From the kitchen window Christopher could see his wife was getting frustrated. Over and over again, Dana was running awkwardly, hunched over, down the driveway while holding on to the back to Will’s bicycle. At the time, six year old Will was still terrified of riding without his training wheels, or without his Mom holding him up. Christopher watched as his wife and son repeated the same failed routine again.
Finally, Dana came inside exhausted and frustrated. Christopher Reeve said to his wife, “Let me try.” He rolled his wheelchair gently down the ramp outside and onto the driveway where his son was wiping away tears. Christopher spoke to his son slowly. Since the accident his voice had become soft and measured. He told Will to place both hands on the handlebars and hold them steady. He explained by doing this the bike wouldn’t shake as much. He told Will to look up, far ahead, to where he was going and not down at the pedals or the front wheel. He told his son to first place his right foot on the pedal and his left foot on the ground, prepared and poised to push hard.
Will froze. Then Christopher reminded his son that he would never let him do anything too scary or dangerous – that riding a bike was something he knew Will could do. He told Will he was going to count to three, and on three, it was time to go. Christopher counted slowly and when he reached three, Will pushed off hard and rode down and around the driveway. The first time he circled back, his face was a mask of concentration and focus, and the second time around his face only reflected joy.
In his book, Nothing is Impossible, Christopher Reeve writes that before the accident that left him paralyzed he was a whirlwind of activity. He constantly took his family sailing, horseback riding, traveling, hiking and adventuring around the world. He writes that he never really asked if they wanted to go, he just took them. And after the accident he learned to listen. He learned to speak to them where they were, at their level, with a deep sense of empathy.
Christopher writes that prior to his accident he would not have believed that he could teach his son to ride a bike simply by talking to him. Teaching was about showing, demonstrating, and leading the way. But during his recovery process, he learned the power of conversations, words, intention and meeting people at an intersection of where they are ready to learn. Because each day the physicians and care-takers around him would introduce an idea or an activity that he was ready to tackle, or else it would fall unnoticed. It’s all about introducing learning opportunities when people are ready to learn.
An important nuance of excellent leaders is that they have the capacity to recognize when someone else is ready to go to the next level – ready to take on a new challenge. And instead of doing it for them, encourage their heart and prepare them to make that leap. And it starts by simply showing up and being willing to share your skills and experience.