Following is the full text of Michael Brody-Waite’s talk titled “Great Leaders Do What Drug Addicts Do” at TEDxNashville conference.
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.
And I started a company with a business partner. I left corporate America. And we were the first-ever digital, online, self-scheduling platform for healthcare. But it was 2010, the economy was shaky, we were first-time entrepreneurs, we had no outside investors, and the odds were definitely against us.
Despite all that, we stupidly withdrew from our savings accounts, strained them, withdrew from our 401k, maxed out our credit cards, which I found out later you’re not supposed to do.
We paid Citibank so much interest that I still say that it’s like they were an investor. We bet everything on this company. In the first 12 months, we signed up 5 hospitals, which was great, but it was not enough to stay alive.
But we identified an expansion opportunity to add another 50 in one deal, and we spent six months on that opportunity. And on November 18, 2010, they called me and said, “We’re going to put you in all 50 hospitals.” We were going to go from thousands in revenue to over millions in a matter of months.
I was relieved — I wasn’t excited. We had put everything into this company. I thought we could get a real office, not worry about payroll.
And another reason I’m not as excited is because the next day I found out that it wasn’t going to happen. In that same 24-hour period, our software had failed at a hospital that was tied to the deal for 50.
What are the odds? We are contractually obligated to let our customer know that we knew that as a young company, if we did that, the deal for 50 would be off, and we would most likely go out of business.
The kicker was we had only impacted one patient. Our software didn’t affect patient health. The patient and the hospital didn’t know. We were the only ones that knew.
So one of my team said, “Let’s not tell them. They’re fine, but it’ll hurt us. Let’s just fix the problem and keep going.”
I’m a first-time CEO; I’ve never made decisions like these. And during all this, my phone rings, and it’s another addict — now I’m sponsoring somebody — and he’s got a very hard problem that he’s trying to work through.
And I hear myself almost automatically saying what my sponsor said to me, “Dude, it’s simple: be authentic, surrender the outcome, and do uncomfortable work. It’s that simple. “
And as I hung up the phone, I realized, “Oh, dude, my decision is that simple. I’m going to have to tell them.”
So I called, and I told them about the failure. And I held my breath as I waited for the response. And the response was this: complete and utter laughter. She was laughing at me, she was chuckling like it was a funny movie, and my entire financial future is on the line..
I didn’t quite know how to interpret that response. She finally composed herself, and she says, “Mike, when I get a call like this, it’s for 20,000 patients, not one. I know I have partners that impact a patient or two. They should tell me, but they don’t.”
I was like, “So, what does this mean for our expansion opportunity of 50?”
She said, “We’re still going forward. If anything, I’m more confident because now I know that I can trust you.”
We didn’t kill a company practicing these three principles; we built a company practicing these three principles.
In 18 months, we went nationwide with that partner. We went from 5 hospitals to over 100. We even integrated the three principles into how we on-boarded people.
So, in our interviewing process, I would always ask the same question: “What is your greatest weakness?” And they would usually say something like, “I work too hard.”
I’d be like, “OK, that’s a great interview answer. You spun a strength into a weakness, I get it. As a human being, I genuinely want to know: what is one of your weaknesses?”
And then like startled, they usually say something like, “I buy too many shoes?”
I’d be like, “All right, let me show you what I’m looking for here. For me, one of my greatest weaknesses is that I work hard for things, and when I get them, I experience no joy. It kills the joy of the people around me. It negatively impacts moral. We fail to celebrate wins. I can’t spin this as a strength. And so, for you, as a human being on this Earth, what is one of your greatest weaknesses?”
I know that’s intense, but if they couldn’t be authentic in that interview, if they couldn’t surrender to the fact that admitting a weakness would impact the outcome of them getting the job, then I couldn’t trust them to do the uncomfortable work with my team, our partners and our patients, and so I wouldn’t hire them.
We built a company with 50 people that practice these principles as a competitive advantage. We went up against companies with 600 employees or 150 million in venture capital against my credit card, and we would win.
We won because our partners knew we were authentic; we were upfront about what we were good at and what we weren’t. We told them what we knew and what we didn’t know. We practiced surrender when it came to business decisions.
If a partner asked us to change our software in a way that would hurt the patient experience, we’d politely say no, explain why. If they threatened to cancel the contract, ultimately we surrendered that outcome. Building a company like that requires a tremendous amount of uncomfortable work.
But we grew 20,000% in five years, expanded into 30 states, landed on the Inc. 500 as one of the fastest-growing companies in America with no outside capital, and won National’s best place to work award over and over again.
So, let’s look at this through a different lens. Superheroes, they’re everywhere. You can’t watch a movie or TV without running into a superhero. We’re obsessed with them. They’re strong; they have powers that we don’t have. We love it when they save the world for us.
But yet, superheroes have to hide their identity. They, too, have to wear a mask. I mean, Superman can’t tell the world that he’s Clark Kent and that he’s in love with Lois Lane. But we root on for him to save the world. What does that say about us?
When I was young, my superhero wasn’t Superman. It was a CEO. And I became an addict instead: puking blood, lying and stealing to stay high. I didn’t know these three principles could make my dream come true. But then again, how could I?
According to the University of Massachusetts, in a study, 60% of adults can’t go 10 minutes without telling a lie. That means that we grow up in a world where the majority of the people around us are practicing the opposite of authenticity every 10 minutes.
And yet we idolize superheroes, we hide our true selves, and we put CEOs on a pedestal. And yeah, I became one.
But it’s not because I was trying to be. I was just an addict trying to stay alive. I was just trying to be authentic, surrender the outcome, and do uncomfortable work.
In fact, I didn’t even start out that way: in the meeting, I tried to impress people. But I found out that being authentic was impressive. Out in the real world, I thought I had to hide my true self, but I was told, “Surrender the outcome,” and I got the job on the spot.
In corporate America, when I thought that these three principles would hold me back, I was promoted eight times in eight years because of them. And as an entrepreneur with everything on the line and one decision being the difference between success and failure, when everything told me I had to lie in order for us to be successful, we practiced these three principles. And we built an industry-changing company on top of them.
And that’s the thing about addicts: we either focus on getting high, or we focus on these three principles. It’s that simple. Focus on the thing that kills us, or focus on the thing that saves us.
After 15 years clean and being in recovery, I still call myself an addict, and that’s because I will always be an addict. I have no choice; that is forever.
But every day, I get to choose whether I’m in recovery and whether I practice these three principles. Statistics will tell us that someone watching this is an addict and they are struggling, so I will talk to you for one moment.
If you are an addict and you are struggling, you are not alone, you are not alone. Today, during this event, millions of addicts around the world will go to a meeting, and they will practice being authentic and surrendering the outcome and doing uncomfortable work, and if you can join them, you don’t ever have to use again.
And the thing that is the worst thing about you can become the best thing about you. It can become your competitive advantage. People will see that when you practice these three principles, you are living differently.
And that if you want to be a leader, they will want to follow you because in a world where these three principles are optional, they will see that, for you, they aren’t business decisions, these three principles are living decisions, and they will want to follow you.
You won’t just survive. You will thrive. And for everybody else, I’m here to say these three principles are available to us all. Addicts have no unique claim on them. We have a unique incentive: if we don’t practice them, we die, and we have a place to go to practice.
But any leader can practice these. So the question is: If you’re a leader, how committed are you to practicing these three principles? Or maybe the better question is, for the rest of us, why would we follow anyone who wasn’t?
Imagine the future where the leaders in our world practice rigorous authenticity, surrendering the outcome, and doing uncomfortable work as if their lives depended on it. Not just committed — as if their lives depended on it.
How could our world change? How would your job change? How would our lives change? As a kid, I dreamed of becoming a leader, and my dream came true. But it’s not because I was focused on becoming a success story or a CEO.
It’s because over the last 15 years, to stay clean, I was just doing what drug addicts do.
Thank you, guys.
Resources for Further Reading:
- The Power of Civil Momentum: Annamalai Kuppusamy (Transcript)
- What Does It Mean To Be Yourself? – Carly Sotas (Transcript)
- Help For Kids The Education System Ignores: Victor Rios (Transcript)
- How Acts of Kindness Sparked a Global Movement: Asha Curran (Transcript)
- Neil MacGregor: 2600 Years of History In One Object (Transcript)