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Leadership Development

This is Heavy, Doc: Leadership Lessons from Michael J. Fox

Michael J. FOx at SHRM 2011I’m going back to the future to start my SHRM 2011 Conference recap posts at the end of the conference, because frankly, hearing Michael J. Fox deliver the final general session yesterday was the highlight of my SHRM experience. (Now had I won an iPad, this might be an entirely different post….)

Going into the Las Vegas Conference Center to hear Fox’s speech yesterday, I already had high hopes. After all, this is Alex P. Keaton, y’all!! Marty-effing-McFly! Teen Wolf – the original!

And if I’m being completely honest, part of me really, really just wanted to hear him tell the audience, “Boy, are you a sight for sore eyes.”

But what Fox delivered far exceeded my expectations. Articulate and inspiring, Fox charmed the crowd with his humor and honesty, giving a brief history of his childhood, explaining how he got into show business, before launching into his discovery that he had Parkinson’s Disease, until finally discussing how the disease became the greatest gift he never asked for.

“Don’t play the result.”
Fox opened by giving the crowd the first acting lesson he ever received as a child growing up in Canada: “Don’t play the result,” a lesson he now applies to life. “You can’t play as though you know how the scene is going to end,” he told the audience.

“For me, this saying is about opportunities…The script of your life is not yet written.” You can’t plan for every event that’s going to happen in your life, but that shouldn’t restrict you. In fact, it is those unexpected events that create opportunities to try something new.

“Loss doesn’t create a vacuum. It creates opportunities.”
Shortly after going public with his disease (“Here’s a tip: If you ever want to get a secret out, tell Barbara Walters and People Magazine,” he joked…I think), Fox said he heard about a fan who also had Parkinson’s Disease and explained it to people as “like what Michael J. Fox has.”

At that point, Fox realized that he had the opportunity to help others like him by becoming an activist and using his fame to promote awareness and find a cure. He decided to start an organization specifically focused on finding a cure for Parkinson’s, because while there are federally mandated initiatives geared toward medical research, “what we don’t have is a Department of Cures. There’s no Secretary of Cures…Cures don’t seem to be anyone’s priorities.”

In setting up The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease, Fox made it his mission to assure anyone who, like him, was hoping to be cured of Parkinson’s, that while there might not be a cure available just yet, “at the very least, we’re on the job.”

“The choice I didn’t make…”
In addition to new opportunities, Fox has also discovered the power of choice. He realized early on that Parkinson’s didn’t have to limit him – not if he didn’t want it to. “The only choice not available to me is whether or not I have Parkinson’s. Everything else is my call,” Fox told the audience. He then reflected on Dwight, the bitter, world-weary character he played on several episodes of the TV series “Rescue Me,” whom he said was easy for him to play because he identified so well with the character.

“I know Dwight. Dwight was the choice I didn’t make,” Fox told the audience. The result of not making that choice, he found, has been more rewarding than he could ever imagine.

“The gift that keeps on taking…”
Despite everything he has endured, Fox calls Parkinson’s Disease a “gift.” (“It’s the gift that keeps on taking, but it’s a gift.”) It was, after all, this disease that gave him the opportunity to give back with his foundation. On a more personal level, it opened the door to bond more closely with his children (he calls the day he disclosed his disease to his son “one of the best afternoon’s of my life”) and his wife, Tracy Pollan.

“Parkinson’s has always put me in a box,” he told the audience. “Tracy has become expert at folding it up, turning it over and easing me out…We’ve given more to each other than Parkinson’s has taken away.”

Initially, Fox might seem an odd pick as the person to give the closing speech at SHRM, but his determination to see opportunity where others might see limitations is clearly a lesson for leaders everywhere.

It certainly moved the crowd at SHRM.

Before walking off-stage to a standing ovation, Fox closed by repeating his opening statement for emphasis: “Whatever you do, never ever play the result.”

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.
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