What Gabby Giffords teaches us about leadership

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COMMENTARY: "I have more work to do on my recovery so to do what is best for Arizona I will step down this week."

With those words, Representative Gabrielle Giffords announced via video that she is leaving the House of Representatives. Giffords was shot at a constituency event January 2011 in Arizona at which six people were slain. She has been going extensive therapy ever since.

Giffords has not yet recovered the full fluency she possessed before her head injury. Nevertheless, her voice is firm as she says, "I'm getting better. Every day, my spirit is high."

It is hard for outsiders to gauge the depth of Giffords' commitment to her constituents. As a Democrat in a largely Republican state, she was recognized for her commitment to issues and constituent service. She was also very popular among House colleagues of both parties, a rarity it might seem these days of hyper-partisanship.

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The lesson for leaders: Sometimes you need to leave your position so you and the organization can do better. Giffords said she cannot devote the intense hours necessary to represent her district. She is stepping aside voluntarily so that someone one else can serve. Such an acknowledgement deserves recognition: In an age when people cling to power, Giffords shows that elected office is less about her and more about her constituents.

At the same time, Giffords is acknowledging her own needs. She is not up to the job now and admits it. Cynics might view her comments as weakness. Instead, they are a sign of strength. A leader who demonstrates her vulnerabilities is a leader who is secure in her own self.

Fundamental to leadership is self-awareness. Those who do well in their positions are acutely aware of their strengths as well as their shortcomings. Typically, they surround themselves with staffers with abilities they do not have. For example, a visionary leader keeps people around him who can execute well. Those who excel in implementation make certain they have plenty of big-picture thinkers around. Good leaders hire people who complement their weaknesses as well as their strengths.

Courage is vital to leadership, and Giffords has demonstrated exemplary courage in her recovery. Recuperating from trauma to the brain is not only mentally taxing but physically exhausting. Her husband Mark Kelly, an active-duty astronaut until recently, told NPR in November "The major thing [Giffords] struggles with is the spoken language. And that's improving. She reminds me every single day to deny the acceptance of failure. She'll get better." Their story together is recounted in their book, Gabby: Story of Courage and Hope.

"Do not go where the path may lead," wrote poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, "go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." That may be the legacy that Giffords is creating now as she shows the rest of us what it means to lead by example.

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