Where are they now?

Where are all the disability leaders who have already been trained?

In 2016 the Disability Leadership Institute undertook the first national survey of disability leaders. One specific finding was that the majority of leaders had undertaken training but the training did not assist in achieving leadership or representative opportunities.

When noting the lack of disabled people in leadership positions, governments and others often assume that there are no suitably trained or experienced leaders to be appointed. This leads to the announcement of further training or scholarships programs. While scholarships are vital to disabled people, many of whom live on low incomes, without those scholarships resulting in career outcomes they lose significant value.

Where are all the disability leaders who have already been trained? Over several decades these training and scholarship programs have produced many many leaders able to be appointed to boards or executive roles, yet there remains a noticeable lack of disability leaders in board and executive positions across all sectors.

Endless training is not producing the desired outcomes. Neither is hoping for the best and relying on goodwill.

It is time to introduce quotas or specific targets, and to also introduce identified positions. In the same way that gender targets have been used to increase gender diversity on boards and in leadership teams and identified positions have been used to ensure First Nations peoples have been placed in leadership positions particularly when related to work about First Nations communities, specific measures are required to increase the levels of disability leadership.

A national audit of disability leaders is also needed to ascertain what training has been undertaken, with longitudinal tracking data to identify what outcomes training has achieved and whether it is leading to career progression for disability leaders.

With several decades worth of trained leaders available, there is no shortage of people available to support the numbers targets would demand. Neither is there a lack of leaders in the pipeline to follow on from the few existing appointments.

More training and scholarships are a simplistic solution to the lack of disability leaders on boards and executive teams. Without being accompanied by targets or quotas, with benchmark timeframes, there is no guarantee that appointments will be made. The experiences of other diversity groups illustrate that targets and timeframes achieve results, yet few exist designed to increase disability leadership.

The Doing It Differently report noted lower levels of professional development offered to disabled people, and a lack of career progression resulting from a continuing prejudice about the capabilities of disability leaders.

Unlike other diversity groups, disabled people are rarely offered disability specific professional development. While there are specific programs for women, Indigenous peoples, and culturally diverse people, disabled people are expected to succeed by accessing only mainstream programs.

Disability leaders report numerous access and attitude barriers in mainstream programs which often result in them leaving before graduation (sometimes they are unable to even commence). Those undertaking programs at the Disability Leadership Institute regularly report on how unusual it is for them to find professional development opportunities which allow them to focus on their development, rather than on advocating for access, or masking while constantly explaining their disability.

Equality of access to professional development, including training, introducing leadership targets or quotas, and longitudinal tracking data to ascertain career progression and training outcomes, will provide a more holistic response to the lack of leadership diversity. A consistent approach to disability leadership has been absent from policy and program responses by governments and organisations to date yet is what is required to make the difference.

More training and scholarship programs are useful, but they won’t provide appointments for the myriad of disability leaders who have already acquired qualifications and who continue to miss out on being appointed to boards and executive positions.

The National Register of Disability Leaders offers an Australia wide listing service to get your vacant positions in front of talented and competent disabled people across a wide range of fields.

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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

Getting Inclusive

Traditional recruitment and retention methods need reshaping to suit disability leaders.

Addressing the barriers to finding disability leaders.

Addressing barriers to the way organisations find disability leaders is an important first step. Identifying the right networks, naming barriers, being open to flexibility options, and tagging internal talent will assist in increasing the numbers of disability leaders organisations have within their talent pool.

Equally as important is flipping those barriers into being inclusive, so that organisations might one day rely on their traditional recruitment and retention methods to improve the levels of disability leadership within their ranks, rather than have parallel processes requiring additional pathways.

Perhaps there are few disability leaders present because the traditional recruitment and retention methods are not being actively reshaped to ensure that they can be present.  

Networks – stepping outside to the networks where disabled people are is necessary now, because existing networks are often exclusive. Longer term; turn your network into an inclusive and diverse network. Disability leaders report joining the “right” networks, only to be overlooked for invitations, or left out of conversations during networking events. Many traditional longstanding networks come from backgrounds where there are few disabled people, so increasing the numbers of disabled people in those backgrounds will slowly build the numbers of disabled people in the traditional networks. Many networks operate on existing members mentoring new talent and introducing them into the network, so a conscious commitment by longstanding members to also mentor and introduce disabled people will have an impact.

Barriers – deliberately target disability talent when recruiting. Consciously wanting to increase the numbers of disability leaders in board and leadership positions, as speakers for conferences, as candidates for political parties, will help change the mindset of recruiters. Make sure your organisation is asking its recruiters to list disability leaders amongst candidates for all positions. Going to disability leaders, rather than waiting for them to come to you, and ensuring that their needs are met by saying yes automatically, will also send a strong message of inclusion. Say yes, then work out a solution, rather than expecting disability leaders to identify barriers and lobby to fix them in order to apply.

Flexibility – be open to making change. Leading edge marketing methods listen to consumers and service users so that solutions are built with the target market in mind. Flexibility means building systems and processes that disability leaders will find attractive; systems and processes which assume that each user is unique and requires an unique solution, whether its how work is done, the types of working conditions and entitlements, or the structure of registration and application processes. The old ways of doing things might be the barrier preventing disability leaders from applying, so change them.

Look within – celebrate and promote internal disabled talent. When disability leaders know they are seen and valued for their diversity, they will be more open about being disabled, and more likely to stay with organisations long term. When disability leaders see other disability leaders being celebrated, promoted, valued and offered development opportunities, they will feel safer being openly disabled particularly if those disability leaders are hold senior positions in their organisation.

Organisations, networks and recruiters have the power to remove the barriers to disability leadership, by recognising that many long standing barriers are real, and then taking responsibility for making an open and conscious commitment to change.

The National Register of Disability Leaders offers an Australia wide listing service to get your vacant positions in front of talented and competent disabled people across a wide range of fields.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

Barriers to Finding Disability Leaders

Rolling out more training programs won’t address the lack of disability leaders.

A common misconception amongst those searching for disability talent is that there are no disabled people to be found. This is often addressed by governments, and others, rolling out more and more training and scholarship programs for disabled people.

Yet, where are all the people who have already done these programs? Despite the number of programs delivered over several decades there remains a significant shortage of disabled people in boardrooms, on executive teams, and in positions of responsibility and decision making. Rather than assuming there is a shortage of disability leadership, it seems there are other reasons for why disability talent isn’t being found.

Hot tip: the Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) knows that there are plenty of disabled people ready for appointment at all levels. Rather, the barriers lie in how organisations are searching.

As organisations seek disability leaders, they might consider the following methods to improve their results:

Networks – disabled people are unlikely to be in the networks that organisations have traditionally used to recruit new talent to their boards and executive teams. Persisting with existing networks will result in finding non-disabled talent similar to the talent found before. Step outside existing networks to those where disabled people are more likely to be, for example the DLI.

Barriers – very few organisations set out to create barriers to recruitment. Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, access barriers during a recruitment process will send a message that an organisation is not serious about recruiting disabled talent. The wording of ads, willingness to provide adjustments throughout recruitment, design of positions, and methods of onboarding, all send messages to prospective talent about how inclusive an organisation is. Once an organisation gains a poor reputation very few disabled people will attempt to engage with it a second time.

Flexibility – organisations which insist that recruitment and employment must be done a certain way are automatically excluding disabled people. There is no one size fits all in disability, with as many solutions required as there are disabled people. Organisations that become deft at listening and accommodating how disabled people want, and need, to work will be better placed to draw on the full range of talent on offer and retain that talent once it is found.

Look within – assuming that disabled people are all at entry level requiring substantial training, development and mentoring will not address the lack of disabled talent at board and executive level. Focusing on providing career pathways by openly fast tracking and promoting high potential disabled talent will produce solid results. Disabled people are already in organisations, often hiding in plain sight, or being overlooked based on assumptions about the impact of their disability on their work. Finding senior disabled talent can be as simple as starting with the talent that is already there.

While training, scholarship and mentoring programs are always welcome, they should not be offered as a way of addressing a lack of talent. Highly competent disabled talent already exists that is not being deployed in the numbers that it should be.

The National Register of Disability Leaders offers an Australia wide listing service to get your vacant positions in front of talented and competent disabled people across a wide range of fields.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

Finding disabled people

Disability leaders are already with you.

The Disability Leadership Institute’s most frequently asked question by organisations and recruiters is “where do we find disabled people? We can’t get them to apply for our vacancies.”

Many employers seem unaware that disabled people are already with you.

Most large employers undertake annual surveys of their workforce to understand demographics, pressure issues, and professional development needs. Usually, these surveys are undertaken anonymously, so that employees can be frank and speak about matters that they might usually feel uncomfortable openly raising.

Internal workforce surveys consistently show a much higher rate of disability employment than the official figures, which are based on who openly identifies as disabled. When employers are looking to increase their disability employment levels, the first place they can start looking is within to the people who already know your structures, culture, vision, and priorities.

Strong anecdotal evidence collected by the Disability Leadership Institute over several years indicates that it is very risky to openly identify as disabled in the workplace. It is particularly risky the more senior people are. It seems that the people who openly identify as disabled in the workplace are the small percentage who have no option to do otherwise. These are people who require specific workplace adjustments or have disabilities that are visibly evident.

For those who can conceal their disability, or substantially minimise it, the benefits of doing so outweigh the existing risks. Even though hiding it can cause negative consequences over time, such as mental health unwellness or aggravation of conditions, it still seems the preferred choice over the stigma and bullying that many openly disabled people experience.

Knowing that you already have a much larger disabled workforce available to you is just the beginning. The next step is to create a workplace where your disabled employees feel safe being open about their disability.

A good way to start this culture change is to address the lack of disabled people in leadership positions within the organisation. When it is understood that there is a career path, that disabled people are valued for their expertise, and are part of the power structure of the organisation; then it becomes more attractive to be a disabled person in that workplace.

Use the existing assets you have. Support them, value them, and embrace the culture shift that disability diversity will bring. Your road to becoming a disability employer of choice is underway.

The National Register of Disability Leaders also offers an Australia wide listing service to get your vacant positions in front of talented and competent disabled people across a wide range of fields.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

From the room next door

Disabled people are consigned to the room next door.

Disability leadership happens in the rooms next door.

Few disabled people are in positions of power and decision making; we rarely sit on the boards, in the parliaments, or on the executive teams, even when disability is the central issue being discussed. Disability leaders are consigned to advisory groups and must tap politely on the door to be heard, waiting for the moment when it suits those inside.

Recently, Disability Leadership Institute members have been discussing anger and being angry. It seems many of us are angry a lot of the time. Being angry is a natural consequence of being constantly marginalised and told you do not belong, you don’t fit. Anger is also what happens when we see injustice all around us.

We tap politely on the door and ask to be remembered:

– when pandemic plans are being formulated;

– when vaccination is being rolled out;

– when we require adjustments at work;

– we tap politely so that we can participate equally in meetings; and,

– when policy about our services is being designed.

Yet we are consistently ignored, told others know best, or just forgotten.

Disability leaders consistently see non-disabled people speaking for us; we notice the issues we raise are not listened to; and we see disabled people being harmed or dying because of gaps in policy and action. DLI members have talked about becoming angry, and then being told to be polite, to be nice when raising critical issues, otherwise we will not be listened to.

Denying the anger of someone is a way of shutting them down. It is a form of silencing. It has become a tool of the privileged inside the room, used to marginalise those who are outside. Rather than show leadership by listening to anger, and understand the causes of that anger, those in power and authority close inward and suggest we are emotional or hysterical. Our anger is turned back upon us as a weakness that proves we are incapable of leadership or clarity.

Anger is not aggression, nor is being angry rude. We are told we should not be angry, yet it is only when we become angry that our experience of discrimination and marginalisation becomes clear to others. Our anger is rejected and silenced by those who have marginalised our voices and our expertise. The privilege of rejecting anger belongs to those who get to decide what is listened to and what is not. These are unlikely to be disabled people because disabled people are rarely in positions of power and authority. Disabled people are consigned to the room next door.

Why should disability leaders be silent about the levels of violence we see, or about being forgotten in pandemic policy, or being deprioritised in the vaccination rollout, or when poor government policy is imposed upon us, or when we are overlooked for senior appointments yet again?

Being angry does not mean being rude, although it is sometimes interpreted this way. Being angry does not mean being aggressive, although it is often interpreted this way by those we are raising issues with. Being angry does not mean being destructive, although we are often trying to deconstruct systems of oppression when expressing anger.

Disability leaders are highly constructive about being angry about violence, marginalisation, oppression, and the deaths of members of our community through poor policy or inaction. We are experts in using our anger to make a difference; recognising its impact and making it count. We are experts in being polite about being in the room next door, left out of decision making with our expertise unrecognised. Anger has become a necessary part of how we do leadership.

Our anger can make others uncomfortable, but it is through our anger that those in positions of power and authority (the people inside the room) realise that we do not accept what they are saying, or the consequences of leaving us in the room next door. We do not accept their discrimination. Our anger threatens their power and authority, it reminds them that their decisions are poor, and their expertise is lacking.

This anger will not subside until we no longer need to tap politely on the door, until we are part of decision making and policy development, until we sit inside the rooms of power and authority. Until we are equal.

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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

Free Advice

When should a voluntary support network become part of your paid employment?

Many Disability Leadership Institute members are part of employee disability networks in their workplace. Some are founders of these networks, and several are chairs or convenors. It has become a standard expectation that employee networks exist in any workplace that is working towards greater levels of disability employment and inclusion, and many of these networks provide vital support and have introduced significant change.

Workplace disability networks can be an important contributor to breaking the sense of isolation that working in the mainstream can generate. There are still low levels of disabled people in most workplaces, particularly openly identifying disabled people in mainstream workplaces, so people are often the only disabled person they know of on their team, or in their section or division.

The peer support offered by workplace disability networks is crucial to overcoming that isolation and building a greater sense of inclusion.

Employee networks take multiple forms – some focus entirely on peer support; others also perform an advocacy role tackling the barriers to inclusion that are still prevalent in today’s mainstream workplaces.

When does a workplace employee network become a tool for the organisation rather than a support network for the employees? Are disabled employees obliged to address the barriers that their employer has yet to conquer?

Participation in employee disability networks is voluntary and usually undertaken on the employee’s own time. As a contribution to their sense of community and wellbeing, particularly when disabled staff numbers are small, it has become a way of addressing isolation and exclusion.

Many disabled people have worked hard to enter the workforce and maintain their employment, so employee networks have also driven advocacy around specific barriers and issues which need to be raised with employers. This work is also undertaken on the employees own time and without allocated resources.

More recently, some employers have been the driving force behind establishing and guiding employee disability networks, including expressing an expectation that the network would become responsible for addressing barriers and driving workplace inclusion and culture change.

This raises the vexed question: where should the line be drawn between an employee established voluntary peer support network and an employer established specialist disability advice think tank?

At what point should employee networks become part of someone’s paid employment? It is one thing to gather with peers to address isolation; it is another matter to become unpaid specialist advisors on inclusion and culture change. The specialist expertise being sourced would previously have been undertaken by paid external consultants, yet employee network members are expected to continue to donate their time.

With the increased prevalence of employee disability networks, and the growing expectations placed upon them to drive culture change and inclusion, it seems the time has come for this work to be considered part of regular workplace duties for the staff members involved.

Valuing diversity, and espousing inclusion, requires a commitment from employers to illustrate the value they place upon the expertise of their employees and how it provides a significant contribution to their organisation’s success. Allocating resources and work time for this important work would be a solid starting point.

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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

Seeing Disability

Known diversity, the presence of openly identifying disabled people, makes a difference.

Amongst the regular calls for more disability diversity in board rooms and executive teams are the voices which suggest that there might already be disabled people present, they just aren’t open about it.

Certainly, there will be disabled people in these places, as in many other locations; however, if they are not openly disabled the benefits of their presence are markedly reduced.

The presence of openly identifying disabled people brings several specific benefits to decision making rooms and discussions:

  1. It contributes diverse perspectives to conversations and to the outcomes of conversations.

Someone who is disabled, but does not openly identify, will also bring a disability perspective to the conversation, although it will be hampered by their desire to conceal their disability. This means they cannot speak as a disabled person. Their disability expertise will be less recognised, or not recognised at all.

Diverse perspectives have been proven to produce better decisions. Diversity in a decision making room increases the ability of the decision making group to consider problems or strategy from a greater number of angles.

Without a known presence of diversity there is no credible knowledge and the diversity area is readily sidelined.

2. It changes the conversation to have openly disabled people present.

The behaviour of others in the room is influenced by knowing that disabled people are listening. There will still be ableism and ableist language (as many disability leaders can attest); however, disability cannot be forgotten or left off the agenda as happens consistently when disabled people are absent.

This benefit has been evident in high level discussion spaces, for example at the United Nations where there are few disabled people in any rooms except disability specific ones. When there were disabled people in the room, Australia succeeded in having disability specific language included in UN Outcomes documents for the first time. That language is still there a decade later and has changed the conversation and expectations about the presence of disabled women. Because disabled women were in the room, they were consistently referred to, remembered, and became part of the outcome.

Being in the room matters. It influences the conversation.

3. It provides a role model for other disability leaders.

The classic diversity catch cry: “you can’t be what you can’t see” rings true in disability as in other diversity areas. Naturally, not all disabled people are visibly disabled. In fact, most are not. It is critical that openly identifying disabled people; people who openly bring disability into the room, are present, so that they are known to be there. A disability does not have to be evident for a person to be openly identifying as disabled.

When it becomes usual to see disability leaders in all locations, and at all levels, it will be safer to be in those rooms and more disability leaders will follow. Disability will become a regular factor in policy development and decision making, using the expertise of direct experience.

Being in the room matters. Until disabled people are known to be in rooms, and are part of leadership groups, we will remain marginalised and forgotten.

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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

Avoiding diversity?

Advisory groups are a way of avoiding disability diversity in board rooms.

Recent events with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) have illustrated how critical the presence of disability leaders is to good policy and decision making affecting disabled people.

The NDIS continues to have no disabled people in its executive leadership team, and there are no disabled people on the board following a recent retirement. The NDIS is developing policy, and making decisions, about the lives of disabled people without a single disabled person in the room.

As an organisation that is solely focused on disability, they should have a presence of more than 50 percent disability in both the board room and the executive leadership team (to align with international benchmarks); however, nearly a decade after the National Disability Insurance Agency was established there continues to be an absence of disability in its critical decision making spaces.

The outcome of the recent attempt to introduce independent assessments is a powerful reminder of why the presence of disabled people in these decision making spaces is vital. Without the deeper industry and community knowledge, and the wealth of expertise, associated with being a disabled person it is impossible to make a good disability related decisions.

The NDIS has been relying on an advisory body throughout its decade of existence; in other words, they rely on being able to consult disabled people when it suits them. If the expertise of that advisory body is so valuable, why isn’t it in the board room and on the executive team?

In our 2018 global scan the Disability Leadership Institute discovered that advisory groups don’t work. Yet they continue to be a popular mechanism for introducing diverse voices, particularly consumer voices, into board rooms. The key finding of that global scan was that advisory groups are only as effective as the bridge between them and the organisation they are advising. When this breaks down, as it inevitably does, the advisory group becomes marginalised and unheard. It is common for advisory bodies’ advice to be ignored if it is inconvenient or bears a cost burden.

Have advisory groups become a way of avoiding genuine diversity; a way of avoiding the hard work of developing an inclusive culture where diverse voices are present throughout the decision making structure of organisations?

Perhaps advisory groups are a sloppy way of admitting that diversity makes executives and boards uncomfortable? After all, having diversity in the room, particularly disability diversity, remains unusual. It appears the majority of organisations still find it challenging to put the two words disability and leadership into the same sentence. The NDIS certainly seems challenged by disability leadership, given their persistence in avoiding it.

Trusting disability leaders to be competent contributors remains outside scope for many in decision making positions, perhaps because they remain unfamiliar with the enormous benefits that disability diversity brings, including greater levels of innovation and problem solving.

The prevailing assumption persists that there are few board ready disabled people, despite the Disability Leadership Institute having several hundred disability leaders listed on the National Register of Disability Leaders.

Is it only prejudice that is getting in the way of building board diversity?

Perhaps it is also a lack of innovation as organisations continue with their old methods of recruiting board members – methods they have become comfortable and settled in, and which provide a steady pipeline of old fashioned non-diverse talent. After all, most high level boards are still appointed on “merit” from known networks; processes designed to maintain the existing narrowcast non-diverse pool of mainly older, mainly white, mainly male board members they are familiar with.

The NDIS is a microcosm of the broader issue surrounding the lack of disability diversity in board rooms and on executive teams; unfortunately, it has become clear that this lack of diversity is a significant hindrance to it generating good policy and making good decisions, resulting in significant costs to the disability community of time, energy, and funds.

The Disability Leadership Institute calls on all Australian governments to ensure that all future appointments to the board of the NDIS, and its executive leadership team, are disabled people and that this continues until the benchmark of over 50 percent presence of disability is achieved.


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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

Recognition Matters

Without recognition there is no equality

Is the work of disabled people less valuable to the community than the work of everyone else?

Naturally it isn’t, yet this is the message being sent to disabled people as we continue to be overlooked for honours and awards.

Recent discussions amongst DLI members indicate that the work of disability leaders is not valued in the same way as the work of other folk. Our work is generally invisible to the broader community and usually remains unrecognised.

Recognition for outstanding work is delivered in several ways in our community, yet outstanding work by disabled people rarely features amongst those recognised. When recognition is given, it remains unusual. The recent Australian Honours for the Queen’s Birthday featured about 10 disabled people amongst 947 recipients, when population parity should have acknowledged the work of 189 disabled people.

The DLI is unaware of any disability leaders undertaking their work in a quest to be awarded an Australian Honour, but that does not mean that there are not many hundreds of disabled people who should be recognised for the outstanding work that they do for their communities.

The last several years has seen an increasing presence of disabled people acknowledged through the Australian of The Year awards, although it is still remarkable to see a disabled person, and none have yet been recognised with the major awards. When the percentages remain so low it is less likely that disability leaders will succeed.

Even the awards acknowledging excellence in business, the Telstra Business Awards (and Businesswomen’s Awards) have rarely featured disability entrepreneurs, yet disabled people are over twice as likely to start their own business as non-disabled people (UTS 2020).

The conclusion reached by many members of the DLI is that the way disabled people do business, and the work that is done in our community by disability leaders is not valued, or considered as valid, as the work of the broader community.

There are many who are highly sceptical of these honours and awards systems because of their lack of diverse recipients. Many refuse to engage with the various honours and awards systems because highly deserving people are regularly overlooked while high profile people who have achieved less are awarded. If disability leaders are not nominated, they cannot be recognised. As long as we remain unrecognised the awards and honours systems remain narrow and are not a valid reflection of the outstanding work being done across Australian communities today.

Current systems continue to perpetuate the myth that valuable work is done only by a small section of society. This is patently incorrect. Perhaps it is a reflection of the non-diverse judging panels who decide who should be recognised.

Until this changes. Until the work of disability leaders is valued, and valid, disabled people have not reached equality.

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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

Learning the hard way

They want what we have, just not the way we learned it.

Leadership is an interesting field of learning. There are a myriad courses and ways of approaching the broad field of leadership. Curiously, not a great deal of value seems to be placed on those who learn leadership the hard way, who learn through experience rather than books; or rather, when experience is valued, it is only certain types of experience that seem to register.

Many recognised leaders continue to be appointed and revered, yet their leadership has only been learned through programs and books. When the community turns to them during a crisis, they often fall short.  

All the book learning in the world will not necessarily assist when someone is under pressure or facing multiple conflicting demands. For many it is these pressures that push them back into their default style of operation, usually less empathic, more insecure and unable to effectively communicate. They turn towards their long-held patterns of behaviour as a way of navigating an unknown situation.

Just when they really need to draw on all the book learning it fails them, because remembering theory is difficult when under significant pressure.

How is it possible to know if someone has empathic and inspiring leadership qualities that are more likely to stand up under pressure? How can resilient leadership be measured?

The Disability Leadership Institute uses vertical leadership principles, based on action logics, in our leadership development work. Vertical leadership can be measured by recognised leadership assessment tools, like the one the DLI uses in its flagship leadership program The Future Shapers.

Such leadership assessments are not concerned with how well someone understands core business skills, rather they are interested in how a person operates and navigates a situation. These are the qualities that do not come from book learning, they come from living through situations that most people in the community are fortunate to avoid.

As the DLI develops the world’s first bank of disability leadership data, it is becoming clear that disability leaders are often ranking in the highest levels of leadership operation. Through Future Shapers assessment processes, undertaken at the beginning and end of each year long program, a picture is growing of leaders who are working at the post-conventional thinking stages, and who are developing further into those stages through the program.

So, what is going on?

It appears that disability leaders have developed a core of resilience which is measurable through vertical leadership assessments. Most of these leaders are not recognised, and many have been actively denied career pathways and positions that use their leadership skills and expertise. They are the types of people that are looked for in crisis situations yet overlooked because of their disability.

As understanding grows about disability leadership, it seems that leadership is only recognised if it is attached to book learning and university courses – having someone with an MBA is more important than having someone who knows how to respond to challenging situations. Yet, disability leaders are ranking more highly, often in the top 15 percent globally, than those who use those more conventional pathways to recognised leadership.

Perhaps it is time to recognise that leadership can be learned the hard way, and that it is more likely to produce those most desired leadership qualities – empathy, resilience, lateral thinking and strategic recalibration – that many of the world’s leaders struggle to draw on under pressure. Disability leadership might not be accompanied by an MBA, or a resume full of corporate or political appointments, yet it is measurable and appears to align more closely with the type of leadership that the global community is looking for.

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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person