The Acumen community heard from Michael Brody-Waite, a viral TEDx speaker, author, and CEO of Addictive Leadership, at our most recent Advance Leadership Workshop. If you missed his compelling and hands-on workshop, that's a shame - but we're happy to share some of the highlights with you below. 

The Story

"Hi, I'm Mike, and I'm a drug addict."

Michael Brody-Waite begins all of his speaking engagements with that jarring statement. As a young adult, Michael was leading himself straight to an early grave. He was using drugs daily; he'd been kicked out of college, fired from his job, and evicted from his home; he was regularly stealing money from his friends, and he was throwing up blood. Once he finally got to rehab, he was taught the three basic core principles that make the 12 Step Program the uniquely effective self-leadership system that it is. These principles set him on the path to recovery, eventually coming to define his entire life and his work as a successful entrepreneur, and he continues to apply them as a speaker and author in leadership and business settings today. 

"I am successful, not in spite of my addiction, but because of my recovery."


The Takeaways

So what are those transformative principles that can be so effectively applied in both addiction recovery and business leadership?

  • Practice rigorous authenticity.
  • Surrender the outcome.
  • Do uncomfortable work.

Those sound simple - especially the last one. Yep, changing my life should be easy if I embrace a Just Do It attitude when it comes to my least-favorite tasks and projects and... just do it.

As it turns out, simple things are rarely easy. 

What prevents us from tackling our uncomfortable work?

Succinctly put, we are all barred from tackling our uncomfortable work by fear. Michael described a study led by Lisa Gevelber, head of global marketing at Google, that revealed that one of the powerful traits of Google's most successful teams - and the most difficult to replicate - is psychological safety. That's become a bit of buzzword lately, and it can be abused to allow for low performance, but Michael placed his emphasis on the value of psychological safety in the sense of an individual's willingness take risks and be vulnerable. He likened it, again, to the 12 Step Program, which empowers addicts to own up to the worst thing about themselves in front of a community that will not reject them, but will support one another in doing the hard work of recovery.

Uncomfortable work is usually uncomfortable because of some deeper, sublimated and catastrophic fear. For example, you might be avoiding creating a performance management plan for that one team member because you worry that if you come down hard on them, the rest of the team will turn against you because they adore her. Maybe everyone will quit, and then your business will be in shambles or even fail. It sounds silly when it's said out loud, but often those messages of death and doom ARE hiding beneath our avoidance of difficult, often people-centric challenges! Without a space and community openly dedicated to supporting team members in tackling their uncomfortable work, cycles of fear and avoidance just continue round and round. We run from work that makes us feel bad, but avoiding that work just compounds the root problem - so we feel worse, and we run harder. Round and round it goes.

“Fear is what makes uncomfortable work uncomfortable."


What's the cost of avoiding uncomfortable work?

Our avoidance of uncomfortable work costs us our scarcest and most valuable resource: time. When we avoid the uncomfortable work of saying no, refusing to trim time-wasting projects or manage persistently low-performing employees, we cost ourselves hours of valuable time each year.

The average worker spends 50 days per year on low value work.

45% of meetings serve no clear purpose.

32% of employees say yes to things they shouldn't and overcommit.

Time is an invisible, intangible resource, so we tend not to be aware of its value. But imagine: if you (or an employee) are spending 4 hours a week on low value emails and distracting, tangential projects or meetings, you are losing 4 hours each that could be spent on your highest value activity, whether that's sales or strategy, and then losing out on that activity's indisputable benefits and and very real profits.

How can we get in the habit of tackling our uncomfortable work on a regular basis?

Michael has a simple response to the question of how to tackle uncomfortable work - make the intangible resource of time tangible. At our workshop, Michael walked participants through an exercise that involved creating a kind of personal permission slip for taking back the time wasted by avoiding uncomfortable work. 

He walked us through these questions:

  • What do you say yes to that you shouldn't? (Examples include suboptimal performance in employees, time-wasting events and meetings, projects that overload your plate, and so on.)
  • Why do you want to say yes? What are you worried will happen if you don't?
  • What "doom or death" script does that worry prompt? (For example, "I'll lose my job and wind up homeless!")
  • How uncomfortable does that FEEL? But objectively, how likely is it for that catastrophic fear to come true?

Having considered these questions, we then turned our attention to identifying the High Value Activity that we would be able to spend more time on if we reclaimed the time currently wasted by avoiding uncomfortable work. We even walked through specific estimates of the time sacrificed and gained in our specific circumstances.

Don’t focus on what to stop. Focus on what to start instead.

This, Michael asserted, was the message of the personal permission slip: "I need to say no to spending X amount of time on X (avoiding uncomfortable work) so that I can say yes to spending X amount of time on X (High Value Activity)." For the cherry on top, identify the lightning rod metric (people served, dollars in revenue, etc.) that this reclaimed time would generate!

Our time of learning with Michael was packed with inspiration and hands-on, applicable challenges; and you can check out his book to learn more!


The Acumen community engages in a catalytic, exclusive Advance Leadership Workshop once a quarter – it’s just one of the many ways we strive to sharpen, challenge, and inspire our partners! More details and a list of our previous workshop speakers can be found here.