What do the late Margot MacDonald and my late mum have in common? They were very different in character and in the bailiwick of their lives. Margot was a larger-than-life Scottish politician. My mother, by contrast was reserved, gentle and family-focused. Born on a tiny island in Shetland called Trondra, just over 1 sq. mile in diameter, she preferred the written word to oration. The limelight was not a place of comfort for her and definitely not one she sought out.
The cord that connects Margot and my mother, and most recently Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, is Parkinson’s disease. Margot campaigned for the right to end her life through euthanasia should the disease become too difficult to bear. A much debated campaign but I respect her view. My mother similarly struggled with the disease in the last 10-15 years of her life. She passed away seven years ago this month (17th April, 2007), age 80.
The many hues of impact
The phenomenon I want to focus on here is impact. It comes in many hues and guises. Margot McDonald made a huge impact in life. Billy Connolly still does, and with flamboyance. My mother did too. Admittedly the reach of her impact was very different; less obvious, but none-the-less hugely significant for those who came under her radar. She had that old fashioned island wisdom that is rare these days. She found it hard to express her emotions in the traditional sense but she would observe and notice. Her gestures (guided by profoundly humanist principles) shouted louder than any words.
A discovery of lasting impact
A few days after she died my brother and I made an astonishing discovery. We found poems that my mother had evidently left in a place where she knew we would find them. One was in her hand writing, although not her own words. The other was a tiny verse cut from a newspaper taped to a sheet of writing paper. The end-stage effects of Parkinson's meant that even cutting the poem out of the newspaper would have been difficult for her. The poems told us that she knew she would be leaving us soon. The image of her preparing such things made the poems seem all the more poignant.
The poems are not original and not of great literary quality, but the impact of her gesture has been far-reaching. She had chosen the words for her family with true intention. She was preparing us all for the transition that was ahead in a simple yet most profound way. I took enormous comfort from her words and have returned to them often. Such clear-headed wisdom in the face of adversity!
Impact is not always about 'big'
So, when it comes to making an impact whether as a leader, a good citizen or as a parent, it's not always about big personalities. Sometimes it's just about holding steady in the eye of the storm. Admittedly, impact is often only known in hindsight and like beauty and quality, personal impact is in the eyes of the beholder. But how can we understand it better?
What are the five questions you ask yourself as you embark on a major change for service improvement? This was the question that RCN Scotland asked me to address when they invited me to take part in the 'Expert Express' session at their 'Activists Conference' last week. It was a great question!
The thing I value most about being asked to speak at such events is that to articulate my view, I have to think deeply about subjects I deal with every day. This preparation and subsequent reflection on the audience response enables me to deepen my learning even further and, importantly, to stay fresh in my thinking. Here are my five questions and why I think they’re important.