Inger Brøndsted (left). Photo: Marten Poot

Great Danes: Leadership lessons from Inger Brøndsted and Johnny Kuhr

By Emma K Stokes, WCPT President


"My name is Inger Brøndsted. I am from Denmark." This is the first phrase I ever heard Inger say, at a meeting of WCPT’s European Region. She stood up to respond or comment on a paper being discussed by the representatives at the General Meeting. The practice of making such introductions continues at WCPT meetings to this day.

In the beginning of my time as a representative of the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists, I was very nervous when delivering contributions. I would speak too quickly. Inger took me aside and gently told me so.

She suggested that I could be more considerate of those for whom English is not their first language. For years afterwards, when speaking at WCPT meetings with Inger in the audience, I would watch for her as she gently indicated when I was speaking too fast.

Inger was a President of Danske Fysioterapeuter, the Danish WCPT member organisation. She was a member of the WCPT Executive Committee from 1999-2003, and our Vice President from 2003-2007.

Inger passed away last week. Her death brought to my mind another great Dane, Johnny Kuhr (1957-2014), who was also President of Danske Fysioterapeuter and a WCPT board member from 2011-2014. He also gently guided me on my leadership journey.

Incredibly accomplished politically, Johnny was, in my experience, unflappable. One clear memory I have is speaking in Bulgaria, and discovering that the translation was to be delivered in an unexpected way. I knew I had too many slides, and began to question the organiser. Instead, Johnny took me aside and told me that it made no difference, that we simply had to get on with it and, as ever, try to deliver our best.

Leadership is modelled in many different ways. But as I reflect on these two great leaders, I realise I had never shared these stories with them. I don’t think they knew how much I learned from them. I have become better at telling people how they have helped me be a better version of myself, but I missed the opportunity with Inger and Johnny.

Drew Dudley talks about 'everyday leadership' in this funny and insightful TED talk. He suggests that we have made leadership inaccessible – something too distant for most of us to aspire to, or think we can do.

He says that we have all probably helped someone be a better version of themselves. But because, like me, we haven’t told the person then we simply aren’t aware of that capacity within us.

Leadership is many things. It is enacted in many different ways. It’s the big events and positions, but also the everyday acts of improving each other’s lives. Inger and Johnny – two great Danish physical therapists – were leaders both in Denmark and in the international physiotherapy community. I have no doubt they influenced many, many others.

They displayed many of the characteristics described by Jim Collins as 'level 5' leaders. Those who are humble, who look within themselves when things go wrong. And, when things go well, who look out into community to acknowledge the work of others.

Our own lives and those that we touch will be better for making the effort to become such leaders.

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