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Leadership and Smallpox

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Did you know that the smallpox virus is a possible weapon in the fight against cancer? I didn’t. And what does that have to do with leadership anyway?

A couple of years ago I was a volunteer judge for the speaking portion of the Health Occupations Student Organization’s contest. One of the young women spoke of this smallpox – cancer connection in her speech, saying that smallpox was being tested against breast cancer. I’m certainly not a medical expert but I had never heard that and was a bit skeptical. To satisfy my curiosity, during a break I did a quick search on the subject and found that she was at least partially correct.

I enjoy these events. It’s encouraging to see young people becoming better communicators. But, when I judge these types of contests I really don’t expect to hear anything new. This particular speaker was no more than 15 or 16 years old and at that age, there isn’t much original research. That’s where the leadership lesson emerges.

Leaders must always be alert to information and ideas coming from where we least expect. Never discount someone because of their age or experience because you never know where the next idea will come from that will set you on a new path to success or be the solution you were looking for.

The other lesson is that leaders should follow-up to satisfy themselves that the information provided is accurate. My quick check of the facts revealed that a modified strain of the smallpox virus is being used in clinical trials to treat otherwise untreatable liver cancer. The modified virus attacks the cancer cells and increases the body’s immune system. But it is in the very early stages of consideration for breast cancer and several other viruses are being considered as well.

In this case a valuable piece of information came from a completely unexpected source. The fact that she was a little off on the details doesn’t diminish the importance and potential of the information.

There’s probably someone in your organization with a bit of information, a suggestion, or an idea that is valuable and maybe a little unexpected. Are you listening?


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