Business strategy lessons from an 8-year-old amputee

Anna’s* leg was amputated when she was 8 years old. Her earliest memories are of nurses, cold white halls, and fear. Anna and her family spent several years fighting an uphill battle, uncertain if they could win. 

At 7 years old, Anna was brought into a room with a doctor to discuss for the first time the cancer she’d already had for many years. He showed her backlit images of tumors that had been removed and tumors that had grown in their place. The doctor painted a bleak picture of a body that was too fragile to keep up with a vicious blight that just kept coming back.

But to Anna, his conclusions seemed incongruous with the data laid out before her. “You’re only showing me pictures of my leg.” The adults sighed, and began to explain from the beginning. She insisted on more data. Quickly, her fresh perspective had spotted a — possibly fatal — flaw in her medical team’s strategy.

In the weeks after, Anna insisted: “I would like to amputate my leg.” Her whole life, she had thought she was dying, but when she understood the root cause of the issues, she realized that she was actually perfectly healthy, it was simply her one leg that wasn’t well and was holding the rest of her back. To her, the strategy was simple — amputate the leg, amputate the problem. She’d be able to leave the hospital, go to school, have friends, and live a much more fulfilling life as a healthy person with one leg than a dying person with two.

A few days before Anna’s 8th birthday, her strategic plan was implemented. It was terrifying and painful, but it worked. Her sick leg was amputated, and her cancer was suddenly gone. She woke up from surgery with a completely new future of opportunities. The cancer never returned and Anna is now a happy, and perfectly healthy, person. She has a huge laugh, and wears short skirts to show off the bright gold, thin metal rods that runs from her hip joint to the ground. It looks awesome.

In business, 7 years is too long to wait to re-evaluate your data and action plan. Unlike Anna, your business may not survive. 

The pivotal reframe here was one of identity. As soon as Anna identified herself as separate from her leg, her best path forward came into focus. Given the same data, a child with dreams of becoming a gymnast may not have made the same choice, and that’s okay. Who we are is what guides us forward when faced with devastating data. In business, that identity is made of our vision of the future, the mission that drives us, and the principles to which we’ve committed. Those three inputs become our framework for focusing data into a plan of action. 

* Name and details changed, just in case there’s more than one person rocking a gilded appendage. Shared with permission.

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