Steve Stirling: What is my 'greatest weakness'? Hint: It's not what you think

They are typical job interview questions: "What is your greatest strength? What is your greatest weakness?"

But in my case, the interviewer often hesitates. After all, how do you ask a guy who is wearing leg braces and using crutches about his greatest weakness? It seems both obvious and insensitive.

We all have weaknesses. Mine are just a bit more apparent. So I’ve learned to turn the uncomfortable moment around and confront the situation head-on.

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“My greatest strength is that I am what some people call ‘crippled’,” I say, purposely using the politically incorrect word. “Some prefer to call me ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’. I’ve heard all the terms and I’m not upset by any of them. I’m not easily offended.

“I’ve learned that my physical limitations have helped me build my mental and spiritual strength. I have an Ivy League degree and an MBA from one of the country’s most prestigious schools. I’ve had jobs in top corporations and nonprofits. I have enjoyed great success and yet I never forget what it was like to be a child who couldn’t walk, living in an orphanage. My greatest strength is what most people assume is my weakness.”

My last interview was five years ago when a search committee was looking for the next president and CEO of MAP International, an organization that provides medicine and health supplies to those in need around the world. In some ways, it was a match made in heaven.

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You see, I walk with crutches because I had polio as a child. My life would be very different if the polio vaccine — costing approximately 60 cents — would have been available to me and my family in Korea where I was born. My passion in life is to help other children receive the medicine they need to avoid life-long illness or even death.

So when I told the committee interviewing me about my strengths and weaknesses I could honestly say that I had a lifetime to prepare for the job of helping bring medicine to those in need. I knew first hand what it meant to suffer because an inexpensive dose of vaccine was not available.

Steve Stirling's "The Crutch of Success"

Steve Stirling's "The Crutch of Success" (Whitaker House)

But I also know that overcoming my challenges each and every day makes me a better leader. It’s true that my daily life is more difficult than most people’s. A simple flight of stairs, a rocky path, a door with a difficult handle — these are typical occurrences that are major obstacles for me. Yet I have to prepare myself each day to handle the unexpected.

Your weakness can become your strength. Whatever your weakness is — lack of education, the inability to speak clearly, a physical trait you consider unattractive, a disability — embrace it today

Fortunately, I nailed that interview and now proudly lead an organization that brings millions of dollars of donated medicines and medical supplies to people in need around the world. It’s a big job and truly miraculous path for someone who spent his early years as a forgotten child.

During my earliest years, I didn’t even have crutches and had to drag myself around on the ground. At that point, my greatest dream was to be able to go to grade school with the rest of the children in the orphanage. I could never have imagined a successful life in the U.S. or that I’d be able to write a book about my journey, "The Crutch of Success."

I have had the wonderful privilege of growing up in a country where I received a great education, married a wonderful woman, raised two terrific children, and had a successful career. But my disability is often the first thing people see about me. I try not to let it define me in their eyes.

I could have focused on my disability and felt sorry for myself, but instead, I begged for a pair of crutches. It wasn’t easy, but I made my way to grade school slowly and sometimes painfully. The other children made fun of me and even laughed when I regularly fell down, but I didn’t give up. I prayed that God would help me make it through each day.

It was truly a miracle that I was adopted by a generous American couple who loved me and provided for me, including my special needs. Their love and support changed my life, but, of course, the physical damage had already been done.

I have had the wonderful privilege of growing up in a country where I received a great education, married a wonderful woman, raised two terrific children, and had a successful career. -- But my disability is often the first thing people see about me. I try not to let it define me in their eyes.

I try to put people at ease, explaining that I had polio as a child and while it affected my ability to walk, I am blessedly able in every other way. It’s understandable that they first see my disability as a weakness. My goal is that once they know me, they see it as my strength.

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I find that many people try to hide their weaknesses. They dodge the question in interviews and spend their lives hoping no one sees where they struggle. They feel sorry for themselves and focus on the injustice of their circumstance.

If you find yourself in that situation, I want to encourage you. Your weakness can become your strength. Whatever your weakness is — lack of education, the inability to speak clearly, a physical trait you consider unattractive, a disability — embrace it today. Decide what you can do to improve yourself. Take an evening class, join Toastmasters, ask for help.

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Then dedicate yourself every day to overcome the obstacles in your path. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, thank God for giving you the challenge and pray for the strength to make it your success story.

I’ve learned that embracing my disability has helped me not be defined by it. I hope and pray that my story will inspire others to redefine their own strengths and weaknesses.