Following is the full text of Michael Brody-Waite’s talk titled “Great Leaders Do What Drug Addicts Do” at TEDxNashville conference.
Michael Brody-Waite – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
Hi. I’m Mike, and I’m an addict.
And 16 years ago, my daily habit was to use alcohol and drugs from the minute I woke up to the minute I passed out at night. All I wanted to do was get and stay high.
I was kicked out of school, couldn’t keep a job. I was kicked out of my house. I didn’t even have any money, and so the only money I could get was what I stole from my friends.
I didn’t even have a belt. I’d use a piece of rope to hold my pants up. And my story is not unique. 46% of adults say they have a friend or a family member that’s addicted to alcohol or drugs. And that was me.
And I truly believed that I would be dead by the time I was 30. So, I know after saying all this, what I’m about to propose is going to sound a bit confusing.
I believe leaders should run their organizations like addicts. Addicts aren’t like everybody else. We use all the time, or we can’t use at all. So we have to do recovery the same way: every single day.
And when I got clean, they told me there were three principles that were so important if I didn’t practice them on a daily basis, I wouldn’t live. They told me I had to practice rigorous authenticity, I had to surrender the outcome, and I had to do uncomfortable work.
Now, these principles didn’t just keep me alive. This story isn’t about how I overcame addiction and despite that went on to become successful.
This story is about why addiction is the entire reason for my success. And so, for me, my story starts in 12-step recovery, and I went to meetings.
And what we do in meetings is we share. When I got there, I wanted to be the best addict, so I shared to impress everybody, and I pretended I’d mastered these three principles even though I didn’t understand them.
Well, after months of this, one time I came into the meeting with so much pain, I knew if I didn’t share real, I would relapse. And so I shared vulnerably, emotionally, messy.
I was all over the place. It was the opposite of impressive. After the meeting, another addict came up to me. His name was Tim. He was a guy with 15 years clean, and he was a biker with a goatee — he was a little intimidating — and he said, “Mike, that was the best share you’ve ever done.”
I was like, “Tim, dude, that was the worst share. What are you talking about, man?”
He was like, “No, that was the first real share that you’ve ever done. That’s what we do here. Keep doing that, and you’ll stay clean.”
That was the first time anyone had ever told me being authentic was impressive. It was also the first time I stood that close to a man in head-to-toe Harley leather. I didn’t even know that they made clothes. Had to become a drug addict to find that out.
So, it was one thing to practice these principles in the meetings; it was another thing to do it out in the real world.
And when I got clean, I also entered a halfway house. When I walked in, the house manager told me that I had five business days to get a job, or they would kick me out.
Now, I’m sitting there, and I’m wondering, “What is a ‘business day’?” Because I’m an addict, I don’t know.
Then I started thinking, “I haven’t had a job in three years. How am I going to find one in five days?”
But I went looking, and I saw an opening at a Sam Goody.
Now, Sam Goody was a CD store. For those of you who don’t remember CDs, it’s basically a brick-and-mortar Spotify. And I’d worked at one before, and so I applied.
And in my application, I left the last three years blank because I was pretty sure if I wrote “I did a lot of drugs,” they weren’t going to give me the job.
Back at the halfway house, I call my sponsor because I’m worried about the interview, and I say, “What am I going to tell them when they ask me about the three-year gap in my resume?”
And he said, “Mike, it’s really simple. Tell them the truth. OK.”
I was like, “Chuck, I love your commitment to these three principles, man. That’s great in the meetings, but we’re out in the real world, buddy. If I say I’m an addict, I won’t get the job, and I’ll be out on the streets. What do I say?”
And he said, “Mike, this isn’t about the job; it’s not even about the halfway house. It’s about, ‘Are you willing to be authentic, surrender the outcome, and do uncomfortable work no matter what?’
This is about, ‘Do you want to stay clean?'”
Now, he wasn’t my executive coach, so I had to take his suggestion. He was another addict who was sponsoring me and helping me stay alive.
And so I walked into the job interview, and I told the truth. At the end of the interview, the manager said, “When can you start?”
I didn’t just get the job that day. I realized when I went out into the real world, I would always wear a mask. And that day, I walked in there with my real face. I took that mask and the other 16 I’d been carrying around my entire life and threw them away and knew the freedom of just wearing my face.
But that would get tested because a year later, I found myself in corporate America, not exactly a place known for surrender and authenticity. There are people that are tempted to be inauthentic, to obsess over outcomes they can’t control, to take shortcuts to get ahead.
But I was still an addict, I was still going to meetings, I was still practicing these three principles, and at first, I thought they were going to hold me back.
But I was promoted eight times in eight years. And it was because of these principles. You see, I was trusted because I was authentic. I was efficient because I didn’t obsess over outcomes I couldn’t control, and I was always willing to do the uncomfortable work.
And so I had predictable results with integrity. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Well, I got my 10,000 hours mastering these three principles during my time in corporate America. But it wasn’t the billion-dollar company that I was working for that gave me the training.
I did that job during the day, and at night, I got my 10,000 hours in with other addicts at meetings. 15 years later, I still go every week. So, nine years into my recovery, I’m no longer an addict trying to get high; I’m a leader.
And when I was young, my dream was to become the CEO of my own company. But addiction killed that dream. And when I got into recovery, they told me that lost dreams can become awakened. And that dream came back, thanks to these three principles.