  When Riley was injured in a snow skiing accident that left him a T-5 paraplegic, his life changed forever. He does not have feeling or muscle control below his chest area.  However, when I asked Riley what he thought about when he was first injured, he told me that his first thought was to thank God that his injury was not worse. He told me that he sees God as his champion, not to blame for his paralysis.  It is this reliance on God that can make the difference, and that has made the difference in the 21 years he’s been in a chair, and in the 17 years we’ve been married.  Without first having a "God-leadership" premise, “self-leadership” practices would not be as effective. 

2.       Focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t do.  When Riley wants to do something, he makes it happen. He doesn’t ask himself if he can do it, but how he can do it.  In our family, when opportunities come our way that may be challenging for Riley to participate in, we always ask ourselves “how” he can participate, instead of focusing on what he cannot do.  It’s not a matter of “if,” but “how.” The funniest memory I have of finding Riley fixing something himself, was from when I was in law school.  I came home from school and he had our breakfast table shoved up against a wall with ramps going up to it. He was in his wheelchair on top of the table fixing blinds up by the ceiling of our backdoor.  "What are you doing?!" I exclaimed.  He used that same table to fix his car several years later. I went out into the garage and he had the table shoved up next to his jeep. The hood was up and he was laying on the table, replacing some part inside the car. When we had kids, he reconstituted a Boppy (mothers use these for nursing) to be for carrying the baby around the house in his lap, and when the babies were older he found ways to strap them, seated with a seatbelt so that he could wheel around with them in his lap. These are a few examples of many times when I've seen Riley creatively focus on what he can do, instead of what he cannot.

3.       Take bold action outside of your comfort zone In 2003, Riley said yes to the idea of going to Mt. Everest Base Camp, before understanding how specifically he would get there. Two months later, he was at Everest Base Camp, in a wheelchair!  There was a lot of planning by a great team that made this possible, but if it was not for his mindset, he would have never made that stereotype shattering trip.  Instead, together with his team he made history, and bravely stepped outside of his comfort zone to say yes to something he really wanted to do. How you think has an effect on your actions, and your actions have an effect on your results.

4.       Let others in - even when you don't want to. Sometimes when people are in need, they don’t tell anyone because it would feel like they’re admitting defeat.  I see this in leadership development all of the time, but this can end up causing leaders to make the same mistakes year after year. However, getting help, and finding a strong support network is vital to your success.  One of the lessons that can come from being in need, and having to rely on others, is simply to let others in (even when you don’t want to). That sounds really basic. But this is really hard for some people, especially when they are accustomed to being strong and independent.  From the time Riley was injured 21 years ago, until now, he has had a strong support system. His parents were fierce advocates for him when he was first injured, and they even converted part of their home to be accessible for him. Now, Riley has a family of his own who would be by his side in any challenge.  One of Riley’s biggest frustrations is having to have people help him with things he already knows how to do – such as mowing the lawn or fixing things around the house.  When he went to Mt. Everest, he had Sherpas who helped him, but then he was frustrated by how “helpful” they were. He wanted to do more himself. Isn’t this such a typical challenge that we face in many different types of circumstances? I have struggled with this.  When he was hospitalized, I found myself in a situation where I needed help. And when I did, I was unprepared, because I had hardly even told anyone he was hospitalized. It was late at night and I needed medicine for my son.  I thought that if I called a friend, it would be a weird and random call, in which I say something to the effect of, “Oh by the way, Riley’s in the hospital and can you come to the house and watch the kids while I go to the pharmacy to get medicine?” I realized that I needed to proactively make some calls to let people know what was going on and that I might call them once in a while for help.  I struggled to let people know I needed help with some things.  When I let people help, and I let people in, they thanked me for letting them help us.  I was reminded of how blessed I feel when I give to others.

What can we learn and apply to management regarding motivation?

Remember, that in management, you cannot ever really motivate people. That’s a myth. All you can do is inspire people to take action they want to take for their own reasons. Their reasons include some combination of factors that interest them, including but not limited to mission, task, or reward.  The excitement with which people approach their work is also connected to how they feel about their manager.   How the manager spends his or her time contributes greatly to whether they respect the manager and want to work with them.  What does your use of time say about you?  How do you respond to challenges?  If you are feeling stuck and need some inspiration, remember Riley and how it is possible for a person to be paralyzed, but not in their mind or spirit.   

Ask yourself if you need to do any of the following:

1)      Lean on God, instead of blaming God.

2)      Focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t do. 

3)      Take bold action outside of your comfort zone.

4)      Let others in, even when you don't want to.

 We are so glad Riley is home. He is an inspiration to all of us!!


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