Sometimes there are circumstances beyond your control. That doesn’t mean you’ve lost all control over the situation. Great leaders go beyond the obvious controllable circumstances and ask what they have the power to influence.
What can business managers learn from a 5-year-old boy with Down syndrome, an unsympathetic insurance company, and a leadership team willing to take matters into their own hands? A lot, it turns out, about self-empowered, and self-reliant behavior – something most executives would admit they want more of from everyone in their organization. And a man who knows that better than most is Mohit Das.
Mohit was born in India, but is now a permanent resident of Singapore. In 1999 his wife gave birth to their first child, a son they named Ritvik. The couple soon learned that Ritvik had both Down syndrome and autism. They knew at that moment that much of their life would be devoted to his care.
And as difficult as it is to raise a child with both Down and autism, things got even harder. When Ritvik was five years old, he was diagnosed with leukemia, a form of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Ritvik started treatment immediately, which eventually included radiation and chemotherapy. And in cases like his, that treatment can last for years. It can also be frighteningly expensive for a young couple. Fortunately, Mohit had a professional job at a big, global company with good insurance benefits. Or at least that’s what he thought.
About a month into the treatment, he got a letter from the insurance company that said the claims for Ritvik’s treatment were being denied because the policy didn’t cover “pre-existing conditions.” That, of course, didn’t make any sense. But here was their logic: While Ritvik’s leukemia wasn’t pre-existing, his Down syndrome was. And children with Down are more likely to develop leukemia – ten to twenty times more likely, as it turns out. So even though only one in three hundred children with Down ever develops leukemia, the cause was assumed to be the same genetic makeup that resulted in his Down syndrome. Ergo, it was pre-existing.
So, Mohit and his wife started to plan for the inevitable avalanche of medical bills. Then a few weeks later, when Mohit’s boss heard about the situation, she contacted the human resources department to see if anything could be done about it. After checking the policy and appealing to the insurance carrier, the answer they got back was the same. Ritvik’s condition was pre-existing and would not be covered under the policy.
For the vast majority of situations like this that play out every day all over the world, that’s where the story would end. Someone somewhere feels wronged and appeals the company policy. The policy wonks debate the situation and issue a decision. All that’s left is for the middleman, the messenger, to deliver the bad news to the employee. “I’m sorry, your appeal was denied.” Case closed.
But fortunately for Mohit, that’s not where this story ended.
His boss and the human resources manager still felt he was being treated unfairly. If Ritvik had not had Down syndrome, insurance would have covered 80 percent of the cost of his leukemia treatment. But since he was a special needs child, it covered none of it. That just didn’t feel right. So they took the matter to the leadership team.
The group agreed that the insurance company’s decision was unfair. But they also knew they couldn’t do anything about that. So they decided on a course of action they could do something about. They decided to pay 80 percent of Ritvik’s medical bills as a company expense. Each month for the next two years, Mohit filled out an expense report with hospital receipts and submitted it to his company just like he did with his normal travel expenses. And the company paid every one of them.
Now, notice what went on here. This isn’t a story about some wealthy and generous executives taking pity on one of their employees and paying his medical bills out of their own pockets as a charity case. That would certainly be noble if they had. But what went on here I think is far more instructive. In this case, these people decided that if the company’s insurance carrier wouldn’t pay his bills, the company would pay them anyway as a regular cost of doing business.
I describe this as a more instructive course of action for two reasons. First, most of us don’t have a big enough bank account to simply start writing personal checks every time a problem comes up. More important, in this situation, Mohit’s boss and the HR manager did what self-reliant people do. When they failed to get the insurance company to do anything, they didn’t just give up. They asked what they could do about it themselves: what resources did they have at their disposal, what decision-making space did they have?
How easy would it have been for them to tell Mohit, “I’m sorry, we tried everything in our power. But the insurance company didn’t budge.” To which I would rhetorically reply, “Really? You’ve tried everything in your power? Everything? Maybe you’ve tried everything that somebody else can do. But what can you do?”
No matter what your situation is in life, you’ll have far more success by developing your own self-reliant and self-empowered behavior.
And, fortunately, my rhetorical rant above is not a conversation Mohit ever had to have. Today, Ritvik is 17 years old and has been in remission from leukemia for 10 beautiful years.
If you’re interested in becoming a better storyteller yourself, check out our Influencing through Storytelling course and our Storytelling for Salespeople course where we can come into your organization and help you build this powerful, critical skill. This particular story came from Paul’s book Parenting with a Story: Real-Life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share.
Paul Smith is a former director and 20-year veteran of the Procter & Gamble Company, and one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s the bestselling author of three books on harnessing the power of storytelling for some of the most important work we do as humans: Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story. Paul is also the primary architect of a thoughtLEADERS course on Influencing through Storytelling and Storytelling for Salespeople.
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