Here’s the hard truth about leadership: it either forces you to get stronger or it’s slowly destroys your life. There’s no in between. Over the course of his 20 year career helping hundreds of CEOs and executives break through challenges and grow their companies, Kevin Lawrence, author of Your Oxygen Mask First, has discovered the habits that allow any leader to transcend the perils of success and to keep achieving.
These habits help CEOs and executives become stronger and more resilient.
Kevin is obsessed with understanding why successful people crash and burn. And in this episode, he’s going to teach you what he’s learned by studying and testing virtually every leadership theory known to mankind in his two decades as a business advisor.
By the end of this conversation, you’ll have the tools needed to ensure your survival no matter how high you fly.
Kevin Lawrence: The whole book actually started on August 16th, 1977. It’s a very specific date that I will remember for the rest of my life.
I was seven years old, and just imagine, my family had just done a road trip through the US in our truck and camper, and my sister and I sitting in the back seat of our truck for hours on end as we toured around the US. We just crossed the border back up into Canada.
You have to imagine, this whole trip, we were listening, in those days they had these things called eight tracks which was, you know, kind of like a big thick cassette tape, the size of a sandwich. We had four eight tracks we listen to, we listened to—Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, ABBA, and Elvis.
We would listen to those again and again.
They were awesome. You could probably play any song from those artists and I bet you I know almost every single word. I definitely know the tune to all of them because we listened to them again and again. Those are kind of the soundtracks of my childhood.
As we were crossing the border back up into Canada where I grew up, just outside of Vancouver, we crossed the border and switched the radio back on because now we’re back to where our local radio station was.
We got stuck, and there was a big accident, which is unfortunate. But we were like, 15 minutes from home, listening to the radio in the truck after two, three weeks of constant driving.
“All of a sudden, a news flash comes on—Elvis Presley had died.”
That day was monumental for me. To give you a back story on it, Elvis Presley was not something that we liked or loved—my parents idolized him.
You have to imagine, in our dining room in our home, we had this big lush wall covered in velvet wallpaper and a picture of Elvis Presley hanging in our dining room.
Our place was not cool, but the thing is that Elvis was at the center of our dining room and the center of our lives and my parents just idolized him. As a result, so did I.
The day that he died, it really impacted me.
He Had Everything
Kevin Lawrence: What I realized years after, not just then but years after is, it really confused me as a seven year old.
He was rich, he was famous, he had a mansion, he had a wonderful family. He had his own airplane. I’m like, “Why would this guy pretty well end his own life?”
We weren’t rich and we weren’t famous and we didn’t have those things, and Elvis had everything that I had thought would be great to make your life amazing, but then he basically destroyed his own life.
It confused me and perplexed me. Then there was this guy called Kurt Cobain and this other one called Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams, Prince, and the list goes on and on. These incredibly successful people that we would idolize but then they would end their life early. It totally made a huge impression on me.
From that point, as I progressed throughout my career, I was always passionate about understanding it.
“How is it that you can achieve great success and have a great life that you want to keep on living?”
That sort of set the tone for my whole career in business. Especially as I started to see that the problem I thought was isolated to these musicians and rock stars, those problems were visible when you go into business world. People suffer and have the same problems.
You see these wildly successful business people who were absolutely either miserable or in massive pain although materially, and socially, what they’ve achieved is absolutely unbelievable. As I got into the business world, I saw this was sort of almost like an epidemic.
Charlie Hoehn: Do you remember the first time it really hit you in the business world? That this was the parallel situation going on?
Kevin Lawrence: You know, it happened slowly. I started to see signs of it. Because I was oblivious to it. I’ve got clients that have won entrepreneur of the year awards, all kinds of awards and accolades, sold the businesses for amounts that will take care of generations.
The problem is that when they receive these rewards or they’re covered in the media, they don’t really tell you the true story of the struggle.
They’ll tell you the story of how they came and had no money when they started. Everyone will tell you that story.
“They don’t tell you about the mental breakdowns and losing it and almost ending up homeless and addicted.”
There’s a pride thing, but it’s more than that. Business leaders are phenomenal sales people and promoters, right?
Look at a guy like Elon Musk right now, he is the master salesman, he is almost like the master person that would be in the carnival, selling tickets. He is just spectacular at it.
If he just had a massive mental breakdown, if he was completely fried, almost debilitated, seeing his psychologist three times a week and being medicated, how does that go for promoting Tesla? How does that go for promoting Space X?
I don’t know anything about Musk, I’m just using him as an example because he’s amazing at what he’s doing. For all the other clients, at the end of the day, they are all marketers or sales people that are promoting their company and their brand.
If you are the head engineer at Ferrari, it doesn’t go well to say how you’re having a mental breakdown and even hospitalized for a month.
Breaking the Stigma
Charlie Hoehn: Has that happened? Kevin, have you seen that happen and then the stock dives?
Kevin Lawrence: No one’s that dumb—people aren’t going to go and tell that story. Generally in our society, there is a lot of shame around when people have challenges personally. Especially if you’re wildly successful. People generally don’t.
It only happens when it leaks out. Travis from Uber, right? It started to leak out and show up and then this back story comes out. Only because it was essentially forced out.
“People are smart, they keep it very quiet. And that’s the problem.”
Charlie Hoehn: I wonder if there’s just a way to communicate that sort of thing in a way that doesn’t damage the company—getting out in front of it rather than having it leak out.
Kevin Lawrence: I mean, that’s what I’m trying to accomplish with this book. I’m trying to get the story out and to almost normalize it.
I’ll tell you what happens, every time, a leader that I work with hits a wall and it’s really messy. They start to doubt themselves or their brain stops functioning, which is a very common thing.
The brain will go from nine and a half out of 10 intelligence down to about four. It terrifies people because they’re like, what is going on here?
These are some of the smartest people on the planet who really become dumb for a period of time. It’s shocking.
What I’m going back to is my objective is to help people to understand that that’s a normal part of the game.
It’s like if you’re playing hockey, big sport up in Canada here. If you you’re playing hockey, it’s normal to get injured, right? It’s normal to fall on the ice once in a while, that’s part of the game.
For a lot of these people, they think they’re a loser, they’re weak, something is wrong with them.
A Common Journey
Kevin Lawrence: A CEO I was talking to yesterday has gone down this path and it’s been a brutal path for him. He was probably in the worst shape of anyone I’ve ever worked with. I mean, he was down to about a two out of 10 in terms of his own mental state and some of his intelligence. He’s back up around at eight and a half, nine. Which is phenomenal, and he’ll just get better and better.
Even yesterday he’s going, “Is there something wrong with me? Am I just weak?”
He’s like one of the most resilient guys I know, he is a very good CEO who went through a rough patch for a logical reason.
“My goal is to help to normalize it so people understand it’s part of the path.”
When things get weird, no matter what the struggle is—your own head, your team, your business model, your own learning—there’s all kinds of struggles, but it’s for them to see it’s normal and then just do the things to get past it.
There was one CEO I work with who is starting to talk a lot more about mental health, he’s including it as part of the culture of his company and he is starting to do it.
He has a passion around it, he’s had his own challenges with it as well. It’s safer when people do it and they talk, about what happened years ago versus what might be happening in a moment.
My goal is to have it so a lot more of these leaders talk about their stories. Because they all have them.
Situations where they didn’t think they can do the job because there’s no course to be a great CEO or high performing leader. Or where they’ve mentally almost lost it and felt like they couldn’t come back.
They all have them, but I’d like to get them to share a lot more of them. Just to normalize it so people realize it, it’s just a normal thing.
A Different Kind of Person
Charlie Hoehn: Thank you for doing this work first of all. Second, it sounds like there’s a lot of bad advice out there for CEOs just in general.
Kevin Lawrence: I was with a guy yesterday and chatting one of his business, I’m a real car nut and this guy has built some of the most amazing custom cars in the world. He has won the top award for building the top custom car in the world. He spent 22,000 hours working on one car, him and a team of people.
22,000. I mean, that’s intense, that is not normal, right? Selling assets and working like crazy to build a show car for which he then won the most prestigious award in the world.
You know, whether it’s a person like that, anyone who is up to something really serious and wants to do something significant in the world—all of those people have different types of challenges.
If you go to your job and you work from 8:30 to 4:30 every day and you get two 15 minute coffee breaks and a 30 or 60 minute lunch, that’s one path in life. That’s going on a nice walk in nature, and for some people, it’s a perfect way to live their life.
There’s other people who choose to climb mount Everest every second weekend basically, is what it’s like to be one of these almost obsessed, very highly driven, high performing people who do almost not normal or unhuman things in their lives.
“They need different tools and structures and supports.”
You need different training and nutrition and mental conditioning, physical conditioning, everything, than the person who goes on a nature walk every second weekend.
Live an Amazing Life
Charlie Hoehn: What do you really mean by live an amazing life?
Kevin Lawrence: Well, be careful with that assumption, they don’t necessarily have an amazing life. They have an amazing work, right? They have an amazing job or an amazing business that is usually full of amazing headaches and amazing stress.
The first part of the book called Live an Amazing Life is basically making sure that your business or your career doesn’t consume all of you.
There’s a model I talk about in the intro of the book which is really looking at your existence or your whole you in three different kinds of circles. One circle is work, one is life which is your family and friends and community. Then there’s self and taking care of yourself which we’ll talk about in a couple of minutes.
The life piece, usually what happens is when I make 10 or 50 or a hundred million dollars then I’ll start to enjoy it. When I retire, I’ll start to have some hobbies.
It’s all this future or deferring the pleasure in life to the future which by the way is really good for the business. If you’ve got an owner or a CEO or an executive that is willing to defer pleasure in their own life for a decade and just work like a mad man or a mad woman for 10 years, that produces unbelievable results.
Actually, that’s what some of the most successful people on the planet do. Problem is, once you do something consistently for 10 years, it kind of builds some heft to the pattern and you’re stuck.
The Biggest Scam
Kevin Lawrence: What you see very often is people who have been insanely successful—whether it’s in terms of impact in the community with a community organization or whatever achievement they wanted to do in their life or their business or building a very valuable business. They put all these energy into their business to find out at the end, they’ve achieved their goal.
They go to their Everest or in the case of a business person, they sold their business for a hundred million or a billion dollars or whatever it is.
Then there’s a shell of a life that they have kind of left over to the side and they have a whole bunch of money and they’re miserable.
If I just worked for 10 years or 20 years, sold my business for a billion dollars or half a billion or a hundred million or it doesn’t matter the number, and I have more money than I thought I’d have in my life, I expect there to be this love and sparkles and fireworks. I’ve finally achieved my life’s dream.
“It’s the biggest scam going.”
Because you’re not going to be any happier and I’ve seen it again and again. The childhood dream is to make a lot of money and get rich and then life will be grand.
The truth is, make a lot of money and get rich, well, you have a lot of money and you’re rich. Life can only be grand if you make life itself grand.
They’re separate things. Making money is one thing, having a great life is another thing.
It’s a totally separate path you have to work on at the same time to actually have an amazing life too, the business success does not actually benefit your lifestyle much.
Success and Sacrifice
Charlie Hoehn: Do you have to sacrifice a good life in order or an amazing life in order to be a super successful CEO?
Kevin Lawrence: You know, that’s the fascinating thing about this. This game of high performing success, it’s a mental game more than anything. It’s all between your ears.
If you believe you have to sacrifice an amazing life to be successful, you’re right. If you believe you don’t have to, you’re also right.
It’s like that little engine that could. If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. It’s all a mind game.
Now, let’s be clear. You are not going to build a company that you sell for a billion dollars by working 40 hours a week, 8:30 to 4:30 every day. That’s not true. But there’s nothing to say you can’t put the extra energy in to be a very successful leader and business person and have a great life.
“Having a great life doesn’t take a lot of time.”
You know, what I talk about in the book is this thing called ‘passion ratios’. You got to imagine you have a hundred units of passion every week. Passion being your best, most engaged energy.
Everyone’s got a ratio they run best at. Mine is about somewhere around 60/20/20 or 70/15/15. Which is, 70% of my best energy to my work. I love to work. I work hard. You know, I work harder than I probably should. but I love it. Then 15 of my best energy to myself, that’s me going and playing at the race track with my friends, you know, exploring the things that make me happy and working out time, writing, thinking, stuff like that. Then life, quality time with my family and friends and community.
The idea is, you can build a very successful business, you just have to be conscious of how you apply that time. What some of these people that tell you that with sacrifice, what they would do is, they’d have 95% of their energy going into their business and making money.
They probably have two for themselves and three for their family and life. As a result, you end up without one, you and yourself aren’t going to be very healthy. Your life will pretty well fall apart but your business will make a ton of money and hence, the divorce rate and all those other things with a lot of successful people.
Most people have great goals for their business but they don’t have good enough goals for their life and for themselves. To have an amazing life, you need a plan and you need to pre-plan and implement some of those things that make it work.
How to Have an Amazing Life
Kevin Lawrence: The other thing about an amazing life as I have realized, it’s usually some very simple things. If we have friends and we get together for dinner, that’s good. If we have friends and we get together, have dinner and play a game, that is mind-blowingly amazing.
For our family, playing card games, board games is the best thing we can do. It sounds so darn simple but we have a riot. The best of our personalities are somewhat, are the worst sometimes when we do that.
So it’s basic things like have the goals for an amazing life. Don’t expect that it’s going to get amazing all of a sudden in the future when you stop working or slow down. You have to be doing it today.
“What would you do if you inherited $50 million?”
But the catch is you actually have to really enjoy your work and really enjoy your life, what would your life look like?
Usually, it boils down to simple stuff that has something to do with you pursuing something that has you connecting with other people in some sort of experience.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah and does it require having $50 million in the first place usually?
Kevin Lawrence: It doesn’t. Look, cash makes things easier. Don’t get me wrong. It’s better to make a $150,000 a year than to make 50 because you have more options, right? Make 1.5 million over 150…there’s incremental improvements, don’t get me wrong.
There’s lots of research that shows your personal satisfaction doesn’t necessarily increase that much. I’m with the school of thought that I want to see people make, whether it’s executives to make massive bonuses and make half a million a year and business owners to make 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 million a year, why not? But have to have a separate plan for their life.
Lick the Toad
Charlie Hoehn: Which chapter is your personal favorite? If you have to pick one that you could give to every executive, what would it be?
Kevin Lawrence: There’s a self-assessment so they could figure out which one is most meaningful for them. It’s hard because everybody’s situation is different. People write to me in different challenges or chapters. The chapters resonate with them. You know lots of people say Licking at the Toad Chapter is the one that resonates with them, or Quadruple Your IQ.
Lick your toads is a very simple metaphor. So imagine this: Imagine you and I are sitting down and I said to you, “Hey man, here’s the deal. See this big ugly toad that’s in my hands, which is probably the size of a loaf of bread, I am going to hand this over to you.”
This thing weighs about 5 pounds, and you’re going to have to lick it by the end of this year.
You’re going to have to lick it from the tip of its tail across its slimy back down the front of its jaw and down on its under belly and under its all special parts.
“You’re going to have to lick this thing, and you have no choice in the matter.”
But you have to do it by New Year’s Eve 2018, and right now we’re in March. When are most people likely end up to licking that thing? At the very end.
It’s human nature.
So here’s what will happen. Imagine how this thing is going to follow you around and be with you everywhere you go every day. When you’re sleeping, it’s going to be in the pillow beside you or on the night stand. When you get up, it’s there with you. When you’re having a shower, it’s sitting up looking at you. It’s everywhere you go, it’s with you when you go to work and when you don’t, blah-blah-blah.
You will start to think about this thing a lot, right? It’s this weird ugly thing following you around and almost haunting you. You wake up in the night thinking about it. The next thing you know, it starts to collect friends. Next you know, you’ve got two of them and three of them and five of them and now you’re trying to avoid 27 of these darn things.
By the thing you get to the end of the year, I predict that it’s really starting to mess with you and you probably have well over a 100 or a 150 of them.
So now we’re standing there at New Year’s Eve. It’s five minutes to midnight, you and I are out on a party and having a great time. Everyone else is at the main part of the party, you and I are in a separate room.
We’ve got this bar height table with the toad sitting there who’s not become a very good friend of yours, and it’s about time for you to lick it.
“At two minutes to midnight, how do you think you’re feeling?”
There’s a pretty good chance for most people as we get down to 30 seconds, your heart is pounding, your palms might be sweaty, a little anxious about it. So at the stroke of midnight, you pick this slimy thing up and you finally do the nasty deed of licking the whole thing. When you’re done, what’s the first thing you mouth to me?
Charlie Hoehn: I wish I had done that sooner.
Kevin: Yeah because?
Charlie: Because it tortured me the whole time it wasn’t being done.
Kevin: Yes and was it as bad as you thought?
Charlie Hoehn: No.
Kevin Lawrence: No, it never is. And that is the guaranteed reaction. So for all of us humans, we have generally between a 100 and a 150 of these things. These are low value, non-strategic, not super important things in the context of our business goals or our life goals or things for our self. But they burden us down and burden our subconscious mind in the back of our head.
“We are thinking about these things wasting energy on them.”
So I have found how this has destroyed many a leader, believe it or not and this could be a leaky tire on your car or a scratch on your car or a squeaky door on your kitchen or a squeaky door on your oven or a loose molding on your bathroom, a report you have to finish, a glitch on your computer and a phone that keeps dying, a will you need to complete, a conflict you have to sort out.
I mean it could be all these little tiny things that don’t matter today but burden you.
The idea of licking the toad is to catch up on a lot of these things and basically de-clutter your mind and de-clutter your experience of life. It takes thousands of pounds off your shoulders. It’s shocking.
“It has a direct correlation with a lot of stress.”
So there is a technique in the book, there’s 5Ds, which is five ways to get rid of them and prevent these toads. It’s an ongoing maintenance program to try and make your life more Zen-like and more free and clear and not burdened by all of these little seemingly inconsequential things that can really mess you up.
Quadruple Your IQ
Charlie Hoehn: Does that play a part in quadrupling your IQ that you talk about in chapter 11?
Kevin Lawrence: No. Quadrupling your IQ is about having the best advisors all around you in every area of work, self and life. You can’t know it all yourself. I call it having at least 24 experts a text message away and it’s relying on their brains.
Look, a lot of people that are mediocre in terms of their achievements have the mindset as “I need to do it myself,” or “I need to know it myself.”
“That is a very slow scarcity oriented mindset, and it doesn’t go that far.”
So it’s just about having a whole team of experts that can help you in anything and everything so you move ahead quickly on things. It’s extremely powerful and it could be as formal as a board of advisors you have to having a great massage therapist or lawyer or nutritionist or councilor or gardener or tree expert or a person who can clean your house or experts on anything and everything.
The key on that though, is they need to be what I call 14X advisors, they need to have done what you want to do at least 14 times before.
“Don’t be someone’s guinea pig.”
Yeah, okay 10, nine, eight, seven but not three, not zero. For example, I go back to racing. You know, I’m near the racetrack where I like to go and play with my friends. And when I get the person to coach me, there’s this guy named Stephan.
He’s in his early 20s but he races Porsche Cup cars. He’s one of the fastest people in – actually there’s two instructors, Scott and Stephan. They are the two of the fastest Porsche Cup car racers in North America.
So when I wanted to learn to drive faster, I asked them, not my buddy, right? I get the best people in North America when I want to get my own coaching so that I can become more like the best.
You learn from a novice, you become a better novice. You learn from a pro, you become a better pro.
The second thing is there has to be a good fit. So these two guys, Stephan and Scott, they are great instructors for me, and I’ve learned lots from both of them and I get along really well with both of them. But if there weren’t a good fit, it doesn’t matter how effective they are. You’re not going to get that much better anyways because it doesn’t take if you don’t have a good fit with those advisors.
So 14xers and a great fit.
Stories of Transformation
Charlie Hoehn: What’s been your personal favorite transformation or success story that you’ve seen with the people you’ve worked with?
Kevin Lawrence: I could probably tell you 50 stories because everyone I work with goes through transformations at different times. Nigel’s is a very common story. When I first met him, he hated his business.
He hated it, and he was already very, very successful.
He would go to his business and put his hand on the door knob to go in the back door and would feel like he was getting electrocuted emotionally. He hated it that much. So long story short, Nigel is also a guy who can’t sit still.
“Like a lot of really successful entrepreneurs, he has ADD and dyslexia.”
So our first meeting, we sat down for about 30 minutes and he said, “Hey, let’s go for a walk.” We’ve been going for a walk for the last 12 plus years every time since. We would sit down and have breakfast or lunch at the end of a walk, but we’d walk for two to three hours and talk it all out.
Nigel has dialed in everything in his business and his life. He has the dream that everybody wants, literally, and it’s very rare.
So his business got dialed in and we found a way to exit his partner and set it up now that he’s got a new partner that runs the business day to day. Nigel works on the strategic things that he loves and that part couldn’t be better.
Almost every area of his life would be in the nine out of 10 range, which is exceptional.
And by the way, when we first started you know what his solution was? He was going to just give the business away or sell it for whatever and go sell t-shirts on the beach.
He wasn’t joking. He wanted out.
In almost every single case, we can get them what they want or very, very close to what they want. It’s just hard work and good strategy or knowing where to focus your energy.
That’s the part I love. I feel like I have got a degree of mastery of helping to build a high performing businesses and to grow higher performing CEOs that it is, yeah it’s fun. I love it.
Connect with Kevin Lawrence
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, I can tell. I know you have more clients right now than you’re able to take on basically at your capacity for coaching. But if people want to get in touch with you for speaking or potentially working with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Kevin Lawrence: Just go to the website, which is lawrenceandco.com, and reach out. I have other coaches I can refer people to that want help. I am building a network of coaches around the world that can help people to work on the tools in the book and master the tools and principles in the book.
For myself, I’m interested in speaking and helping a lot more people. I’ve spent more than 20 years working with amazing leaders around the world learning what I have learned. And I feel it’s been a great gift, and I really, really want to share that with a lot more people.
If you’re interested in me speaking in an event or you want to learn more and get some help, just reach out to us so we can help you get the right help.
Your Oxygen Mask First
Kevin Lawrence: There’s one last thing I wanted to share if that’s all right. If you go back to the title of the book, Your Oxygen Mask First, the main premise of the book, the real main premise is if you don’t do the things you need to do for yourself and if you take those passion ratios and give yourself 10 or 15% of your best energy, you’re not going to do it. Or if you do it, you’re not going to be happy at the end and you’ll make a big mess.
So the key thing I talk about with these leaders again and again and again is probably the most important chapter everyone needs to focus on. This is What Your Oxygen Mask First is about.
“It is about figuring out what you need to do to be your best.”
It breaks out into three simple categories: body mind and spirit. You have heard of it all before, but what do you need to do to yourself physically? What do you need to do for your mind which is in the direction of meditation or writing or something that strengthens and clarifies your mind? And what do you need to do for your spirit so you stay inspired and full of passion and joy? That is the one that most people mess up on the most.
They’re usually very committed to their work, they do what they know what they need to do for their family, they want to do for their family but when push comes to shove, people self-sacrifice.
And they generally self-sacrifice too much until they end up in the hospital or in a financial mess or their brains go to mush.
So the one thing I really leave with is that. Even if you’re good at it, you need to be great, because that’s the one that separates the people who can endure and continue this wonderful crazy journey from those who end up falling by the wayside.