6 Leadership Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

What can leaders learn from the from the Ice Bucket Challenge?

If you’ve got a social media account you won’t have escaped the recent domination of Ice Bucket Challenge posts in your news feed. In case you missed it, it’s a charitable activity to raise awareness and money for ALS or motor neurone disease. You douse yourself with icy cold water, donate to the charity and nominate three more people to do the same in the next 24 hours. But how could you have missed it? It’s been everywhere these past few weeks and it’s got me thinking about some fundamentals of leadership hidden within.

1) First awareness, then action

The Ice Bucket Challenge has certainly raised awareness of ALs and MND. During the challenge, hits to Wikipedia’s article on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis grew from an average of 8,000 hits a day to a peak of over 430,000 views on a single day (August 21st).

And thankfully action has followed too (although you could always argue not enough), with latest figures showing $100m of additional funding to ALS Association, £3.5m to MND Association UK, and significant increases in donations to other ALS and MND charities across the globe (August 29th).

Leadership Lesson: How well do you know yourself? Your career values, your signature strengths, your learning style, your leadership approach? Self-awareness is vital for personal and professional growth. But positive change really happens when you put this awareness into action.

How well-aligned is your choice of job with your career values? How often do you use your strengths at work? Are you absorbing and applying your key learnings? Do you practice a leadership approach that’s authentic to you?

Increase your leadership self-awareness, then create an action plan to get the most out of it.

2) Know your team

Part of the Ice Bucket Challenge includes nominating three people to also take part. But you need to choose carefully. Firstly, you’ll want to pick people who haven’t already been nominated (in order to spread the awareness), and secondly, you’ll want to choose people who are likely to go through with it (in order to generate the action).

Leadership Lesson: From a leadership perspective consider how this applies to how you manage your team. Are you keeping everyone in the loop of what’s going on?

Have you identified your ambassadors? Those team members who are respected and heard by the others, who can help you spread your message and keep everyone singing from the same song book.

Are you tasking the right people with the right jobs? Are you building confidence and engagement by allowing people to involve themselves in what makes them tick and what allows them to use their strengths on a regular basis?

Understand your employees’ personalities and skills and match their roles and responsibilities accordingly.

3) People rise to a challenge

I’m sure if there was an awareness building initiative that simply appealed to people’s generous side to donate to a charity, but that didn’t have the element of challenge to it, it would not have generated as much attention as it has. The fact that you’re being asked to do something uncomfortable, daring even, gives this campaign its edge.

Leadership Lesson: People like a challenge. I’ll shortly be publishing a blog post on the concept of Flow as coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow occurs when you’re so absorbed by an activity that you lose all sense of time. We experience states of flow when we’re involved in activities that we both enjoy and find challenging. Now you could question the enjoyment factor of having an icy cold bucket of water thrown over your head, but there’s certainly the challenge element in there.

Understanding your right mix of enjoyment and challenge is important to be able to recognise your Flow states as a leader.

What activities give you just the right amount of enjoyment and challenge? How can you incorporate more of them into your work?

What creates Flow amongst your employees and how can you create the conditions within which they can enter Flow on a more regular basis?

4) Rise above the critics

The Ice Bucket Challenge has had its fair share of criticism. There have been claims of superficiality – that people go as far as the ice bucket but don’t then donate, reports of money not being channelled to the people who really need it, even criticism of the waste of water. The fact is that this lesser known disease has seen a massive increase in both awareness and charitable donations as a result of the Ice Bucket Challenge. And that’s a good thing.

Leadership Lesson: As a leader there will be times when you need to take a stand. To move in a new direction that not everyone agrees with.

Have you ever experienced what it’s like when others don’t believe in your vision? If you’ve done your groundwork and can say with confidence that it’s the right thing to do, then go for it. When you show self-belief you give others permission to believe in you too.

There’ll always be critics and occasionally the critics may also be right, but your authenticity as a leader will shine through when you follow your belief.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with something original” – Sir Ken Robinson

5) Tribes bond

People are connecting all over the world from all walks of life as a result of the Ice Bucket Challenge. According to The New York Times people shared more than 1.2 million videos on Facebook between 1st June and 13th August and mentioned the phenomenon more than 2.2 million times on Twitter between 29th July and 17th August.

A bond is created when you’re part of something so huge, and there’s a sense of purpose being involved in something greater than yourself.

Leadership Lesson: As a leader, who’s your tribe? Who are your peers, the influencers in your field, the people best connected in your industry? How often do you interact with them? Do you look outside of your job scope and attend industry events, contribute to LinkedIn Groups, follow blogs and forums related to your field?

By connecting with your tribe, a tribe that’s not bound by your company name, but that consists of like-minded individuals, you invite opportunities for new ideas and fresh insights.

6) Find fun in the serious stuff

ALS, or motor neurone disease, is a rapidly advancing disease with the average survival from onset to death being three to four years. It causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body and results in difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing. It’s a serious illness for which there is no known cure.

Despite the seriousness of the issue, the Ice Bucket Challenge has provided a fun way to raise awareness and funds and has been hugely successful in its mission.

Leadership Lesson: Business can be serious. In the face of a struggling economy, increasing competition and high staff turnovers it can be easy to fall into an all-serious approach to business. But life should be fun too.

How can you lighten-up and find a positive spin on tough issues that makes them more accessible, easier to tackle and perhaps even a source of enjoyment?

A leader who is able to create a positive experience in the midst of difficult issues will more easily build a following of people who are motivated to work for, partner with and buy from her.

And speaking of fun, for those wondering if I took the Ice Bucket Challenge, here’s your answer.


Facts and figures sourced from various articles on Wikipedia and the charity websites.

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