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Dr. James Kelley of Executive After Hours on How to Thrive in Adversity

BBR 262 | Thrive In Adversity

BBR 262 | Thrive In Adversity

So often, we let our adversity define us and we struggle with figuring out how to define our adversity. In his book, The Crucible’s Gift, Dr. James Kelley of the Executive After Hours podcast provides entrepreneurs and leaders the ability to think about the outcomes of adversity in a way that's positive and beneficial for them and those around them in the community so they have the ability to thrive in adversity. Dr. Kelley also talks about his podcast which is predicated on interviewing executives about their personal journey with the consistent theme of struggle, resolve, transformation, and better leadership.


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Dr. James Kelley of Executive After Hours on How to Thrive in Adversity

I'm here with Dr. James Kelley. Welcome to the show, James.

Thank you so much, Nicole, for having me. I feel like that's a loaded question when you ask somebody who they are because to answer that succinctly is quite complicated. As an individual, we are many parts. We are multiple parts of a person. I'm a dad, I'm a professor, I'm an author, I'm a podcaster, I'm an athlete, I’m a bald community guy. There are a lot of ways to define myself, but if I was to define myself, I'm just a genuine person who tries to do right. I try to be right by doing right. That's probably the simplest way to explain myself.

Sometimes when we go into professional bios, they’re great for positioning, but sometimes they lose the human touch and the human aspects. How are you serving and supporting people this way? As you said, you're a podcaster, you’re an author, you’re a professor, take my audience and I into how you're serving entrepreneurs as an entrepreneur.

The best way I serve entrepreneur is probably through my book. The title of the book is The Crucible’s Gift: 5 Lessons From Authentic Leaders who Thrive in Adversity. You can also get that on Amazon in Canada. The book is my servant mentality. I can't promise you to read it and your life will change tremendously. The people that recommended the book are quite significant leaders in the community. Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, who's written a whole bunch of leadership books that makes number one at different times in his career. Bill George, who has written the Authentic Leadership and the books, a Harvard professor, a former Medtronic CEO, and also Jon Berghoff. They've all said a similar thing. They said, "This book allows you to frame your adversity in a way that's positive." Often, we let our adversity define us and we struggled with figuring out how to define our adversity. My book that I'm providing entrepreneurs and leaders in general is the ability to think about the outcomes of your adversity in a way that are beneficial for you and those around you in the community.

How did you come up with the clarity and vision to write about this?

It came from two parts. It's like an ingredient, a recipe that I was trying to make something. The first part comes from the idea of my podcast, Executives After Hours. The idea of the podcast is similar to yours. The slogan that I have is, "I care about who you are, not what you do because who you are defines what you do." I take my audience, similar to you, on a journey, but I start all the way back to childhood. We talk about everything on my podcast. What I've found in my podcast was this constant theme of struggle, resolve, transformation, and better leadership. It’s this consistent theme and I could tell you people like Bridgette Mayer, if you look at my book, these are all people who exceed in leadership, who had major adversity moments in their life that transformed them 100%.

[Tweet "I care about who you are, not what you do because who you are defines what you do." @ExecutivesAHour @NiczTheName"]

That was the first part of it. That was the sugar, the sweet. The other side of it was my story. I've been through a ton of adversity in my life. No more, no less than anybody else. It's just mine. It's my truth and I own my truth and it helped me formulate a particular model of how to explain why adversity is a must if you're going to be an outstanding leader. There many great leaders, but the ones that truly get what life is about through their adversity are the ones that thrive, which I call authentic leaders.

What are some of the key moments of adversity that you had in your life that you feel made you a significantly better leader?

I often reflect on that question in terms of my leadership ability and I don't know if I'm a good leader. I'm an academic. We innately are individualistic assholes that are out, for ourselves, to achieve something. That's what we do. We got to publish something. We've got to position our self as the best this. We're slightly narcissistic individuals. Not all of us, but there are especially in the business schools. I haven't been put in a leadership position. What I can tell you is that my adversity has transformed me in a way that makes me much more compassionate about people around me. It makes me more patient. One of the things that's one of the biggest outcome is I value relationships. I value making people smile and laugh. I have a rule at my work. I call these things micro moments and meaning.

At my office, if I meet someone in the hallway, my one goal is to walk away with them smiling. I end up with a joke, I end up with a compliment, but I want them to have a moment of positivity in their life at that moment because if they remember me as that person that made them smile. Every time they see me it's going to be a positive affirmation and our relationship is going to be fairly healthy and functional in times of difficulty. We have hard conversations. I always try to make someone have a bit of a better day knowing that somewhere down the line, we might have a moment where we have hard conversations, but all of those positive moments that built up in their minds to give them a positive and accurate perception of who I am as an individual. It's just a healthy way.

For me, my adversity in my life has come tenfold. I often joke that I grew up in an Irish Catholic family that was touched with violence minus the Catholicism. That's the best way I describe it. The way to be heard was to yell and whoever had the best insults was the winner every single time. What I found out later in life, that's actually not healthy. That's not a great way to form relationships and bonds with those closest to you. Who would've thought that? I thought insulting the person you love was what you do. I found out it's not what you do. That was the start of my life was this world of anxiety and stress. I was the youngest of four and being the youngest, you also have to speak the loudest to be heard. That was the start of my adversity.

The first major one was my dad's death at twenty. I was at University of Dayton with no one around me. At twenty years old, I had to deal with anything that tragic than most people. I would say 99% of people had nothing like that. When my dad died, I had no one to connect with. I lived with six great guys, they didn't understand. One of the things that can manifest in that is binge drinking, heavily, five days a week. That was my outlet for three to four years and probably the only reason why that stopped is one, I was out of money and two, I was no longer in college so I couldn't afford to do that and be a productive individual in society.

That was the first real major adversity moment that helped define me in a way that was about how can I be a better person. One thing that I talk about in the book is framing your adversity in a positive way. Let's take death as an example. I was able to look at my dad and everything he brought to the table in my twenty years of life and say, "What was the great things about him that I want to keep and what were the things about our relationship that I want different moving forward?" Without the clarity and separation of the moment and the willingness to actually investigate, pull it apart and punch it and treat it like a crime scene, I wouldn't have been able to understand the positives and negatives in that situation.

Something you said before was that you don't know that you're a great leader and that struck me because I see some different sides in the roles that you play as absolutely in leadership roles in my own perception. What is your definition of leadership?

Leadership is an interesting definition and I totally scapegoat the shit out of this is that you know a good leader when you see it. Nicole, how you define a good leader might be different than how I define a good leader because we have different needs in a leader. You might need to have someone who is hard and keeps you on task and is transparent, I might need someone who is compassionate, who values relationships. For me, in the way I described a leader in the book, is someone who encapsulates this idea of compassion and integrity and value relationships because they value growing as an individual. My definition of what I need in someone who is honest, who is direct in a non-confrontational way, and someone who values fun banter that is about building relationships. That's what I need. You might have a totally different set of needs for you that allow you to follow that leader and work on their behalf in a way that is beneficial for not only you, but for them in the organization as well.

BBR 262 | Thrive In Adversity

Thrive In Adversity: As an individual, we are many parts. We are multiple parts of a person.

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Your definition of leadership solidifies that I see you as a leader. We can talk about how and perhaps why it's sometimes hard for us to give ourselves credit that we give to other people for accomplishing those things. We were talking about my retreat that I wrapped up. One of the things that I got from the ladies who attended and that I've had to be reminded of many times and that I’ll likely continue to have to be reminded of but it's getting easier and easier and I'm standing it more and more is that what comes naturally to me and what I love to do is super impactful and amazing to other people. I sit there and go, "Is it good enough? Are they going to get enough value out of it? Is it really going to be impactful? Or is it just lukewarm?" I get hard on myself and all of us as high achievers, as entrepreneurs tend to do this thing. We've also talked about how we've both interviewed many successful high achievers. I'm curious about your take on that, both as someone who's been studying this, somebody who teaches this, but also as somebody who is living this.

I'm curious to hear your take on it from a personal standpoint because it's not just me, it's not just you, and it's not just the audience going, "I thought it was just me, that I'm just so hard on myself. It's everybody." When we have a definition of whether it's a great leader or a great facilitator or a great coach or a great programmer or whatever it is, if we do that thing, oftentimes even though we may position ourselves or when we may come out in front and we may be able to wear it to the public internally, we tend to feel that there's aspects of what we do that aren't as good as somebody that we're looking at and saying, "Now that's a great leader. That's a great developer. That's a great facilitator or coach." You said before that you don't know if you're a great leader, yet you have a clear definition of what a great leader is. To me, you embody those traits that you define as that of a great leader and yet you articulate that you don't know if you're a great leader.

We’re all on a journey. We all have this path. If you think of a big field of grass and as you stomp on that grass going from A to Z, the more times you stomp on it, the more flat it gets and worn it gets. I can't speak for anyone else. For me, I've got about 37,000 of those paths in that field that are only partially stomped down and I'm on this journey to figure out what it means for me. When I interviewed Jon Berghoff and him and I talked, he had this thing that he said to me and it so resonated with me. He said, “We often chase the things that we feel like we lack the most.” For me, I've never seen myself as a leader. I was captain of my water polo team in college for two years. I led two offices for an ad agency and I failed and failed and failed on all four of those is a leadership role.

[Tweet "Often, we let our adversity define us and we struggled with figuring out how to define our adversity. @ExecutivesAHour @NiczTheName"]

I had no one around me to mentor me, to tell me what I needed to do right or wrong. I was too insecure. I didn't have belief in my abilities. I got a long list of deficiencies that I can run down, but all of that comes from the idea of not having confidence in myself. For me, I don't see myself as a leader because I've been too unwilling to put myself in those positions to lead because I've failed so many times before. Which is completely counterintuitive to everything else I do in my life where I'd lean into everything I failed because that’s predominantly the place where you learn is in failure. When people have a difficulty understanding what their own deficiencies are, they have a difficulty of understanding where they need to grow as individuals. From a leadership perspective, for me I've been on this journey for twenty plus years trying to understand why do I feel that people don't listen to me or respect me or value my opinion? What is it that I'm not saying or what is it that I'm saying that doesn't resonate with people? At least on my journey, the feedback that I receive is tangible feedback in numbers or comments that sometimes the way I interpret it is that I'm not saying something that resonates with other people.

What you said spoke to what I was trying to say and that is that oftentimes, we feel deficient in areas that others see us as excelling at. Even in saying, "The people don't listen," of course, they listen. You're a popular podcaster. People tune into your show every single time you put one out because they want to hear you. They want to hear your take. It's so interesting and I really want to honor you and appreciate you for sharing in this vulnerable way because that's what my audience are here for.

They are here because the sense is that they understand it's not just them. Some of them are just starting out in their business, maybe who haven't even started a business but find the stories and the discussions to be inspirational. I have some who have billion-dollar companies. The feedback that I get from people is that they enjoy the show because it's raw and it's real. Just speaking about deficiencies or speaking about these different things because you're a published author, you are a professor. That's another thing. I'm like, "Don't you have a lot of students looking up to you?"

They have to. They don’t have a choice.

They don’t have to. They are choosing to do it.

I entertain them. That’s what I do.

Maybe they can't stop listening to you. What was reflected to me was that the things sometimes, and this is also just to share with everyone and maybe to ponder. The things that we feel deficient at or we feel like we're not good enough and we're seeking that to be better or wondering if other people are getting some value from it, oftentimes are the things that people value the most about who we are and how we show up and how we do life. It was less of a question and more of an interesting conversation.

A lot of people value vulnerability. In vulnerability, it shows willingness to be judged. The willingness to be judged means that you're secure enough to know that I own my limitations and I embraced them in a way that I want to use them to become a better person. There are a lot of literature out there, books out there, trending books, talking about strength, like the strength finder. Work on your strengths. Yes, work on your strength, but for me to be a complete person, I need to understand my limitations. Within that understanding, means the way I respond to certain situations changes. It means that the questions I ask might change. I want to understand the yin and the yang in all of that, so that I can be a better person. That's all I care about. Lead, not lead? I want to be a good person that isn't that to fuck somebody and to do wrong. I'm going to make mistakes. We all do, we're human beings. We are fallible. We are going to screw up, but what grates me the wrong way is when you don't own those mistakes. What I find leaders that own them, embrace them and aspire to share them. They are powerful beings that have the ability to sway their teams to move towards a vision and purpose that’s for the betterment of them as individuals, the betterment of the leader and betterment of the organization all at the same time.

BBR 262 | Thrive In Adversity

Thrive In Adversity: Adversity is a must if you're going to be an outstanding leader.

Definitely that humanity piece. When I listen to people speak who are "gurus or leaders," it rubs me the wrong way when I don't believe them. It's a weird energetic thing. It's like, "You're so full of shit." You can talk all day long about this one, but what about all of the things, all of the losses that got you there? Especially in this day and age where information is so readily available. It does stand out when because of how much bullshit we pass by and take in, eventually when we hear somebody speak from the heart and just be authentic and be vulnerable and be honest without pretending to be vulnerable and authentic and honest. That's a big, "You should be this. Here's how you can manipulate the situation and the words that you say in order for people to understand that you are authentic." I'm like, "What?"

Is there a market for that? Absolutely, and there is. I don't fault them. They aspire to move the needle in their life. We all do. We all want to move the needle in our life. Most of us want to. I don't fault them for listening to someone who's sold a billion dollars in something. There's something in that person that they do that’s successful. That's not what I aspire to do. That's not the message that I want to share. I want to share, "Don't be embarrassed by your failures." I want to share, "Don't be embarrassed by tragedy in your life. Don't be embarrassed by your own tragedy." It means something that you did to yourself or something that happened to others in your life. There's nothing to be embarrassed about it. You need to own it and you need to have accountability for that so that you're able to deal with it and use it in a better way.

To me, that is the essence of the book. It’s personal accountability to what's going on in your life. The good, the bad, the ugly, all of it. I often talk in the book and this probably happens on your podcast and it happens on my podcast, where we focus on the negative adversity. What about the positive adversity? Why don't we stop and pause and think about that? Your four-day retreat, that should be a major learning moment for you in some capacity. What about for me? For me it could be a marriage, it could be four kids, it could be getting my PhD. I don't think I've ever paused to look at those in a way that says, "What have I learned from that?" My PhD, I learned resilience for sure. That was a major outcome and I had to force myself to focus on that as a personal growth moment, not just achieving it. What does it do for me moving forward? How can I be a better person and understand that when something goes wrong, I'm quite resilient and I will bounce back better than before?

Did you do a model of this in the book? You were talking with me about an example of an exercise. I just wasn't sure if this leads into that example because you mentioned something about drawing a model and I'm keen to learn about that.

Let's do an exercise. This is really easy. We're going to end up drawing three circles. I want you to draw one circle, and in that circle, I want you to write the word crucible. Then I want you to think of a bull’s eye and you're going to draw another circle on the outside of that circle that says crucible. Now, you've got a bigger circle on the outside and I want you to split that into two. On the top half, I want you to write the word self-awareness. We're going to leave the bottom half blank for the moment. Then you're going to draw one more circle on the outside of the other two circles that surround it so you have a perfect bull’s eye of three circles and you're going to split the last circle into three. Now, once you split it into three, in one section, you're going to write the word compassion. In one section, you're going to write the word integrity, and in the last section, you're going to write the word relatable-ness.

This is what I found in the book and this is what I found and write about in the book. It unfolds in the book like this. In chapter one, I talk about the crucible. Why is it important? What are the stories of leaders that I interviewed that talk about their major moment in life? Then I say, "What happens in the crucible? What happened to these leaders?" They grew their self-awareness. In despair, in judgment, in success, they all had the ability to grow their self-awareness. Now, for anyone in your audience who does coaching, they will tell you that leader self-awareness is one of the hardest things to quantify and to get them to understand and to do to be better at. It's not easy. We all have our blind spots.

In the book, I talk about this idea of, "You have a crucible. You grow your self-awareness." Here's the part that's fascinating. In the leaders that I interviewed, they started this journey and on this journey, they started looking at their compassion. How can I be more compassionate to those around me? When we look in the organization, whether it's big or small, compassion is actually bigger than empathy. Empathy is I understand how you feel, compassion is I understand how you feel, and I want to relieve your suffering. Suffering, a super loaded word. What does that mean? Let's think of suffering as a very simple act. If I'm walking through the office and I'm talking to you, Nicole, and you're sitting at your desk and I see your water cup is empty. "Can I fill that for you?" "Yeah, sure." That's a moment of relieving someone's suffering right there. That's it. It’s super simple. It's not this huge act that we think of. Suffering is a minute thing for many of us every day. Like getting up can be suffering for me, but I still got to do it.

What I found is that leaders who embrace their self-awareness also then grew their integrity. There are two types of integrity that I talk about in the book, moral. I don't go into that because we all have to decide where our moral compass is in life. We all know right or wrong. I mostly spend my time talking about behavioral integrity. I quote Dr. Phil. I don't watch him religiously, but Dr. Phil's quote is, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." That always resonated with me because that's the best way to know who your leader is as a person. Do they follow through? Do they have the hard conversations? Are they willing to give you the best version of themselves? Sometimes you have to tell someone they don't belong in an organization. Not because you don't like them, but because the job may not be a fit for them. Are you able to have that transparency in your organization? What I found is those that embraced their crucible, those that grew their self-awareness actually had a philosophy of my made-up word relatable-ness. It is a philosophy because there are a lot of research out there that talks about the idea of being relatable, relationships.

The literature is very clear and it says that every time you can create a positive moment in your organization, it helps that person to be more productive in the day. One positive moment with a person that begets another positive moment and so forth and it builds up. What happens is that if you can multiply that across the organization, you have an organization of positive energy, doing more work, be more productive, showing up more, being happier and being healthier. That's a massive thing to do by just valuing the relationships that you have with the people in your office. Creating what I call micro moments of meeting. Those moments of positivity or understanding that leave an impact on the person that you're engaging with in that moment. We've left a space blank on the model. We have crucible, self-awareness, and we have the bottom half.

[Tweet "We innately are individualistic assholes that are out, for ourselves, to achieve something. @ExecutivesAHour @NiczTheName"]

Here's the thing that really blew my mind is the people that got this, the people that were driving hard to be authentic and grow, had a growth mindset. That's what goes in that empty space. Leaders that had a growth mindset, a learning mindset, wanting to learn more about themselves, more about their industry, more about their career path and most importantly more about those around them. That's what I call the authentic leadership model in the book. I unpacked that chapter by chapter by chapter as we go.

Thank you for sharing that. The book can be found Amazon.com, Amazon.ca. Do you have any gifts that you'd like to give my audience before we go?

Many people don't know who I am. There's apprehension about buying a book if you don't know the author and I get that. What I do is, I say, "Test drive the book. Come to my website, DrJamesKelley.com. Click on the tab that says crucibles gift and you can get the first chapter for free, the introduction chapter. If you like it and you test drive it, head on over to Amazon. I got about 25 buttons on my website and you can get either the kindle version or you can get the hardback version as well."

Thank you so much for that and for a great conversation. Is there anything you'd like to leave our audience with? Parting words of wisdom?

There's a quote that I live by that I own and that I preach. It is my family’s and it is, "Don't let fear conquer you, conquer fear."

Thank you so much for being with us.

Thank you, Nicole. I appreciate your time, your energy and willingness to have me on your show.

Resources mentioned:

About James Kelley

BBR 262 | Thrive In AdversityDr. James Kelley lives just outside of Dubai where he teaches, writes, and produces a bi-weekly podcast called Executives After Hours. The podcast is predicated on interviewing executives about their personal journey. The shows motto, “I care about who you are, not what you do, because what you do defines who you are.”


Thanks again to Carrie Roldan for supporting the Business Building Rockstars Show.