John Wood

John WoodEntrepreneur, Life Coach, and Business Consultant

Deborah Brownstein held this conversation with John on June 22, 2010.

Deborah: John, your entrepreneurial spirit was evident from your childhood. At the age of six you were collecting flowers from nearby vacant land, putting them in jam jars, and pricing them by the jar size. At twelve, you ran a comic exchange. At fifteen you left school, intending to be a businessman. At nineteen, you took over a rundown deli and turned it into what some called the best delicatessen in the Perth, Australia. As founder and CEO of Fleetwood Corporation, you joined the ranks of organization builders and entrepreneurs for which Western Australia was to become famous.

For all your success, you have described the tension and stress you were experiencing. How would you characterize your leadership style in those early years?

John: A benevolent dictator. I was very task and outcome oriented; the process for me was quite brutal. I am not saying I was a brutal person, but the process for me was a hard grind. I saw there were no free lunches; one had to work incredibly hard, unceasingly. I drove myself relentlessly, rising early, working late. You know that saying “no pain, no gain;” life was a struggle, a fight, nonstop competition.

Behind all my hard work was the idea that everything needed to be controlled. I had to control myself. I had to control my staff, the process, and how we delivered our service. I wanted to give our clients the ultimate service; I use to rationalize my behavior as enlightened self-interest. By giving exemplary service and nothing less we would be successful. My desire to be of service was coming from a place within me, but somewhere between that place and the delivery there was a harsh voice that said everything had to be orchestrated and controlled. Delivering our promise to the customer was an unrelenting task.

So, life was an ongoing struggle for me. I didn’t realize for a long time that I lived in almost a perpetual state of depression. I performed well in the world. I was seen as a positive, bright, energetic, articulate sort of individual; but it was a performance. I was an actor who was not deeply connected to his role. But others—caught up in the same world as I was—saw me as a superstar. I don’t say that with pride; I say that as someone who was living a false life.

Deborah: You were successful in the eyes of the world.

John: That is right. But I was full of contradictions. I didn’t go overboard flaunting my success. I didn’t spend foolishly or put on a big show in a material sense. For me it was all about success and achievement; success was the end game. But, my behavior was isolating. I had a disconnect between myself and humanity; I did not have an inner-connection with people. A little voice in the back of my head told me it was possible to feel the connection, but I didn’t understand it nor could I achieve it.

Reading books starts to open one to other possibilities; I became an avid reader. At the age of fifteen or sixteen, I read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The fact that I bought a book like that demonstrates that I was looking for help. I found some intellectual understanding, but I was seeking something else.

Deborah: It sounds as if you were searching for connections with other people and for the truth about yourself.

John: That is what it was; I was looking first for the truth about myself, my True Self as Barry calls it. And, I was really trying to connect with other people, to feel that bond, to feel that I was participating in the same world as everyone else. But, I felt I was an alien; I couldn’t connect. I was really outside of the circle. I wanted to knock on the door to get in, but I couldn’t find the door.

Deborah: You have obviously found a few doors since then.

John: There were two very significant turning points. There had been minor ones along the way where I got glimpses of what I was looking for. But then I stumbled across an approach that you and Barry are familiar with. Back then it was called Psychology of Mind or Health Realization. I remember travelling to the United States to attend my second program. We were in a little place called Tiburon across the bay from San Francisco. People from all over the world and from many parts of the United States were there for a five-day seminar delivered by trainers and practitioners of this counseling approach. I was really struggling. Perhaps you remember a famous scene in the movie Harry Meets Sally: They are in a New York delicatessen and an elderly woman observing Sally really, really enjoying her meal and making lots of oos and ahs says to the waiter “I want what she’s having.” I was feeling tortured as I sat there because I knew a lot of people around me felt a deep connection to life and were at various stages of inner peace; I was not a peace at all.

Then something was said that I heard on a deep level: The reality we experience is created within our own mind. A light went on, and I was swept with feelings of overwhelming peace and joy and love. In that profound moment of realization I saw that we all create our own realities. I saw that circumstances do not determine our level of happiness or our sense of peace. Rather, the quality of thought we have in the moment—the simple quiet, stillness of our mind—brings with it this deep feeling of connection to life. I remember feeling that I already had within myself all that I had been seeking since I was a young boy. It felt like, until that moment, I had never really been alive. Life was perfect, everyone was perfect, I was perfect just as I was. There was nothing to find; there was nothing to seek, just to realize something we already had.

In that moment, I was transformed by experiencing my True Self. I am not saying that I stayed in that state forever more; I certainly did not. But having been there, I knew I could find my way back, eventually, to that beautiful feeling that we all have within us as our birthright.

Deborah: Yours is a beautiful story. Moment by moment we can bring ourselves back to experience our True Self and our connection with each other. We create our experience by the thoughts we honor. You saw that this state of mind could be carried through to guide the conscious leader. Was it after that experience that you decided to help others find that connection?

John: There was another bridge between that first moment of realization and my later decision to form a new organization to work with individuals including business leaders and eventually companies and nonprofit organizations.

At the time, this second turning point made a lot more sense to me than the first. My first moment of realization had been like a religious experience—an epiphany. I was not able to sustain that beautiful feeling, although I had a lot of clarity around it. I held it as a guiding light, you might say; but I got tangled up again in my outer-world. I was experiencing difficulty in my business; the world was going through difficult times economically, and that was impacting the business I led. External matters pressed on me, and I wasn’t able to maintain my bearings in face of my own thinking, in face of my own stress and anxiety.

Barry makes the point that when we change our mind, we change our experience of reality; if we change our mind, we can change our organizations. I knew that to be absolutely true. So I was even more conflicted. I had found a truth, but re-accessing that state-of-mind was difficult. I judged myself. I believed that I wasn’t doing a good enough job within my organization; I felt I was actually failing the organization, failing my people, and failing myself. I decided to leave. This was a company that I had founded and had now become a public corporation. A couple of people were in position to take over, and I made up my mind—I was gone within two weeks. In a relatively short time I sold all my shares. This was very dramatic; it happened quickly. I’m pleased to say that the company I left behind has gone on to bigger and better things. It is one of the top 200 companies in Australia and the preeminent company in its field.

But it was time for me to devote my life to my inner development. I wanted to make a firm connection with the deeper reality I had experienced so that when it slipped away, reconnecting to it would not be a struggle. I went back to the United States to train with the people that I had worked with earlier. I clearly remember being in a session with my wife when the trainer said to me, “John I really like you, but you are the most arrogant person I have ever met.” I was shocked and embarrassed; I was very critical of myself. I trusted this person’s judgment; she spoke to me with such a feeling of love and affection that, while it cut me to my core, I knew her observation was accurate.

That afternoon I had a one-on-one session with my principal trainer (he had been briefed on the earlier session). He looked at me, scratched his head, and told me I was a puzzle and a conundrum. Then it came to him. “I know what the problem is,” he said to me. “You have no inner-world, John. Your whole world is external.” At that time, I had never heard the expressions inner-world or inner-life. For all I had read, had I skipped over those parts spelling this out? I didn’t have a context for it. I was completely bewildered. What did he mean that I had no inner-world? As the session ended, he asked me to think about it.

By this time, I’d only gone two rounds. The first blow knocked me up and the second brought me down. My wife and I went for a walk in the little fishing port of LaConner in Washington State where the training was being held. As we walked the village street, I asked my wife if she knew what they are talking about. “Yes,” she answered, “I know what they are talking about.” “What is this inner-world that I do not have?” was my desperate cry. I struggled, days passed, and eventually the penny dropped. I realized that I had never grown in a spiritual sense; I knew that I had to grow my inner-world so that the passage going from my outer-world to my inner-world would be easier and quicker; that the two would become integrated. I could in fact change my mind. I could start to live from that inner-world influence rather than revert to being a constantly driven, outcome oriented, self-obsessed individual. So that was my second turning point: I realized that to grow as a human being with connection to others, I could choose to live from my inner-world as conductor of my life and not my outer-world. And so I started to on a daily basis, on a moment by moment basis, to choose my state-of-mind, to live out of my inner-world.

To say that a shift in me happened in a moment and then the rest of my life has been plain sailing would, of course, be a misrepresentation. The process was challenging for me, I was enmeshed in my outer-world. I struggled. But having come to realize the distinction between my outer-world and my inner-world, I had points of reference to guide me forward. Ultimately, it was possible for me to work with other people and assist them in finding and allowing their inner-world to flourish and understanding the dramatic distinction.

Disconnection and control are really the only ways we can operate in the outer-world; these are the modus operandi of being in the outer world. Connection and giving up control are the modus operandi of working from our inner-world. I have become a lifetime student of my inner-world and integrating the two.

Deborah: What you are saying is that each of us is able to observe ourselves and make the choice. It sounds very like what Barry describes in The Inner-Work of Leadership: We can choose to be guided by our ego or by our True Self. Making that choice, moment by moment, is our inner-work. You use the term conscious leader to talk about one who is aware of that choice. What does it mean to be conscious?

John: When I use the word conscious I mean the degree to which we are awake to what we are creating via our thinking in each moment. There are levels of consciousness. Leaders can become increasingly more conscious. Certainly, at my starting point, I was a very unconscious leader. I gained a lift in consciousness when I realized that I was creating my moment to moment reality via the quality of the thinking I entertained. The more clearly I recognized that, the more conscious I became.

In the way I had lived my life, in the way I had interacted and disconnected from people with the ingrained habits I had formed, I could easily revert to command-and-control type thinking, which I believe comes from a very unconscious state-of-mind. In an unconscious state of mind we don’t recognize that we create our reality via our thinking. We don’t see that we rethink our habits back into existence.

In a conscious state-of-mind I could, using Barry’s descriptor, give up control. When any of us stops trying to manipulate, contrive, or control life and all the people in it, we become aware of our humanity, our human connection. We have faith in our self and faith that all people have an inherent capability to be responsible, to do what is appropriate in the moment, to make wise decisions, to be understanding, and to receive inner guidance. A leader in this state-of-mind is of benefit to all.

I have an example to share with you to compare what it is to be unconscious and what it is to be somewhat conscious. Once upon a time, if I had an interview like this, I would be trying to impress you and the reader so you’d think I am clever and smart. I would be stuck in my ego trying to be profound or saying what would place me in the right light: It was all about me. I was very insecure—a common trait of command and control leaders.

And today, I am not trying to impress you or the reader. Instead, I am trying to look deeper into my own mind and heart and soul and share anything that might be remotely useful to you or to your reader. Realizing my own fallibility and limitations and how little I understand, I want to share the little I have to offer. Not because I think I know anything more than anyone else, but simply because you’ve asked me and I am willing to do that.

There is a different feeling in me today, a feeling of humility. And I’m not sure what humility really is; the term is bandied about a lot. For me it is really understanding that I control nothing, there is nothing that I really know, but as a human being I can connect with other people.  Now, as you and I have this conversation, I can share whatever skills, or ability, or knowledge that I have garnered during my lifetime, but more importantly than that, I can access a deeper place of wisdom within me that is common to all humanity. I am able to recognize my false self and point myself back in the direction of my True Self and sink deeper into my True Self during the course of a conversation. I can now point others away from their false self and help them look in the direction where their True Self lies, as I do for myself. I know from many conversations, including my work with executives, that all of us want to live from our True Self. Peace, happiness, productivity, joy, energy, problem solving, all positive attributes come from our True Self. If our false self enters the conversation, it is a poor facsimile of what is possible.

Deborah: I would like to hear you talk more about what you experience when you engage in a conversation, not to control, but to listen.

John: I am an enthusiastic, but still a primary school, student of deep listening. It is my most conscious and active pursuit, as it is for my wife. I think the bottom line is that when we listen with our heart and with our soul, we open up a direct channel to the other person and to life. Our ego dissolves when we hear into the heart and mind of the other person. This listening enables the person we are talking with to blossom, to dissolve their own ego, and to connect with their own True Self. And of course, it becomes a heart-to-heart talk, not just intellect-to-intellect. Instead of the conversation becoming a battle of the egos, we simultaneously harness the full value of the intellect as we draw out our own deep wisdom, our own understanding, our own love, our own commonsense; everything that stands between us is resolved. All the drive and driven-ness is gone: But, our inner motivation is still there. We lose nothing and gain everything. The conversation flows; we experience the beautiful feeling that anything is possible. We find success in the worldly sense; but way beyond that, we find peace.

Deborah: The quality of our conversations is a link between our inner-world and the culture of our organizations. In those conversations we have an opportunity to translate the values that guide us personally to values that can guide the organization. As a new paradigm of business is arising today, leadership is also being redefined. It seems to me that a leader today is the shepherd of the organizational culture. What thoughts would you like to share about this next leg of the journey where we begin to translate our individual inner-worlds into a shared organizational culture? What is the link between the emerging role of leadership and our emerging understanding of how people can work together at a deeper level in organizations?

John: That is a great question to respond to. You mentioned being a shepherd. It is a lovely metaphor. For me, I believe I am being a conscious leader when I am living in the moment the values that I believe are essential. When I am listening deeply to each and every person that I come in contact with within the organization, being respectful and responding to each and every person, then I am a good leader. It doesn’t matter if it is a two-person organization or a organization of 50,000 people. Listening really takes us to a convergence between what I call doing what works and doing what matters.

There is often a pull within organizations between doing what works and doing what matters. Some people will see from an outer-world perspective that doing what works is the only thing that matters. Other people who see more clearly what matters can be just as obstinate and difficult as their counterparts. They are as much in the outer-world, in my view, as people who do only what works and disregard matters of the heart. Sometimes people who are ruled by their heart are unable to make difficult decisions.

Yet, there is a way of making decisions from that deeper place within; the path ahead becomes clear at the moment of convergence between doing what works and doing what matters. You reach this convergence by deep listening. A feeling comes from deep listening, a feeling that encompasses understanding, wisdom, commonsense. I use the word feeling rather than thought because in that moment of convergence, our whole approach is imbued with love. I am not talking about romantic love, of course. I am talking about realizing the deep connections we have with our fellow human beings and with all of nature.

If we shepherd from that point of convergence, decisions are made from a deep place of love, understanding, wisdom, and commonsense. The pain of a difficult decision will be minimized and the organizational culture will move to a new place of clarity, of strength, of performance, and of connectedness. People will take responsibility and we know that taking responsibility works. Hard decisions will be made, but they will not be heartless. Can you see that possibility?

Deborah: I believe that I can, John. Together you can make hard choices from a place of peace and love. As a parent I have been called on to do this. Out of love, we can make a hard choice and be peaceful.

John: A shepherd has a parental role, the role of the elder. But here is a caution: The shepherd can easily slip into being a benevolent dictator. It is such a fine line that we walk as a shepherd.

Deborah: It would be good to get even clearer on the state-of-mind that would lead one to shepherd without being a benevolent dictator. A benevolent dictator always believes he or she knows best what others should do, and that puts us right back into commanding and controlling.

John: If we take the model of the shepherd then it is to become a shepherd amongst shepherds: We must recognize the shepherd within everyone else. This is essential: Knowing that other people also know. Knowing that there is only one ultimate truth: When people are in a state of love, they make very wise decisions.

To young or old inner-world explorers, I would offer this caution: There is a trap they might fall into. It is the trap of thinking that there is some distinction between how we are at home with our loved ones and how we are at work with our peers and colleagues. The important thing for me is knowing and understanding that there no distinction between how I want to live at home and how I want to live at work. Being in the world, in the boardroom, on the shop floor, at home around the dining table—it is all the same. Would we dress differently in the boardroom? Yes, there are protocols we might want to follow, but the feeling in our hearts needs to be the same around the boardroom table and around the diningroom table.  The feeling of respect that we have for our family is the same feeling of respect that we need to have for our fellow board members, or our supervisors, or our subordinates, or our peers. We miss the deeper point when we draw distinctions. A person may feel safe at home and at work feel a lot of fear. The ego takes control in the realm of fear; inevitably a need to control others arises, and inevitably harsh, even brutal, behavior follows.

Deborah: If we live with our True Self in the foreground of our mind then we will not partition our lives to be one way in one place and another way in another place. If we do put on different faces for different situations, we are actors in all places.

John: Right, and our false self would give the performance. But, we can become increasingly conscious, aware of what we are thinking, aware of what we are choosing, and what we are creating. This is our inner-work, and we are all work-in-progress, aren’t we?

Deborah: Our inner-work is never done because moment by moment we choose which thoughts to honor. Our True Self may be in the foreground or in the background; we may be conscious or unconscious. Given that all humans make the same journey, it might be helpful for us to hear of the challenges you continue to face even now after years of inner-work. What encouragement would you give your fellow travelers?

John: Your question reminds me of the saying: “The search has ended but the journey has just begun”. After that first experience of my inner-world I knew I had found the door to home and no longer needed to keep searching, to continue trying to control my life and everyone else’s life. I could stop trying to be captain of the world. It wasn’t that I lost my motivation to do a good job or to make a difference; quite the contrary. But I was free of the delusional burden of being “the one” that knew best, the one that was always right and wanting everyone else to see “it” my way, whatever “it” happened to be. What a relief that has been and what a journey it has turned out to be.

I encourage fellow travellers to ask themselves the question: How do I want to be in relationship with life? When referring to life I am referring to family, friends, colleagues, humanity, to nature, to “Life” in totality. When referring to relationship I am referring to our degree of connection or disconnection with our fellow travellers both human and non-human, and planet Earth. Reflect on the question and when your answer comes—your vision for your life—do the necessary inner-work to be in integrity with that vision. It is truly worth the effort.

Deborah: Thank you for so generously sharing your story.

John: Thank you for the opportunity to give expression to some of my inner-world thoughts.

John Wood resides in Darlington, Western Australia. He is a successful entrepreneur, life coach and business consultant. After growing Fleetwood Corporation Ltd. to be one of the largest park home, transportable home, and portable accommodation providers to the retirement and recreational industries in Australia, John retired in 1993 to found the Philosophy of Everyday Living Centre. His goal was to coach individuals and mentor leaders in working from the “inside out” to create high-performance, low-maintenance, socially responsible organizations. Clients from around the world come to learn how to access their true potential and that of their organization and each individual in it.

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