Full transcript of author and consultant Brian Fretwell’s TEDx Talk: What a 15-Year-Old Meth Addict Taught Me About Leadership at TEDxBoise conference. This event occurred on May 5, 2018. Mr. Fretwell is a speaker, consultant and founder of Why We Win.
Notable quote from this talk:
“But most of us, and certainly me at the time, we stop asking way too soon. See, we stop asking questions when it becomes uncomfortable. We stop asking questions when we get a little bit of a pushback.”
Brian Fretwell – Leadership Educator
When I was 22 years old, I took a job in the chemical addictions unit of the juvenile corrections facility. I was a teacher.
My students had various criminal backgrounds, often drug addicts, drug dealers, and gang members.
Now, I knew this job would be a challenge. Matter of fact, that’s why I took it.
See, like many of you, I wanted to make a difference in my community. I saw an opportunity to lead these kids to a better life.
And for the first few months, that’s exactly what it felt like I was doing, like, they were listening to me. They were interested in what I had to say. They were progressing through their programs. They were getting out.
Until I met Nathan.
Nathan was a 15-year-old methamphetamine addict. You could see the life he had lived through the gang tattoos, the scars from fights before, his emaciated body and issues with his teeth from the meth. Was the first kid I’d seen like this.
But there was something unique about Nathan. Nathan was one of the most honest kids I’d ever met. He had this, like, incessant capacity to always tell you the truth.
Now, don’t get me wrong, he tried to lie a few times. But all you had to do was stare at him for just a couple of seconds, and he’d spill his guts about whatever it is he was trying to hide. It made him super easy to work with, but also made him real easy to like.
Now, for most of these kids, part of their program, when they get to this certain point, they have to come up with a plan for what they’re going to do when they leave juvenile corrections.
And as you can imagine, this was a pretty simple process. I mean, they knew what we wanted them to say, they knew what they were supposed to do. All they had to do was write it down and say it out loud.
Only, when we asked Nathan what his plan was, he looked me right in the eye and said, “Mr Fretwell, when I get back in the community, I’m going to continue using meth.” He hadn’t even tried to come up with a plan.
And as I told you, I liked Nathan, so this was frustrating, and so I went to hard work for the next two or three weeks of trying to convince him, like charts and graphs, and showing him all of this, like telling him, like, you know that you have family members that are dead or in jail from this.
I would work all day trying to get him to see the light, but the more I tried to convince him, the less it seemed to matter to him.
As teachers, one of the best parts of the job is those “aha” moments, right? It’s the time when you see the glimmer in a kid’s eye, when they get all excited, like their whole world can open up by just understanding an algebraic equation or something as complex as maybe the electoral college, yeah?
For Nathan, however, when it came to his future, there was nothing for him to learn, nothing he thought he needed to discover, nothing he didn’t — that I could tell him that he didn’t already know.
See, he understood the plan he was supposed to create. He just knew he wasn’t going to follow through. Whatever leadership position you’ve found yourself in, whether that’s a manager, or a teacher, or a parent, or just a friend, you’ve likely been in this situation.
It’s that time when you’ve told somebody a thousand times what to do. When you’ve begged and pleaded with them, when you’ve come up with a hundred solutions, but you both know they’re not going to follow through. It’s like you do all the work coming up with a solution, but they’re not going to do any solving the problem.
When you come to these times, it’s interesting to think about, like, it’s sort of naive that we actually think an answer is going to change a behavior. Because if it was simply about having a solution to the problem, we could get everybody to quit smoking by – and brace yourselves – smoking is bad for you. That doesn’t work.
I can’t get you to start saving by just having you read a pamphlet about compounding interest. I can’t get you to go work out just by telling you, “Hey, your body burns calories, and if you move around a little bit, you can burn those calories.”
Now, as a leadership consultant for the last 15 years, I’ve seen this week in and week out all over the world. It’s this point we come to when the convincing no longer works. When we’ve come up with the answer, but we know there’s going to be no follow through. It’s when we get to these points that it’s important to take a step back, to maybe reevaluate our perspective of leadership, like the underlying definition.
In Latin, they didn’t have a word for leadership. It was a limited language, so they co-opted other words, and one of the words that scholars believe they use in place of leadership was adduco. Adduco means to extract from, to draw out, or to grow from within.
And it’s this understanding that I didn’t have at the time. I didn’t know adduco 20 years ago, but I was just about to get a crash course on what it meant in application.
See, I continue to struggle with Nathan. And this guy I was working with, his name was Sal, he noticed I wasn’t doing very well, and to this day, I don’t know if he felt sorry for me, or if he was just tired of me making more work for him with these other kids, but he decided to intervene.
And what he did was so simple. He asked me, “Hey, Brian, when’s the last time you asked Nathan what he wants?” And I said, “Thank you, Sal, but I think what he wants is what’s getting us in this problem in the first place.” I said, “I asked him what he wants. He said he wants to do meth. I’m pretty sure we’ve run that road as far as we need to.”
He patiently waited for me, and he said, “If there was an easier way, would you be interested in following?” And if I’m honest with you, I wasn’t interested. I was 22. I knew what to do.
But I was, however, out of strategies, and so I decided, hey, I’ll follow this along until I can come up with a new approach to convince Nathan.
START WITH A QUESTION
And Sal’s instructions were simple: start with a question. Every time you interact with Nathan, start with a question. Every time you talk to Nathan, I want you to start with a question. Every time you and Nathan are in the same room, I want you to ask a question. And I wasn’t used to this.
See, I was used to kids asking me questions. I was the one that had the answers. And to make it worse, Sal would approach me sometimes and say, “Brian, did you really ask a question there or were ya kinda just giving him the answers?”
And as you can probably guess, I got frustrated real quick. Like, my patience started to wear out; like, I felt insecure as a teacher; like I didn’t even know what I was doing. I was just about to give up.
Within a couple of weeks of trying this out, I was just about to throw it away except I started to notice something.
See, as uncomfortable as I was, Nathan was worse. Sal was giving me a PhD level understanding of what adduco really means. Sal was a master at the process because of his dogged commitment to asking questions.
See, questions are the simplest, yet most powerful tool for extracting from. Your brain is biologically hardwired to answer a question. It kind of can’t not do it.
See, all I have to ask you is, like, what was your first car growing up? Or, what state were you born in? And while you didn’t say it out loud, there probably was a little picture that popped up. For some of you, the car wasn’t as cool.
Now, we understand the importance of questions; that’s not new to us. Like, we’ve probably read, we’ve probably heard something about, like, even as a teacher, I had heard about the Socratic method.
But most of us, and certainly me at the time, we stop asking way too soon. See, we stop asking questions when it becomes uncomfortable. We stop asking questions when we get a little bit of a pushback. And luckily for me, Sal was there to keep me on the process.
I would ask Nathan questions like, “Hey, Nathan, what do you want for your future?” And Nathan would respond back sarcastically, “I want a million dollars. I want to be the president of the world.” And that sarcastic response was a defensive mechanism that was hiding something.
I would ask him even more pointed questions like, “Nathan, what is it that really matters to you? What do you really want with your life?” And he would start saying, “Mr Fretwell, leave me alone. Stop asking me questions. Just get off of my back.”
Now, he was becoming frustrated and angry. And again, he was protecting something. And it didn’t take me long to realize that what he was protecting was hopes and dreams that had likely been battered before.
Behind that defensive curtain was a part of himself that still believed in himself, yet he’d had experiences that showed otherwise.
And as I thought of this, I remember thinking about an old quote that says:
“It’s not our darkness that we fear, it’s our light that we’re most afraid of.”
And I realized he did not need me to lead him, he had everything he needed to lead himself. And I suddenly became more committed than I had before. I’d suddenly decided I wasn’t going to give up on him this time.
I went and found him with an intensity that I didn’t know where it came from, and I just found him in the room. And I said something to the effect of, “Nathan, Nathan, this can’t be all you want. You’ve got to want something more in your life than this right here.”
And I noticed in that moment, I had him cornered, and that’s a really bad place to be in a correctional facility because it takes out the – any choices for that person, and it takes out the choices for me, but I didn’t care, and I kept asking him questions.
And I said, “Nathan, why are you lying to me? Nathan, why won’t you be honest with me for one moment and tell me what you really want?”
And there was a pause, and I looked at him, and he looked back at me. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. And as I looked down, I saw his fists clenching and his shoulders getting tight, and his chin started to quiver a little bit.
And he looked up, and he said, “Mr Fretwell, I don’t want this! I don’t want this life! I want to have a family. I want to be the first in my family to make something of this!”
And I remember when he told me that, that in that moment, I wasn’t looking at a drug addict. I didn’t see the drug dealer or the gang member in front of me. What I saw was a little kid. Nathan had likely been hiding his whole life.
When I discuss leadership with people, we talk about confidence, we talk about courage, we talk about vulnerability. In that moment, Nathan taught me what leadership really was.
See, the answers he had given me before were what he honestly believed. Yet somewhere in this process, he found the confidence to set a new vision. He had the courage to believe something different, even just for only that moment, and he was vulnerable enough to say it out loud.
It’s certainly the type of leader I want to be. Sal had opened me up to a completely new way of looking at leadership. That’s affected me for the rest of my life, and what’s interesting to note is he didn’t try to convince me. He simply asked me a few questions.
Now, whatever leadership position you find yourself in, whether that’s CEO of a company, leading a team, or just a buddy at a bar trying to convince your friend to make some better choices.
We do best to take a step back and remember: leadership isn’t a “me” thing, it’s a “we” thing, yeah? Most of the time people don’t need our answers, they need our participation. They need us to believe something is there that we can help grow from within.
I have no idea where Nathan is today. What I do know is the kid I set out to lead has been one of the most influential leaders of my entire life. And when we look at it that way, we see opportunity for leadership all around us.
We simply have to have the courage to draw it out.