The Need for Specialist Disability Leadership Development

The DLI is frequently asked “wouldn’t mainstream leadership programs be just as good?”

This couldn’t happen in the mainstream

by Christina Ryan, CEO, Disability Leadership Institute

The DLI is frequently asked why disability leaders couldn’t achieve the same outcome they will get from the Future Shapers by undertaking a mainstream leadership program.


It’s because mainstream leadership programs don’t factor in disability, they deny it. Whenever leaders are encouraged to mask major aspects of themselves, they will continue to struggle with authentic leadership practice.


The Future Shapers is also more rigorous because of its holistic approach to disability and leadership. As the first program that weaves the two elements together it is understandable that the processes involved in applying this integrated approach are not well understood. It is becoming clearer that the interweaving process is transformative for participants, and results in a more holistic leader who has a greater ability to draw on all aspects of themselves.


Mainstream leadership programs are usually facilitated by non-disabled people. Most use horizontal, rather than vertical principles, and can be highly effective in producing leaders who are very skilled in navigating hierarchies and networks, with strong skills in governance and management.


Mainstream leadership programs completely ignore disability and how it is used as a leadership quality.


The closest mainstream leadership programs come to recognising disability is to have a focus on gathering disabled people together, usually in recognition of the low numbers who are in leadership positions. It is unusual for such programs to take anything other than an entry level approach, so more developed disability leaders have no recourse except to participate in mainstream leadership programs which place them in groups of abled people and ignore their disability, often actively encouraging participants to put their disability to one side, attempting to “overcome” it.


Putting your disability to one side, all day every day, takes energy and is depleting. Over time working “despite” your disability becomes a conditioned response to the mainstream world, requiring an unconscious and ongoing expense of personal energy: an ever-present undercurrent of negativity and denial.


Vertical leadership provides a real opportunity to develop leaders differently with its greater focus on self-awareness, personal reflection and collaboration. This opens the door to leaders who move beyond skills to become more robust at using their whole self, and who recognise that brushing aside elements of themselves denies their ability to continue developing as leaders.


Throughout the Future Shapers program the DLI asks participants how their disability contributes to their leadership. Initially this question is highly confronting and often results in responses about barriers and challenges. For some it reinvigorates memories of bullying or harassment. As participants develop vertically, they take a more holistic approach to this question and become less confronted and more whole in their self-reflection.


As vertical leadership is experiential, rather than academic, participants find it impossible to continue putting disability to one side. As the Future Shapers program progressed each participant became more engaged with their disability and how it worked for them. For some this process was deeply confronting, for others it generated ramifications and periods of unwellness as bodies recalibrated, resulting in stronger more self-aware leaders with an extra layer of resilience beyond their existing high levels.


Another understanding arising from the Future Shapers program is the critical need for the program facilitator, or lead mentor, to be a disabled person. Just as vertical leadership development programs recognise that someone more developed than the student should be providing guidance, disability leadership development should be guided by a more developed disability leader as they will have the deep personal understanding of both the disability experience and the rolling nature of the heat experiences faced by disability leaders.


As the Future Shapers participants recalibrated and embraced how their disability contributed to their leadership practice, the need for a more developed disability leader as program facilitator / lead mentor became more apparent. The deep dialogue being undertaken by participants turned increasingly to discussions about the combined zone of vertical leadership and disability. The process of self realisation was increasingly holistic.


These dialogues would have been impossible with a non-disabled person. Each participant acknowledged, at a time in their personal development when it became evident to them, that such conversations would not be possible unless the other participants in the dialogue were all disabled people (including the facilitator). The ability to talk openly, without justifying disability and how it behaves, in a supportive environment, became increasingly necessary for participants. This was not a planned aspect of the Future Shapers, rather it arose as a result of the process of vertical leadership development and the realisation that operating as a whole person is part of moving into post conventional thinking stages.


Participants in the Future Shapers program are already working in the mainstream. While they are all openly disabled, they also have experiences of bullying and harassment, of feeling required to put their disability to one side, and of struggling daily with ableism in the workplace. They maintain a certain wariness in order to navigate a still hostile world. Participating in a mainstream leadership program would not have addressed this wariness, rather it would have entrenched it and denied these leaders the ability to approach their leadership holistically.


As the DLI becomes more aware of the power of approaching disability leadership in an holistic way we are developing specific elements of the Future Shapers program to draw more deeply upon the untapped resource of leader’s disability experience. Participants find this work confronting and extremely rigorous: however, it is producing outstanding results that could not have been achieved otherwise.


No mainstream leadership program has this ability. The specialist approach to disability leadership development as taken by the Future Shapers program appears to be necessary, in order to most effectively support disability leaders through their vertical leadership development. The Future Shapers also confirms that specialist programs must carry a strong understanding of the disability leadership experience which means facilitation by disability leaders.


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The unique experience of developing disability leaders

Discoveries from the #FutureShapers include rolling heat experiences.

Discoveries from the Future Shapers

By Christina Ryan, CEO, Disability Leadership Institute


Upon completion of the world’s first specialist disability leadership program, based on vertical leadership development, the Disability Leadership Institute has begun to understand some specific and remarkable facets of disability leadership which could rewrite mainstream approaches to leadership development and broaden the understanding of how post conventional thinking develops.


Leadership development, particularly vertical development, is based on generating what is known as “heat experiences”. That is, applying difficult challenges to the developing leader so that they grow self-awareness, question their existing boundaries and understandings, and adjust their view of themselves and the world to a new level.


Nick Petrie outlines how “the leader faces a complex situation that disrupts and disorients his habitual way of thinking. He discovers that his current way of making sense of the world is inadequate. His mind starts to open and search for new and better ways to make sense of his challenge.”[1]


Joseph Jaworski sent people on 3-day solo camping trips into the Rocky Mountains to test their sense making.[2] Most leadership programs use a variety of tools to create heat processes, including wilderness experiences, individual projects, prescribing challenging work, and confronting accepted norms. These tools work to provide developing leaders with challenges outside their previous experience and aim to spark their development by creating a heat experience. Many of these are based on an able (usually) white (usually) male understanding of what leadership is and what it should look like.


What is also understood is that the average person will not face heat experiences often in their lives. Rather, a heat experience is an unusual event often accompanied by a life changing process for the person. When undergoing traumatic heat experiences most people dip out of their regular lives for the duration, while being supported by those around them to be less engaged in the minutiae of day to day existence.


In developing the Future Shapers the Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) recognises it is working in uncharted waters. Amongst the myriad leadership development programs available today none have focused on interweaving the disability experience with leadership development. In fact, most seek to actively “overcome” it. The Future Shapers, therefore, creates exciting potential for discovery. With the first iteration of the program now completed, it becomes clear that it has also created some unexpected understandings.


Disability leadership is a new field where little academic study or experiential research exists. In assessing the landscape to determine what was out there and how it might be harnessed, the DLI discovered that there was little to work with.[3] No specific programs exist focusing on disability leadership. Those that do work with disability leaders adapt mainstream leadership programs, usually at an entry level, while focusing on horizontal leadership skills. The disability experience is not central to these programs, nor is it openly embraced as an asset that will contribute to leadership development.


The Future Shapers works differently. Program participants are assessed for suitability with an expectation that some background in social change and/or leadership already exists. Only disabled people are accepted into the Future Shapers. The program uses vertical leadership development to achieve post conventional thinking, while embracing the disability experience as a contributor to how that leader operates.


Recently the Future Shapers graduated its first cohort and some unexpected understandings about vertical leadership have emerged. Many of these understandings will require considerably more research over coming years as the field of disability leadership unfolds.


Where most programs consciously generate heat experiences, and recognise that this might be the first time a leader undergoing development has faced that level of personal challenge and introspection, the Disability Leadership Institute has come to understand that disability leaders entering vertical leadership development have already worked through heat experiences and are doing so continuously without realising it.


One particular outcome of the recent program is a more developed understanding of how heat experiences apply to disability leadership. It appears that disability leaders experience a “rolling” heat experience, which contributes markedly to their vertical leadership development. The DLI observed this in each participant in the Future Shapers program and has identified two distinct ways that it manifests: external pressures like prejudice, discrimination and marginalisation; alongside the random nature of the individual’s disability (due to factors like weather or other illness) which can suddenly sideswipe a person’s operational capacity and generate a need for heightened self-awareness in order to recover.


Both contribute to the individual’s development. Each person will have a different experience according to their levels of privilege, type of disability, and other factors; however, the two sources of heat experience were present in each person and resulted in a significant contribution to their vertical leadership development throughout the Future Shapers program.


All disability leaders face prejudice, discrimination and marginalisation as an aspect of their daily lives. The world isn’t yet built for disabled people. Every time a disabled person goes to work, attends a meeting, travels on public transport, or goes to a conference they face barriers. Fitting into a world that is built for abled people means that every interaction with the outside world has the potential to marginalise the disabled person. Disability leaders are engaged with the outside world every day, increasing their exposure to environments that aren’t quite right, including some that are very hostile, particularly when working in mainstream environments.


Most disability leaders consciously put the experience of marginalisation to one side to ensure they are able to continue with their work; however, this means many don’t openly identify as disabled, or they work to minimize their disability requirements, or they expend energy reserves battling to have the environment adjusted to be more inclusive.[4]


This inherently hostile world provides a rolling heat experience of marginalisation and exclusion that is simply a facet of disability leadership, because to be doing their leadership work disability leaders must engage with it. Maintaining operational capacity becomes an openly acknowledged exercise in self-management for disability leaders that is demanded of few other members of the community. While others might dip out for the duration of a challenging period in their lives, disability leaders continue their work and remain engaged.


It appears that this ever present pressure and uncertainty acts as a rolling heat experience which provides disability leaders with a perspective on self-awareness and compassion that mainstream leadership programs attempt to generate through external factors, but which was inherently present for the Future Shapers cohort.


The Disability Leadership Institute suggests that the ever present nature of these two forms of heat experience creates a rolling heat experience which seems to add a deeper level to leadership development than traditional mainstream leadership programs, particularly when using vertical leadership principles as they are more “whole of person” than skills based horizontal leadership development.


Another understanding arising from the Future Shapers program is the critical need for the program facilitator, or lead mentor, to be a disabled person. Just as vertical leadership development programs recognise that someone more developed than the student should be providing guidance, disability leadership development should be guided by a more developed disability leader as they will have the deep personal understanding of both the disability experience and the rolling nature of the heat experiences faced by disability leaders.


This is the beginning of a new field of inquiry. Disability leadership has not been recognised until recently, therefore little investigation or research has been undertaken in this area. No specialist programs have previously existed. Applying vertical leadership development to disability leaders is producing unexpected outcomes which suggest that a specialist approach to disability leadership is necessary, in order to most effectively support disability leaders through their vertical leadership development, and that those specialist programs must carry a strong understanding of the disability leadership experience.


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[1] Nick Petrie, The How-To of Vertical Leadership Development–Part 2, 30 Experts, 3 Conditions, and 15 Approaches (2015).

[2] Joseph Jaworski, Synchronicity The Inner Path to Leadership (2011).

[3] Christina Ryan, The Absence (2018).

[4] the impact of marginalisation is probably experienced by members of all minority groups, this area requires further research.