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Paralympic Medalist Talks Leadership

By Amanda Morad | December 11, 2012

Bonnie St. John
Photo by Alex Perry

As one acquainted with what it takes to be a great leader in the face of adversity, Bonnie St. John—executive coach, speaker and best-selling author—spoke before a crowd of 335 at Regent University's Executive Leadership Series luncheon on Tuesday, Dec. 11. Held each month, ELS brings together businessmen and women in Hampton Roads to hear from business and leadership experts.

St. John's story is one of overcoming roadblocks to find success. That determination to reach for more, she explained, is the key to effective leadership. "What passes for normal leadership these days is overrated," said St. John. "Aim higher."

NBC Nightly News has called St. John "one of the five most inspiring women in America." After her right leg was amputated when she was just five years old, St. John went on to become the first African-American to medal in Olympic or Paralympic ski racing, taking home a silver and two bronze medals at the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

Leadership, she acknowledged, often means facing the hard things. "One of the hardest things I've ever done is visit the same hospital where my leg was amputated," she recalled. After speaking at a Shriner's hospital full of ailing children, a mother of a patient asked her if her son would ever lead a normal life. "No," St. John told her. "Aim higher."

What St. John realized is that "Leadership is not just about winning, but winning the hearts and minds of those we lead," she said. "Leadership is faith that we can be better tomorrow than we are today," she said.

According to St. John, some of the defining characteristics of great leaders, are truly breakthrough performances, consistent collaboration and getting results. Throughout the rest of her remarks, she cited the journeys of several unparalleled leaders, like diplomat Condoleezza Rice; Naval Captain Mike Abrashoff; the U.S. Air Force's first female Thunderbird pilot, Nicole Malachowski, and others.

"Where you end up is not limited by where you start," St. John emphasized. "We're not defined by the circumstances in which we live. No matter what you do ... you have the ability to transform our world."

Relying on others for guidance and support is essential to effective leadership, she added, quoting world leaders like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of Liberia, and of any country on the continent of Africa; and Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. "You don't have to know everything to lead," she said.

St. John concluded with the story of winning the bronze medal for ski racing at the 1984 Paralympics. Along with every other racer before her, she slipped on a patch of ice close to the finish line and fell—but she got right back up and finished third. "People fall; winners get up," she said. "Gold medal winners just get up faster."

What it comes down to, she said, is that "to win, you have to get good at getting up."

St. John graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where she earned an M.Litt. in Economics. Upon her return to the United States, St. John was appointed by President Bill Clinton as a director for human capital issues on the White House National Economic Council.

St. John is the author of six books, including the bestseller How Great Women Lead, written with her teenage daughter Darcy. She is also a highly sought-after keynote speaker, television and radio personality, and business owner.

Learn more about ELS and register for the next luncheon, to be held on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013.


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