In January 2017, I was provided the opportunity to address The Select Groupat their Annual Conference. The Select Group is one of the fastest growing technology recruiting firms in the country that puts a premium on leadership and personal and professional growth. To say I was addressing young, hungry professionals is an understatement. The theme of the conference was “3G’s”, Grit, Growth, and Gratitude. I was to address the group in a TED-style talk on personal and professional growth.
My premise for this talk was that one needs to show vulnerability to grow: and to allow oneself to be truly vulnerable takes real courage. I prepared stories of war, international terrorism, and organized crime adventures about my experiences with inspiring and courageous people I had met and how, through these experiences, I had experienced both personal and professional growth. All real stories about truly amazing people that did have profound effects on my life. But it was all a lie. Not the stories or the people. But the idea that I would give a speech on such a topic while ignoring one of the most basic and important tenants of leadership: lead by example.
My father died in August of 2014. To say my father and I were close is an understatement of epic proportions. To this day, when people speak to me about my father and what a great man he was it is always followed up with a comment about how special our relationship was. Since the day he died I had been unable to have any type of substantive conversation about my father without breaking down into tears. Over time, this struggle to speak about my father did not get easier. It became more difficult. More difficult to the point that I simply avoided talking about him. A coward’s way out.
Fast forward to my TED talk preparation. My original draft completed I moved on to rehearsing the talk. All the while something was gnawing at my soul. I came to the realization that I had an issue that I needed to get vulnerable with so I could grow: speaking about my father without breaking down. So, with only a couple weeks left before I was scheduled to address The Select Group, I re-wrote my speech. My premise stayed the same, that one needs to show vulnerability to grow. This time, however, my goal was to practice what I was preaching. Instead of just talking about the importance of vulnerability and growth, I decided to get vulnerable and talk about my father.
I practiced my new speech hundreds of times, never once getting through it without having to stop and collect myself. After a rehearsal for a friend, I was asked if I was sure I wanted to do this. After all, I had another effective, far less emotional speech prepared and maybe I should go with that one. My friend asked me this not because he thought the speech was bad, to the contrary. He asked me this out of concern that a real possibility existed that I would break down in front of a company that hired me for a public speaking engagement. Failure on this front was not exactly going to be good for business. The decision was upon me: would I take the easy way out or show the courage I was preaching and get vulnerable.
On the evening of my talk for The Select Group, I spoke about my father without breaking down. But then something happened that I didn’t expect. Countless people came to me after the event and the following day and shared stories with me about the death of a loved one they were struggling with. I listened as these strangers became vulnerable about how they were feeling and what they were struggling with.
After the speech was posted on-line I began to receive notes from people about, again, how they were struggling with the death of a loved one and how they were going to try to talk about it more in the hopes it would help them move on. Clients and potential clients contacted me and shared their stories and struggles. Humbled does not begin to describe my feeling.
Then, after several weeks had passed since my talk, my wife asked me a very basic question: Did it work? Did getting vulnerable and speaking about my father help me? I thought back to the number of people that contacted me, shared with me, and cried with me. Then I thought about the number of times I shared stories about my father with these people….and we laughed. I was telling stories about my father to relative strangers and we laughed.
Privately, I still have my moments of sadness. But now I can talk about my father and laugh…the way it should be. And people I’ve never met or barely know have shared their stories with me so they could begin the process of growth. Did it work? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
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