Leadership Alzheimer's disease

How do we give back to those who contributed positively to our professional growth and success?

I was recently talking to a close friend who was a co-worker in my first job and with whom I have kept in touch. Marlene is a brilliant physician and through the years, she has taken many people under her wing. In her late twenties, she was way ahead of her curve in medical practice and research, as she set up projects in uncharted territory and took on junior physicians who she trained under these programs. Years later, this work has evolved, and Marlene has worked across the globe, heading critical health programs and continuing her medical research work.


She recently came across an opportunity to participate in a research program, whose Lead happened to be one of the junior physicians she had trained in her earlier career. Pumped up by the fact that she could possibly be doing some very exciting work with someone she knows from her past, she emailed the Lead and introduced herself, referring to the research project they had jointly worked on. A nonchalant “Marlene? I don’t really remember you” came back and as she would say, Marlene almost fell off her seat!


This wasn’t the first time Marlene had experienced this selective amnesia from people she had mentored though. She told me of another lady who heads a leading health program that Marlene’s sister happens to work for, too. This lady had never mentioned her acquaintance with Marlene to the sister, even though the sister had a portrait of Marlene and her on her desk at work. It was only when Marlene visited her sister’s office that the lady sheepishly acknowledged the fact that she knew and had worked under Marlene.


We pondered with Marlene why some people do this. Our conclusion was that many times, professionals ‘augment’ their experience and leadership contributions in their work. Our conjecture was that, if we were given the chance to review the two ladies’ résumés; chances were that the work they did under Marlene’s supervisor would be reflected as personal initiatives that they ‘led’. If this wasn’t the case, then we figured that these two cases were just an example of professionals who do not acknowledge others’ contributions to their growth as leaders and professionals in their field.


I chose to write about this because in my recent reading, I found a very similar thread. In discussing the value of character for leaders in his book Developing the Leader within You, John Maxwell credits Gary Hamel’s writings on leadership born out of his meeting with Pope Francis. He referred to Leadership Alzheimer’s Disease - “where leaders forget who nurtured and mentored them”. John Maxwell then proposes some self-examination questions for one to check their character as leaders. The question relevant to this ‘disease’ is “to what extent do I fail to regularly acknowledge the debt I owe to my mentors and to others?”


I think if we are to be honest with ourselves, many of us flounder at this. I must say that I was quite humbled when I thought about how far I fail at this. Granted, I am quite good at acknowledging others’ contributions to the work that I do or results I achieve at work; but I have not been great at articulating my gratitude to those who have shaped me and helped me succeed in life and my career. Les Brown says that “we are all self-made, but only the successful acknowledge it.” This for me speaks to the same Leadership Alzheimer’s Disease. We often take the credit for our successes, and yes, this is generally true. But if we were to examine the trajectory of our growth, we would acknowledge the fact that no one succeeds in a vacuum. So, nobody is really ‘self-made’. All of us have benefitted from the sacrifice of others in one way or another. We tap into other people’s kindness, belief in us, information, systems and a plethora of existing resources to build our success. Yet few of us are good at giving credit to the people who sacrificed their time to teach us or believed in us enough to remove barriers from our path while giving us the freedom to exercise our wings and fly.


I learnt so much in my first job. My ex-boss was brilliant at envisioning others, he rallied our efforts towards a compelling vision, held us accountable, taught me the value of time, showed me what tenacity looked/ felt like; he believed in me and taught me how to believe in others – how to identify potential; he taught me how to drive results in seemingly impossible situations – countless gems of wisdom that continue to buttress my character and work way. Specific colleagues who are now mentors and friends showed me what passion and drive were, how to support and lift up others, how to be authentic and self-introspective, how to learn from others and from my mistakes, how to be open to feedback and be a life-long learner. I look back and I don’t think I have truly articulated my gratitude for these lessons to them.


While I often refer to people who mentored me or inspired me towards excellence, and many times name those from whom I learnt a specific skill or attribute; I mostly do this with other people. I tell of them to other friends and colleagues. I have not intentionally focused on this in conversations with my mentors – the people who were the wind beneath my wings, who picked me up when I failed, who said to me ‘you can do this’ or ‘I have your back …’ Yeah, I may have casually dropped in a ‘what I appreciate about you is…’ or ‘I am grateful for…” when having a meal or drink with them; but I am now challenged to do more, to be more intentional.


My plan is to draw up a list of these people; then intentionally call them to specifically thank them for specific lessons learned from them. I wish I could meet them, but we are miles apart – and in any case, social distancing is limiting us. Nonetheless, I will do what I can to tick that list off. It is not enough to casually acknowledge others. All humans thirst for validation and one of them is our impact on others. We want to know that we touched others in a positive, significant way. All that is required is for the recipients of our investment of time and energy to be gracious enough to acknowledge that what we did mattered. That it made a difference. That is a debt we owe. It is a truth we must tell.


Who will you tell this truth?

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