John O’Leary on how bankers can weather the storm and spark inspiration

John O’Leary, a speaker at ICBA LIVE 2019, knows how to overcome adversity. The motivational speaker and bestselling author credits a devastating childhood accident that left him with a minuscule chance of survival for putting him on a path of success—and inspiring others in the process.

By Roshan McArthur

If one thing is certain, it’s that we will all face tough times. In our personal and work lives, there will be days, months and even years when challenges feel insurmountable. John O’Leary understands this more than most. Having suffered a tragic accident at an early age that left him fighting for his life, he knows that adversity is inevitable. But he has also learned how important it is to deal with challenges head on.

At the age of 9, O’Leary lit a match that changed the course of his life. Hiding out in his family’s garage in St. Louis, Mo., in 1987, he was curious to see what would happen when he set some gasoline on fire. Unintentionally, his flame ignited an entire can. It exploded, launching O’Leary 20 feet across the garage and engulfing him in flames. He suffered burns across every inch of his body, more than 80 percent of them third-degree. His doctors gave him less than a 1 percent chance of surviving the first night.

O’Leary spent the next five months in the hospital and had dozens of surgeries in the years that followed. Doctors had to amputate his fingers, and in spite of numerous skin grafts over the years, his body is still extensively scarred.

Today, however, he looks back at this as an “inflection point”—a moment in time that changed everything that followed it. In this case, he says the change was for the better. It may be difficult to grasp at first, but O’Leary firmly believes that everything good in his life has come about because of the accident: meeting his wife Beth, having their four children and finding professional success.

“This fire,” he explains, “it really caused havoc. It devastated my body, it devastated my family, it destroyed our house, it changed our lives. All this is bad, yet it brought us together. It made us recognize what actually matters. It made us take inventory of who we were and how we were going to come together and do bigger things going forward. The best of my life is a result of that explosion.”

O’Leary has made a career out of telling his story and encouraging others to find inspiration in even the darkest of times. Visit his website and you’ll notice a theme: His name is in red, a flame in place of the apostrophe; there is a “sizzle reel” of clips from his talks; and his bestselling book is called On Fire. He clearly has a sense of humor and admits with a laugh that, yes, he has made friends with his pain.

Igniting a spark

Asked how he reached this point, O’Leary credits his mother for not only igniting the spark within him that allowed him to survive the accident, but getting him on a determined path. “I remember asking my mother, ‘Am I going to die?’ And she asked, ‘Do you want to die?’ She responded to my question with a question, which was really genius in some regards. I said, ‘No, Mom, I don’t want to die. I want to live.’ And her response was, ‘Good, baby. Take the hand of God, journey with him and fight like you’ve never fought before.’ So, on that very first morning in [the] hospital in the emergency room, before I’d even been brought up to the burn center or down to surgery, the commitment was made.

“Having family, parents, siblings, relatives supporting and encouraging and sharing and not judging was incredibly valuable for me as I began the journey forward,” he adds. “And then to have community, not just the people who I already knew walking into the situation, but those that began to arrive afterwards. Some of them were neighbors that we barely knew, others were celebrities in town and beyond. We received letters from the pope, rabbis in Israel planting trees on our behalf. At one point we were receiving a couple of boxes a day of letters from all kinds of cheerleaders all around the world, just saying, ‘We are thinking of you and praying for you and encouraging you.’ For a little guy on a dark day, that made a huge difference.”

The people around O’Leary taught him the importance of making bold, optimistic decisions and staying committed to them, whether it was his mother’s words or those of a local broadcaster who sent him a baseball signed by a different member of the St. Louis Cardinals, and each time told him in order to receive another one, he needed to send a thank-you note. O’Leary sent notes and received 60 balls throughout the course of the 1987 season.

He has learned to embrace his own story. One of his mottos is: “You can’t always choose the path that you walk in life, but you can always choose the manner in which you walk it.” He draws on all of these elements when advising others on how to survive adversity.

“Begin by saying, ‘You’re not alone,’” he says. “All of us are either in a storm, have just been through one or are just about to step back into one that we don’t even see on the horizon yet. It’s the ebb and flow process of life. It doesn’t have to be bad. It also doesn’t have to be the end of it, but it is part of the journey forward.”

Secondly, he suggests, remember that most people grow from dealing with challenges. “I would encourage people to recognize that this thing—whether it’s business or finance or marriage—it’s not the end, and it’s pouring the foundation for an even bigger tomorrow than they can expect today. It calls upon traits that we weren’t using previously. Because of this, we become stronger, better versions of ourselves.”

Leaning in to challenges

These are important lessons, he believes, that community bankers can learn from. “One of the cool things about adversity is it brings you down to your knees,” he explains. “And it makes you recognize that regardless of how terrific you are and how smart you are, you can’t do this by yourself. But with collective thought and by teaming up with those around you, by leaning in to them, you may recognize that you can do much more together than you could have ever done by yourself.”

O’Leary encourages community bankers to be bold and stand out from the crowd, to lean in to the people they work with and to think through how to make a difference within the community. He cites the example of a friend who gathered all 72 of his employees together to brainstorm a mission for his construction company. That leadership seminar resulted in the company and its partners building 11 houses for the poor in the community.

“I would encourage bankers to recognize that they are also in the business of mission. It sets them apart and it also makes them more profitable.”

“They’re making a huge difference,” he says. “They’re growing their top-line revenue and their bottom-line profitability and helping the community that they serve. I would encourage bankers to recognize that they are also in the business of mission. It sets them apart and it also makes them more profitable. The clear mission of the organization ought to be able to be recited by every team member of the organization.”

It was having a mission, something aspirational to move toward, that gave the young O’Leary motivation to survive his injuries. “In the early stage, it was surviving the night,” he remembers, “but that wasn’t enough. Enduring one more difficult day won’t move you forward. It might fill you for one more day with breath, but it’s not going to ultimately elevate the work you do or the life you live.

“And so,” he admits, “I was really fortunate to be surrounded by people that were putting in front of me these carrots that were so monumentally large for a little guy. I think that’s a big part of why I’m still in the game.”

Practicing gratitude

“The vast majority of things that we sweat,” says John O’Leary, “are things that we have no control over. You can make a list of things that you worry about. Almost everything that we worry about we have very limited control over.”

He suggests a simple technique for taking stock of the positives in our lives. “The way I do this is to begin every morning by reflecting on things that I’m grateful for,” he says. “It’s a simple process; it slows me down. Rather than quickly returning emails, getting the kids off to school, I spend anywhere from 60 seconds to 10 minutes reflecting quietly on what I’m grateful for. It’s sometimes health and citizenship and freedom and the ability to see and all this stuff, but very frequently it’s also the challenge, the things that went sideways, the things I was not expecting to become grateful for.”

In the evening, O’Leary repeats the process, this time to capture the one action he can take to ensure that tomorrow is better than today. “It’s how I bookend my days,” he says, “first capturing what I have, and, secondly, what I’m going to do with it.”


Roshan McArthur is a freelance writer in California.

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