Equipping With a Cure

by John C. Maxwell

It began as headache, and quickly overtook her with fever. She was confined to bed-too weak to speak and barely able to lift a finger. Then red bumps popped up on her mouth and tongue: telltale signs of the deadly disease sweeping the continent. She despaired for her life as the bumps swelled into sores and then blistered open, leaking pus into her mouth and down her throat.

With alarming speed, a rash flared up on her face, crept down her arms, and covered her body in pimples. When awake, the minutes dragged by slowly, and she wondered if each hour was her last. At night, her fitful sleep was tormented by nightmares. Anytime her caretakers dared to come near her, they murmured amongst themselves in hushed, worried tones.

About a week-and-a-half after appearing, the boils on her skin crusted over with blood-red scabs, and the fever subsided. She was well enough to talk with her physician who assured her the worst of the sickness had passed. While grateful that death had not taken her, she felt only sadness as she inspected the ugly scabs dotting her arms and legs.

Day by day, the scabs flaked off of her skin until they were gone completely. But they left pockmarks as a grim reminder of their residence. Although she had regained her health, she would bear scars on her face for the rest of her life.

Smallpox Epidemic

The lady was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and the disease she had contracted was smallpox. In 18th century Europe, smallpox ran rampant, indiscriminately taking the lives of kings and peasants alike. One of ten babies in France and Sweden perished from smallpox, as did one of seven infants in Russia. Highly contagious and untreatable, smallpox killed 400,000 Europeans per year during the epidemic's peak. Who knows what fate would have befallen Europe without the courageous activism of Mary Wortley Montagu, a smallpox survivor who equipped the continent to defend against the disease?

An Eye for Solutions

In 1717 Englishwoman Mary Wortley Montagu found herself in Istanbul on account of her husband's job as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. While there, she was astonished by the absence of smallpox-a disease she had endured two years earlier. After making several inquiries, Montagu discovered the method used by the Turks to fend off the disease. Elderly women collected ooze from the infections of a victim with a minor case of smallpox. Then, the women assembled their family members. One by one, each person was given a small cut on the arm, and a tiny dose of the smallpox virus was inserted into the wound. The people being inoculated briefly fell ill with a mild form of smallpox, but they recovered quickly having gained immunity to the ailment.

Having discovered a deterrent for smallpox, Montagu wasted no time inoculating her 5-year old son. Observing the success of inoculation in Turkish society and witnessing its effects on her own child, Montagu resolved to equip physicians back in England with the knowledge to prevent smallpox.

Proving Her Case

While Lady Montagu had the advantage of being a well-connected aristocrat, she faced two obstacles to spreading the word about smallpox prevention. First, she was a woman at a time when men dominated society. Second, she had no medical credentials. Consequently, she had a tough time getting her message across to prominent doctors in Britain.

Insistent of the benefits of inoculation, Lady Montagu finally was able to convince physicians from the royal court to be on hand as she immunized her 4-year old daughter. The procedure was a success and made an impression on the doctors in attendance. Even so, they had reservations about adopting inoculation as standard practice for protecting against smallpox.

Continued lobbying by Lady Montague persuaded prominent surgeons to test pilot inoculation on prisoners. The inmates were granted pardon in exchange for their participation in the experiment. Each of the convicts was injected with smallpox and then placed under observation. All of them developed resistance to the disease.

Spreading the Solution

The experiment on prisoners added credibility to Lady Montagu's claims and won over many members of the royal court. One in particular, the Princess of Wales, pledged her support for the cause. Bolstered by her patronage, Lady Montagu was able to publicize smallpox inoculation throughout the British Isles, and in a few short years, inoculation became standard practice throughout England.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu equipped an empire with a defense against the scourge of smallpox. Her story yields powerful insights for leaders desiring to learn how to equip their organizations for success.

#1 Be a Student of Success

Likely, several English visitors to Turkey had noted the peculiar absence of smallpox in the country. However, Lady Montagu took initiative to investigate the anomaly until she understood its cause. In doing so, she discovered the medical practices by which the Turks protected themselves from smallpox.

Leaders in the 21st century have no shortage of information at their disposal. Seemingly we swim in a sea of data. What separates equippers is their ability to focus on meaningful information and to extract wisdom from it. Having done so, they are positioned to share their insights with others.

Lady Montagu's example instructs us on where to look for important data: wherever you find positive deviation from the norm. In short, pay attention to success. When you come across an unusually gifted person or a particularly profitable organization, explore what makes them great. The lessons you learn can be applied personally and passed on to those you lead.

#2 Inject Wisdom with Passion

What separates those who are indifferent from those who are willing to make a difference? Passion. Lady Montagu felt compelled to equip her countrymen with a deterrent to smallpox. Her knowledge of inoculation would have been useless had she not been impassioned to share it with physicians across England.

Where does passion come from? Often it can be traced to the hardships we endure in life. Lady Montagu had nearly been killed by smallpox, and her face was forever marred by the scars it left behind. She knew firsthand of the agonizing effects of the disease, and her brother had died from the sickness. Her personal experiences with smallpox burdened her to do everything possible to halt its spread.

#3 Make Personal Sacrifices

To equip another person, you have to give something up yourself. Lady Montagu gave of her time and wealth to educate the British public about inoculation. She even sacrificed security, hazarding the health of her daughter to convince royal surgeons of the value of immunization. If you hope to equip others to change their behaviors, then prepare to part with comfort, security, or popularity.

#4 Seek the Support of Top Decision-Makers

When Lady Montagu returned to England from the Ottoman Empire, she took her cause straight to the top, announcing the benefits of inoculation to the royal court. She understood the imperative of winning over the men and women who held the most sway over the public. That's why she invited the king's personal physician to witness the inoculation of her daughter.

Before you can equip an organization with a new strategy, you must garner the endorsement of the uppermost decision-makers. While everyone has a degree of influence, some allies are far more advantageous than others. Take notice of power structures where you work and prioritize winning the support of authority figures before attempting to introduce change.

#5 Be Willing to Start Small

If you see what needs to be done to equip your company for the future, but you aren't the one in charge, then be willing to start small. Course adjustments demand a sizeable commitment of organizational energy. Most leaders are reluctant to redeploy substantial resources until they're convinced a solution works. Test-piloting a new initiative allows you to demonstrate the strength of your strategy without asking your higher-ups to put the business at risk.

Royal physicians in England did not give Lady Montagu their unqualified support until they had tested inoculation on a handful of prisoners. For Lady Montagu, who was firmly convinced of the need to inoculate Britons, the experiment may have seemed like a pointless delay. Yet although it took time, it gained her the official sanction needed to educate the public about immunization.

#6 Leverage the Influence of Key Leaders

Once you've won over leaders at the top, leverage their influence in your efforts to equip others. Lady Montagu borrowed influence from the nobility supporting her in order to communicate effectively to an entire empire. For example, after she secured the backing of the Princess of Wales, Lady Montagu made the most of the princess' platform and popularity to spread the word about smallpox inoculation.

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