This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
Recently, I interviewed Elisabeth Walker-Young, chef de mission of the Canadian Paralympic Team for the Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games. Throughout my career I have met many successful individuals: chief executive officers of global corporations, media moguls, heirs to fashion dynasties, and I've rarely been intimidated by the size of a person's wallet or the accomplishments on their résumé. But as I prepared for this interview, I was more nervous than I had ever been in my career.
Let me be honest. I had never met a Paralympic athlete, let alone a four-time Paralympian-turned-chef de mission. Nor had I ever greeted a person in a business setting whose limbs were not fully formed. I was out of my comfort zone, and afraid that I was going to say or do something inappropriate. Our meeting was a wake-up call – I quickly learned that diversity in leadership need not be limited to women, minorities, and the LGBT community. Our leadership community also includes people with disabilities, sometimes highly visible ones.
Getting out of our comfort zones is the best place we can put ourselves. I was immediately put at ease by Ms. Walker-Young, whose enthusiasm for sport is infectious. Her personable, down-to-earth style of interaction with the athletes is a huge asset to the Paralympic team. Beyond witnessing her ability to emotionally connect with her team, I gained insight into her unique brand of leadership. Here are a few of the lessons that I learned:
1. Lead from experience
Ms. Walker-Young brings an athlete's perspective to the role of chef de mission. She earned a spot on the Canadian Paralympic swimming team, became team captain, and won two gold, one silver, and two bronze medals. She broke world records along the way.
After retiring from competitive sport, Ms. Walker-Young reinvented herself as a member of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, and then gained experience as assistant chef de mission at the London 2012 Games. Of all her accomplishments, it is her in-depth understanding of what really matters to the athletes that drives her decision-making as the face of the Canadian Paralympic Team. Helping athletes manage their emotions is easier when you have had shared experiences. Ms. Walker-Young has been there.
2. Build trust
When asked what her personal goals were as chef de mission, Ms. Walker-Young's answer was insightful. "I would love to know every athlete and staff member by name," she said.
In her new leadership role, she wants to have a personal rapport with every athlete, administrative staff member, and volunteer. The athlete count alone exceeds 200. "It's all about rapport and trust," she said. Everyone performs better in an environment where there is trust.
3. Show up
If you spend your time sitting behind a desk, chances are you won't be making many personal connections. To achieve her goal of knowing every athlete by name, Ms. Walker-Young will attend as many team announcements and training camps as possible. On the day of our meeting, Ms. Walker-Young personally introduced the 40 members of the Canadian Paralympic swimming team to the media. Afterward, she met with 15 "dark horse" athletes from all Paralympic sports, hoping to mentor them through qualifying for both the Toronto Para PanAm Games, which open Aug. 7, and next year's Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
4. Improve your communication skills
Perfecting her French-language skills ranks high on the list of Ms. Walker-Young's goals. During the London 2012 Games, she spent time with the men's goalball team, who are primarily francophone. "Being able to speak to them in their language helps to build rapport," she said.
5. Embody determination
Many leaders earn admiration because of how they cope with adversity. For Ms. Walker-Young, there are difficult days. She was born with dysmelia, a congenital disorder which interfered with the full formation of her hands and forearms just beyond the elbow. "I have grumpy days when people stare at me," she said. "But then I try to take a deep breath." What defines her is her ability to persevere.
"Lots of people talk about overcoming disability. You don't overcome disability. You live with it day to day. It's about holding your head high and showing the world what you can do," she said.
The mark of a great leader is in their ability to make people feel better for having met them. They inspire us to live our lives differently. Ms. Walker-Young is one such individual.
As of Wednesday, it will be 100 days to the opening of the Parapan Am Games on Aug. 7. I'll be watching with great interest as our Canadian Paralympic athletes compete, and learning from Ms. Walker-Young what it really means to lead a team in the face of a challenge.
Hilary Carter (@TweetFromHilary) is a public speaker and the founder of InTune Communications (@AreYouInTune), a strategic communications firm that helps companies and individuals amplify their messages and build their brands on Twitter and other social media networks.