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Confessions from a Fortune 50 Expert: Five Lessons I Learned from a Six-Year-Old

Years ago, I volunteered at a rehabilitation facility in Morristown, New Jersey, working with a gifted physical therapist in a 100-degree heated pool. I assisted as the therapist used the warm water to stretch the muscles of children challenged with cerebral palsy and other muscular disorders.

We’d already worked with several kids on the day I first met six-year-old Melissa. I remember her waiting patiently for her turn in the pool. Her calm demeanor and watchful eyes caught my attention. She seemed to be quietly taking everything in. When we got her in the pool, her smile lit up the room.

When we started the session, she was more focused than anyone I had ever seen. She had one goal: she wanted to extend both arms together to enable her hands to grasp a small sponge basketball toy, drop it in a floating net, and score two points. At first, both of her hands were rigidly held close to her shoulders. During her first session, we were able to get one arm to relax—and it moved just a few inches. Melissa gave it 100 percent, but this was going to be a long process.

I remember being struck by how each member of the rehab staff was affected by Melissa. I remember how Melissa entered the water with that same enthusiasm and focus every time, and after each session she made a point to say thank you to both her therapist and me.

It took Melissa nearly six months of weekly sessions to meet her goal. When she finally succeeded, staff members in the area applauded, and she let out a cry of joy that I can still hear to this day.

Melissa was confident. She was clear about her goal. Her energy was contagious. She served others as a role model in so many ways. She sure served me, even when I started out with the belief that I was there to serve her.

And she reminded me that those with disabilities have amazing abilities to share with those of us whose challenges aren’t as visible. Melissa was powerful. She is what I refer to as a Chief.

Conventional wisdom about Chiefs is all wrong. It says Chiefs need experience to lead and inspire others. Chiefs have titles. And only those at the top have the power to truly be Chief.

But here was Melissa, proof that Chiefs are all around us.

As a leader, Melissa reminded me to be present and enjoy each moment. She showed me how to be still with the patience she displayed as she waited in a wheelchair for her turn in the pool, taking in all that was going on around her. As she interacted with other kids, her kind manner taught me to be accepting. I never saw Melissa show frustration or heard her raise her voice. Melissa showed me how to be grateful every time she said thank you. She also showed me how to be generous as she gave of herself more than anyone I have ever met.

As I practiced what Melissa taught me, I found I learned a lot about myself. And I’ve used these lessons to benefit the Fortune 50 and multinational organizations I’ve turned around, including million- and billion-dollar corporations facing market crashes and the perils of operating in war zones. These lessons create an environment that’s ripe for innovation, performance, and growth—built from the inside out.

Specifically, Melissa taught me that Chiefs choose to: 

  1. Be Present.When you choose to be present, you can use all of your senses to learn everything possible about the current moment. When you give 100 percent of your attention to the people you spend time with, you’ll find that your relationships become much more fulfilling. Don’t think about your next meeting or get distracted by your phone. Keep your attention on what’s in front of you.
  1. Be Still.Contrary to many Western cultural norms, perhaps our most important choice is to develop the deeper understanding and truth that comes with being still. To maintain inner balance, choose the tranquility and peace of stillness. In that peaceful state, you will develop the ability to trust and have confidence in your own leadership and voice.
  1. Be Accepting.When you choose to accept people and circumstances for who and what they are, you can escape the frustration of trying to change them. When you take a nonjudgmental approach, you open yourself up to learning from all situations and every individual. When you accept your current reality with a certain degree of detachment, you will find that solutions come to you with a fraction of the effort otherwise required.
  1. Be Generous.When you choose to be charitable with your possessions, money, and time, you will experience inner satisfaction despite “having less.” When you are kind, helpful, encouraging, and gentle with others, the team around you will align. You may even feel aligned with a higher purpose. Try to balance giving with receiving to eliminate much of the possibility of arrogance; this way you can remain genuinely humble.
  1. Be Grateful.It’s easy to be grateful when things are going well. It takes inner strength and composure to remain grateful when facing life’s inevitable difficult periods, especially when pressures from colleagues or board members mount. Try to remain appreciative of the opportunity to learn lessons from the challenges you face. As a leader, these challenges will only make you stronger.

Insight is an integral element of being a powerful Chief and enabling a team of Chiefs. A real Chief does not abrasively influence the world around him or her but, rather, considers a wider perspective that begins on the inside. By taking the time and effort to be present, still, accepting, generous, and grateful, the more difficult aspects of being Chief will suddenly take on new meaning. True growth—both personal and professional—begins from this vantage point. To learn more about me, visit

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Insider - Confessions from a Fortune 50 Expert: Five Lessons I Learned from a Six-Year-Old
Rick Miller
Rick Miller is an unconventional turnaround specialist, sought-after speaker, servant leader, and expert in driving sustainable growth. For over 30 years, he served as a successful senior executive in roles including President and/or CEO in Fortune 10, Fortune 30, nonprofit, and startup companies, including AT&T Global Services and Lucent Technologies. Throughout his career, he has been recruited from the outside to turn around poor performance in difficult times. His new book, Be Chief: It’s A Choice, Not A Title, helps leaders at all levels achieve their true potential.