The American Civil War (1861-1865) was one of the bloodiest in American history, with over 1,100,000 casualties and claimed more than 620,000 lives. Many of those wounded ended up as amputees. And after a gruesome amputation operation of a damaged arm or leg with crude saws and no anaesthetics, for those that lived the prospects of a productive livelihood were slim. Standard army prosthetics consisted of a wooden peg leg or a stiff carved arm and hand.
James Edward Hanger was 18 years old and just three days into his role as a Confederate soldier when on June 3rd, 1861 he became the first casualty of the Civil War after a cannon ball smashed into his leg. Fitted with the standard army peg leg after the amputation operation, he eventually was released from a Union prison and returned home to Virginia, where he locked himself into his room for three months.
But unlike most amputees at the time, rather than being sidelined in life, he immediately began to develop the first articulated artificial limb and knee-joint. For Hanger this new prosthetic was a requirement to get back to a productive life as an engineer. It also became his livelihood. The newly designed artificial limb became in demand from other Civil War casualties, and later on casualties from WWI. Over the next several decades he built Hanger Prosthetics into a nationwide company that dramatically improved the lives of thousands of amputees.
So where does this type of innovation come from?
Innovation begins with a dissatisfaction with the way things are and then grows into a burning passion to make things better.
Two things are critical for real innovation to occur. A deep dissatisfaction with the current situation coupled with an internal belief that you can make a difference.
Dissatisfaction without accountability leads to loud complaining, but little change.
Today, the Hanger Group is a collection of R&D, prosthetics and rehabilitation companies that has nearly 25% of the global prosthetics market and remains a leader in prosthetics innovation.
And if you ever interact with one of the Hanger companies, you will hear the story of James Edward Hanger at least a thousand times. The belief and the purpose that drove young Hanger to make a difference are still very much alive within the Hanger organizations. The company purpose and a culture of accountability drives them to continuously innovate, to help people lead better lives, to make a difference, not just make a profit.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
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John also writes thriller novels!