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The Bravest Coward

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I’m 6’3″ 250 now — but I was a frail kid. Migraines, fainting spells, anxiety — and physically a weakling. I was tall but skinny. I couldn’t do push ups, pull-ups (which I still can’t do!) and could barely lift the bar on the bench press was I was 16. So physical strength was not something I knew until my 30s when I started lifting weights.

I had daily reminders of my lack of physical strength and stamina. Slow and awkward at recess games. Unable to lift irrigation pipes, saddles, close wire gates on the ranch. Bullied at school by kids whose own insecurities seemed to be attracted to whatever kick-my-ass pheromone my little body was releasing.

That frail Justin remains in me today at nearly 48 years old. My first reaction to any physical activity or challenge is “I can’t do this” or “I’m going to suck at this”. When I do physical things in a group, I assume that I will be amongst the laggards.

The past few years, I’ve returned to my true self, the original me. Yet to get there has required me to examine these other parts. (For more info on this approach, check out this article on Internal Family Systems). I’ve avoided this frail Justin part because … well … I don’t like him. I’ve buried him so deep in me because I’ve been afraid he would come back. But he never left and I never took the time to get to know him until recently.

In re-examining my journey, I saw that frail Justin was the bravest coward I’ve ever known. Despite feeling weak, fragile, puny and cowardly, he did a number of brave things:

  • In a 6th grade football game at recess, I saw that Todd Chavez (one of the better athletes — and also a frequent contributor to my misery) was about to blitz. I moved over to block him. And I sort of did. In the collision, I received a black eye and concussion — but he didn’t get to the QB.
  • I spent hundreds of hours outside at the ranch. There were all kinds of ways to get injured (which I did frequently) or even killed. I remember each day making a list of all the things that might hurt me — with the most imaginative stories. Like imagining what I would do if I stumbled across a hive of killer bees. Or if a serial killer showed up and held my family hostage. Or the Russians invaded (Thank you, Red Dawn!). But I did it all anyway. I rode horses and got bucked off, I rode motorcycles and wrecked them, I worked as an adult, I broke bones.
  • My sophomore year in high school. Walking down senior hall, I was suddenly surrounded by a group of bullies straight out of casting central of an 80s teen movie. Mullets, acne, chew tucked in to their lower lips, all sporting t-shirts from heavy metal bands. They started pushing me around; shoving me from one to another in their circle. Then something in me snapped. For the first time in my life, I fought back. I remember thinking, “they might kill me, but I’m taking a few of them with me.” And I fought back like the cornered animal I was. Throwing an elbow into the balls of one of them that jumped on my back. Kneeing another one in the face. Punching another one in the throat. They all got suspended (one expelled from the school) and I was — for a few days — a hero.
  • My junior year in high school, I went out for football. I was 5’11, 125 pounds and ran a 6.85 40 (in case you were wondering, turtles are faster). I got destroyed in tackling drills, I puked during the conditioning — and when the season started, I played a grand total of 5 plays for the entire season. One day in practice, the head coach (more than a little crazy) decided to pit the bigger offensive/defensive lineman against some of the smaller kids on the team. One of them was Steve Woodcock. An 18-year who looked 28 with a full beard and mean temper. The coach yelled at Woodcock “If you let Foster tackle you, then we all run sprints”. Here he came. He outweighed me by probably 100 pounds so I knew I couldn’t take him head on. So I decided to jump on his chest. I wove my fingers into his practice jersey and held on. He tried to push me off but couldn’t. As we neared the goal line, I began to slip. Which caused him to trip and fall on top of me about one yard from the end zone. With a spewing of profanity and threats, we all ran sprints. And it was probably the only time I’ve ever run with a smile on my face.

There were many other brave things. Stories maybe for another time. But in my 20s, 30s and into my early 40s, I kept that Justin tucked away in a dark corner; a distant memory. A reminder of what I did not want to become ever again. I covered him up with size, strength, bravado, brashness. But he was still there.

And in the last year, he came out again. But I noticed something this time. He was still brave. Brave enough to move to an entirely new state and start over after 20 years. Brave enough to walk away from the church I attended for pretty much my entire life. Brave enough to start a (another) new business. Brave enough to accept my life-long partner/wife’s awakening of who she truly is. Terrified by all of this, he did it all anyway.

Yes, this Justin is weak. Thank goodness. I’m more certain than ever that our weaknesses are designed to make us ask for help, keep us humble. I would much rather have a powerful soul and a frail body than a frail soul and a powerful body. I would not have known this without my weaknesses. I would not have asked God for help. I would not have gone back to therapy. I would have not spoken the truth if not for these weaknesses.

Of course, there are parts of me that I’m very proud of: being a dad, speaking skills, coaching/mentoring, strategic thinking, owning a business, writing intellect, etc. These things have fueled my confidence for years. And they still do. But added to this is a growing acceptance and confidence of this frail Justin. The bravest coward I’ve ever met.

My Interview on The Complete Leader Podcast

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I was honored to be interviewed by Dale Dixon for The Complete Leader podcast.

The foundation of the conversation was about our root + river philosophy that “Leading is Branding”. I visited with Dale about how branding is no longer done in a vacuum separate from leadership behavior, organization culture, product/service quality – and how every leadership decision manifests in the brand in some way.  I shared three tips for how leaders can greatly influence their corporate brand and their personal brand by re-examining their self-care, habits and thinking as leaders.

Link here. 

I am a faculty member for The Complete Leader, a cohort-style leadership development program designed to rapidly prepare emerging leaders for senior positions. Learn more about The Complete Leader here.

root + river Open Letter

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2014 seems like a hundred years ago. It started with a whisper of awakenings and epiphanies, which became a roar of revelations. Then a move to Austin. Then the conviction that it was time to break out of the steady comfort of being a freelance consultant. That it was time to build something new and daring that blended leadership and branding, spiritual and practical, commerce and creativity.

The result is a new branding firm called root + river.

Launched initially as a creative platform with Emily Soccorsy to change leaders’ perspectives on modern branding, root + river quickly evolved into a business idea. We saw a huge need in the marketplace for a firm that could help leaders convert their 20th century equity into a 21st century brand.

2015 was spent honing, testing, arguing over and refining our language, processes and methods. This past year of working with clients proved our ideas and methods. The year also proved that I had found the perfect business partner in Emily. She is one of the most intense, smart, creative and heart-driven people I’ve ever known. If you don’t know Emily, I encourage you to follow her on twitter @emilyatlarge.

Now root + river is ready to share with the world. To serve rebellious leaders. To piss off institutionalists. To make branding mean something more than interruption and persuasion and instead make branding about leading from the heart, telling the truth and being a monument to a set of beliefs.

Please check out our website at rootandriver.com for more, but here are few things to note:

  • We believe all brands start at the root — and this root is found in the heart and soul of the leader. From this root grows a set of beliefs that become the brand’s ultimate differentiators and constant source of value creation — manifested in the culture, products and human experience.
  • The core of our expertise is around defining a leader’s and/or organization’s core values and beliefs, translating those into a heart-provoking message and amplifying that message with modern marketing methods.
  • We primarily work with leaders over 40 that ready to opt-in to becoming a 21st century brand but don’t know how.

We provide the most value and impact for leaders that …

… are soulful, high EQ humans with a relentless heart for others.

… want to redefine and re-energize a brand that has become stale and boring — their personal brand or their organization brand … or both!

… have a strong conviction to build a brand that is bold, daring and aligned with their purpose and calling.

We work with solo entrepreneurs to small business owners to marketing leaders at large organizations. We have also partnered with a variety of brilliant experts on all tactical aspects of modern marketing so that we can focus on what we do best: strategy, message and coaching.

If this brings to mind a leader that we can serve, we would appreciate an intro. And if the leader that comes to mind is you, let’s talk!

In the interim, please follow us and mention us on social media:

Twitter: @rootandriver

LinkedIn: root + river

Facebook: root + river

Instagram: @rootandriver

Thanks!

Justin

Productivity Alphabet Soup

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One of my goals for 2016 is to teach what I learn from the dark side of being an entrepreneur, leader and human. I want to share my failures, struggles, fears etc in the hope that others will learn from that – and I will use these learnings to grow as well.

So here is one … I suck at being productive.

I’ve struggled to be productive my entire life. Or more accurately, I struggle to be productive when I don’t FEEL like being productive.  I have learned recently that this particular weakness is rooted in impulse vs initiative. This means that when I lose the power of choice, my “productivity” is only impulsive and not proactive. It permeates other parts of my life: fitness, learning, relationships, content creation, finances. If I feel like it, I do it. If I don’t feel it, I will still do it … eventually. And only after wallowing in shame and self-pity.

Any weakness is an opportunity to improve and the opportunity to use a system to create new habits. Having tried an extensive variety of other people’s productivity systems, I only learned that I’m good at not implementing other people’s productive systems #snark.

So in early 2016, I created my own. I call it the “Alphabet Soup” productivity system. I divide my time (which includes focus and energy) into four categories:

MCW – Mission Critical Work: One of our mantras at root + river is “Strategy first, tactics” second, so I apply that to productivity as well. MCW are action items that are directly tied to a strategy or iniative. I typically map that out in groups of 3 – 5 strategic goals – then decide weekly and daily what action needs to be taken to reach those goals. I never have more than five MCW items per week to keep focused – and to make sure that everything doesn’t become mission critical!

GSD – Get [Stuff] Done. This is a phrase I picked up from my business partner Emily Soccorsy. It’s exactly as it sounds – make a list and get it done. I start each morning with a fresh list of no more than seven GSD items. For me, it almost always follows in this order: 1) client work 2) business development and 3) grow the brand. This order keeps me client-centric – which is good for business development and growing the brand.

MSH – Make Someone Happy. For me this is more spiritual than tactical. If someone crosses my heart, I always reach out with at least a text or an email. I also have a rolling list of 8 – 10 influencer relationships that I apply the “Go Giver”principles to. Which, simply put, is “How can I serve them”?  This extends out to conversations with strangers where I try to engage their hearts with a smile or a conversation.

WOM – Work on Me.  In this area, I am trying to follow the counsel and coaching I give to my Austin Sessions clients. Which is this: self-worth drives everything else. I try to work on something weekly and daily in what I call the 5 Pillars of Self-Worth: 1) Physical output 2) Intellectual input 3) Emotional sensitivity 4) Spiritual intelligence and 5) Passion/energy. Each pillar has a 1 – 5 rating (5 the highest) with an action item for each one to move that rating up. I have found without exception that when my pillar ratings are 3.5 or higher, I’m far more productive.

Keep in mind that these are just a system for productivity. As soon as you become a system worshipper, the system is no longer effective. As such, these are no replacement for deep connections, honest conversations, shared adventures and the unexpected magic of life. But they may help you GSD as long as you remember to do MCW first, don’t forget to MSH – and above all, WOM!

Disrupt or Decay? 5 Natural Forces Shaping Your Brand

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We all see the changes. Internal and external forces pushing and pulling on brands. We see the disintegration of the old ways of doing business – but also the emergence of new ways that encourage collaboration, transparency and deeper connections. As market forces and societal trends shape brands, business leaders have a tremendous opportunity to harness these trends rather than just respond to them.

In a presentation is available as a keynote or a half-day executive retreat, I share my insights on 5 emerging business trends that are shaping the future of your brand – including your personal brand – and 5 competencies necessary to harness these trends. Relevant to senior executives, marketing teams and entrepreneurs, this talk covers:

• The convergence of leadership, culture and innovation.
• How Social Business impacts every area of business.
• The rise of “Rebellious Traditionalists”
• 5 competencies required for modern branding
• How to leverage your personal brand to elevate your company brand.

Fear and the Entrepreneur

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I-have-accepted-fear-quoteAn entrepreneur’s relationship with fear is the leading indicator of whether or not he/she will be successful.

Entreprenuers do not get choose whether or not to have fear. They only get to choose what they do with it. I’ve witnessed this first hand with my own fears as an entreprenuer and working with hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years. I’ve learned that fear is a near permanent condition. I’ve learned that no feeling replaces fear other than action. I’ve learned that bravery is not a feeling, it’s a behavior. I’ve learned that fear can be healthy fuel.

I’ve had a tenous relationship with fear my entire life. After turning 40, I sought some professional counseling due to a series of issues. My therapist asked me this: “What was your predominant emotion as a child?” My answer: fear. Although she was helpful in reconciling this childhood fear, I realized that fear is just part of my being. I’ve learned to embrace it … most of the time.

From 2011 to early 2014, I was involved with Klowd.com as a co-founder and CMO. I worked thousands of hours with the founder and CEO Ken Holsinger as well as with my fellow co-founder, our CTO Casey McMullen. Working in a tech start-up was one of the most intense, gratifying and terrifying experiences of my life. I learned many, many things from Ken but mostly I learned from watching how he handled fear. In his words, “You have to make fear your friend”. And he did … leading Klowd to a successful acquisition.

Fear often prevents entrepreneurs and other leaders from opting-in to modern business (5 of these fears are shared here on the root + river blog). But when they have a healthy relationship with fear, entrepreneurs will have a distinct competitive advantage as well as much happier, more balanced lives.

Here are four examples on how being friends with fear is an advantage:

  • Impulse vs Initiative: A negative relationship with fear makes an entreprenuer prone to impulse. This can be “shiny object syndrome” for new tactics, too quickly scrapping a strategy, listening to the “you should …” voices of friends and family. A healthy relationship with fear helps an entrepreneur learn the power of initiative: taking action on the right things. This creates momentum and a sense of control over the things that are actually controllable.
  • Intuition vs Paranoia: If you have a healthy relationship with fear, your intuition will be a finely tuned instrument for decision making, relationship building and setting priorities. If fear owns you, then your primal instincts will often manifest as paranoia. This creates a doom loop of over-reacting, jumping at shadows and carrying around a cloud of desperation.
  • Truth vs BS: A healthy relationship with fear allows an entrepreneur to simply tell the truth; to embrace vulnerability and transparency. In fact, expressing your fears shrinks them down and allows for reinforcements. Rather than prop up an image or try to put a shine on everything, they will speak the truth to employees, customers, investors, etc.
  • Message vs Slogan: The healthy entrepreneur always has a message to share. They speak their message in the face of fear. In fact, expressing the message helps alleviate fear. The entrepreneur with an unhealthy relationship with fear is always worried about offending someone or saying just the right thing to get the deal, or waving the magic wand of a slogan.

Most days, I still wake up terrified. But I’ve learned to re-channel this terror to remind me to keep going, to listen to my heart, to speak truth, to love people, to act on what I can control. Even if sometimes all I can control is to rest, heal and return to fight on.