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  • Writer's pictureNatalia Braun, MSc

Medicine of Leadership

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

"We should never underestimate the potential of people, and we should also not underestimate the power of love." Dr. Jim Withers

It's astonishing, how overwhelmingly much you can learn about leadership and potential development from life and those far away from the corporate world of management and leadership. It's astonishing and at the same time not at all. Those who take time for others, selflessly contribute to the wellbeing of people around them and taciturnly do what needs to be done, make people want to follow them and are authentic leaders. Jim Withers is a great example of that.

Dr. Jim Withers is an American internal medicine physician who began providing free medical care to the Pittsburgh’s homeless twenty four years ago by going from one bridge to the next. Huffington Post wrote 2014 about Jim Withers: “Withers' extraordinary outreach started in 1992 when he, along with a formerly homeless man named Mike Sallows, took to the streets at night with a backpack full of medicine. What started off as two people offering free medical treatment has since grown into a national network of medical students and volunteers who go out to treat the homeless four nights a week." And even internationally: his work has been spread around the world and became a global movement. "More than 90 countries have developed similar street medicine units, which is an incredible mark of hope for the future of community health care."

I followed a talk given at the TEDx by the Doc, as his patients used to call Jim Withers, and it struck me. Not only was it authentic and free of theatrical spices, the content made great sense, too, and evoked some of striking analogies with leadership and people's potential. Some of those insights: "Instead of asking why somebody refuses, we dehumanize him... The sickest patient is the system itself, based on power and control... If you want to help people, you have to go to where they are... Move into the reality of others... It involves taking the time to gain the trust... Inspired by the people who have the courage to reclaim their lives... Learn to connect as human beings... Embrace those who've been excluded... I love the (future) leaders, because they are like viruses, they are spreading across the planet... The fire of idealism in the future leaders inspires... Bridging the people of the world in a vision of inclusion... Ultimately it's about human connection... We are all in this together... "

But the most striking was probably the story of a homeless man Richie, who previously led a "normal" life and had a family, then obviously went through a range of failures, broke inside gradually, and gave up on himself. He was sick and the place he was sleeping in was dirty and adandoned. The Doc could not convince him to go to a treatment and to look for housing. Then Jim Withers decided to do an experiment. Together with his helpers, the Doc cleaned Richie's place. First Richie was staying aside and looking at it with a bottle in his hand in astonishment. When the Doc and his team returned to Richie after a while, they found flowers in that bottle and Richie becoming a different person, actually the person he really was. Richie accepted housing in a group home. He forgot the pictures of his family at his former homeless place, returned there together with Jim Withers and found them. As he was leaving, he stopped, just looked around and exclaimed: "Doc, how could a human being live in a place like that?.." Jim Withers kept on building trust, enabled him to get out of there and to move forward to his real self. Thinking back, Jim Withers said remarkable words: "We should never underestimate the potential of people, and we should also not underestimate the power of love. By showing Richie he had value, he was able to see that value in himself and began the healing process..."

So it is with others, and so it is with ourselves. How often we give up on others when they get weak or lose direction and on ourselves while going through a long range of cloudy times! Jim Withers often heard medical doctors saying: "Those (homeless) people, they chose to live like that, you can't help them." We also often hear those confident words: "Failure is a choice. You choose to failure." That's easily said like judging generally is. Much more effortful and helpful is to enable somebody to reclaim their life. I wish we give an enabling helping hand to those in need and to ourselves at the right time. We are all in this together.

Never underestimate no one's potential and the potential of taking care of others and yourself. It involves self-awareness to build that trust and not to underestimate. Take time consciously to develop that awareness. Leadership is about love.

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