Five Lessons Learned from Shirley

Woman in Wheelchair

Several years ago I was visiting my mom at the nursing home. It is great place to observe human behavior and interactions. In many ways they are like children, free of inhibitions. While waiting for my mom, I saw Shirley. A woman well into her 80’s Shirley sits slumped- her heavy frame in the wheelchair, looking very much like a mother hen on top of her nest. When she speaks her voices has a unique quiver that completes the image. She spends most of her day traveling up and down the hallways stopping and interacting with residents and visitors alike with her daily greeting of “Heyyyyyy Misterrrr.” Everyone knows Shirley.

The Revolt!

On this particular day, Shirley had stationed herself at the center of the day room. Much like a mother hen trying to gather her chicks she spun herself in a small circle calling out to others in the room.

“Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

Her potential chicks blissfully went about what they were doing, ignoring Shirley and her call. The nurses and aides smiled and laughed, “It’s just Shirley.”

Shirley continued her circling and calling, undaunted by the ignoring of her peers and the smiling dismissal of the staff:

“Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

I watched from outside the room impressed by Shirley’s perseverance and disregard for the reaction of others. She was a lady with a mission and she was not going to give up.

“Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

And then it began, first one and then another and then another, looked up and began listening. All of a sudden, Shirley went from mother hen to commanding general as she led her first few volunteer troops toward a door and freedom. Her now strident battle cry was strong and clear supported by a chorus echoing her: “Follow me! Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

All of sudden the staff wasn’t smiling anymore as this group of freedom fighters made their way to the closest exit. Now they were scrambling and staff, too, began following Shirley out of necessity.

What had happened?

How did an elderly woman suffering from dementia transform into this active leader that was causing all of this commotion? Let’s take a look.

First: Shirley had a vision. She knew what she wanted. She wanted “to get of out of here.” She wanted freedom.

Second: Shirley had a vision or mission that tapped into the emotions of her target group—something with which they could identify: freedom. All of them wanted to get out of there and regain their freedom to varying degrees.

Third: There was a consistent message, something to which people could relate: “Follow me. Come on, follow me. Let’s get out of here.”

Fourth: Another important element was that Shirley had both a strong belief and the courage to stand by it. She was not discouraged when people at first did not listen to her or take her seriously. She persevered and continued in her attempts to engage people.

Fifth: And finally, at least for our purposes here, she had a plan of action for what to do once she did engage people. Have you ever gone to a meeting where someone is trying to get you involved, and once you agree and look for something to do, there is nothing for you to do? It is one of the best ways to lose followers. Shirley instinctively knew that and had a plan of action in place before she began her recruitment efforts.

The Revolution Fails, but Shirley does not give up

Shirley’s small revolution did not succeed. There were challenges and obstacles she had not planned for—the power of the system that was in place, the need for preparing and supporting her following and what to do when these first efforts were not successful. All of these elements underscore the importance of realizing, planning and accepting that the road to excellence is continuous and unending. True to form, Shirley did not give up. Subsequent visits saw a repeat performance. She perseveres. A great quality for a leader of change.

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