Julian Bolster’s life story and his work are examples of positive leadership – so let’s talk with this international leadership coach. Julian co-authored a book with Dr. Deepak Chopra, “Roadmap to Success”, and is working on a second book about leadership. An interview by Marcella Bremer.
Marcella Bremer: Who is Julian Bolster?
Julian Bolster: I started in business almost 20 years ago. My first company started out of the storage closet of another company because I couldn’t afford the rent – and this friend lent me space. Within a few months, I could pay rent and grew my payroll services company to be the largest of its kind in Canada and subsequently sold it to my billion-dollar competitor.
The reason why I succeeded wasn’t because I was good at business – it was because I was persistent. I had no problem operating outside of any comfort zone, and that’s because something happened to me when I was 18.
At 18, life was looking pretty good for me as I was on track to be an astronaut. I was the only teenager working for the Canadian Space Agency. Not because I was brilliant but because I had written them one letter each week for nine months – asking for any job, as a volunteer, as whatever – and they had eventually awarded my persistence.
But in December that year I was hit by a drunk driver. I woke up a few days later in the hospital with a broken neck and a collapsed spine. My brain had begun to swell, and I had retrograde amnesia, which meant that I had severe memory loss. They assessed my education level to be back at grade 5!
Doctors told my parents that I’d probably be dependent on them for the rest of my life. I didn’t have proper use of my arms and my legs and was in a wheelchair.
I was about to give up – imagine being 18 and needing care just like a child – but I had a powerful experience. There was a young man in the hospital who was so much worse off than me. He had a dozen operations to put his body back together and without ever saying, so he gave me the message that anything is possible. He was such an uplifting example.
That’s when I decided to choose my own path, rather than the path that many doctors and experts had laid out for me. I chose to tackle my recovery with an unstoppable passion but not so much for myself but rather so that no one else would have to be lost inside of the feeling of hopelessness. I realized that the idea of fighting for my recovery was powerful, yes, but applying myself to this recovery could remind others that they had options too. To give them hope, was far more powerful a motivation — to show everyone who had given up on themselves that anything is possible.
And I did it! I trained myself out of the wheelchair. And a former high school teacher worked with me full time for 1,5 years to get me through high school again. I graduated with honors and went off to study engineering. I was back on track…Anything is possible - even if you have given up Click To Tweet
Anything is possible had become my motto – and I applied it to business as well. I wanted to build a great business but I didn’t have an MBA or a lot of money or investors. So, I asked myself: If anything was possible, what would I do? And I came up with this preposterous idea: I’ll go to a bigger competitor and tell the owner: “I can do what you do, but I can do it better. Give me your company and I will run it for you and write you a check every month for 30% of the profit.” Every mentor I had, every CFO I knew said: “You are crazy. No one will do this.”
But I knocked on someone’s door, let’s call him Tim. He said I was crazy – but he was intrigued and called me back two weeks later. Three months later I had grown the company 6 or 7 times. I repeated that model with other companies. I didn’t succeed because of my business acumen but because I allowed myself to be creative as a child.
Children don’t have a past and they see the future without previous limitations. They operate from what they want. I did the same and had tremendous success. I asked myself: If anything was possible, what would I do?
Marcella Bremer: You were daring greatly! You took the risk of losing face, of failure…. Those fears of the ego that normally hold us back.
Julian Bolster: That’s true. After selling my company, I became an executive coach. I was also asked to contribute to a book with Deepak Chopra and Ken Blanchard, titled “Roadmap to Success”. That gave me more leverage. I currently own six companies, and I do business in 26 countries, I advise leaders on international politics and cultures and I love it. I help leaders see: anything is possible. They get to create what they want.
Part of what I do is to decentralize leadership. Many leaders operate out of an outdated model of leadership – assuming that leadership exists only at the top of the organization. But people no longer work for a paycheck primarily – they want to belong to an organization that matters. People want to work for an idea. They don’t want to sell their time for money. They want to contribute to something meaningful. Only in such a setting will they give their best. Decentralizing leadership means changing the work mill mentality and making everyone the CEO of their particular specialty or job.
That is what I do. I work with those leaders who want something more than the work mill status quo.
Marcella Bremer: How do you identify the leaders to work with?
Julian Bolster: They need to be open and have a vision. A vision that is more than power but that speaks to all those levels. Clients come to me because they know what I stand for.
My work is based on inspiration, because you can’t lead through the rearview mirror. You have to look forward. I was invited to a session with founders of startups at the West Coast the other day. They started talking about the past, and I said: “Every minute we talk about the past, will cost you $ 100.” They stopped.
Regardless of what the past is, it is not going to help you. Today is the beginning of the rest of your life – so decide what you want to achieve. Focusing on the future and inspiration, people become very excited. Of course, there are always struggles, conflicts, and disappointments. It’s part of life. But you don’t have to linger on it. Instead, focus on what works and what works even better. That gets you going.Today is the beginning of the rest of your life, so decide what you want Click To Tweet
Marcella Bremer: That’s a nice working definition of Positive Leadership: Focus on what works and what works even better.
Julian Bolster: Yes, and that’s why I advise asking all your staff members what their core values are. What matters so much to them that they want to make it come true. Next, invite them to see how their job can be a vehicle for achieving their goals and living their values. That is energizing.
When I worked with a client company last week, one guy told me about a certain charity. So, how would it feel if the success of the company contributed to this charity? If he convinces the company to contribute to this charity, this guy no longer sees his job as selling time for money. It means achieving his goals and his work becomes part of his purpose.Make everyone the CEO of something Click To Tweet
My advice: Try to make everyone the CEO of something. Give people an opportunity to engage, involve them – and that will inspire the next generation at work.
Marcella Bremer: Is it hard to sell this message that everyone can be the CEO of something?
Julian Bolster: Well, there’s this universal equalizer: people tend to actively disassociate from things that cause them pain. If this weren’t true, everyone would be in their ideal marriage and job. Because, how else could you endure a less than perfect situation? The only way is to disassociate – to not feel everything fully, to go numb and to not focus on what hurts somehow.
Leadership always starts with the smallest unit. If people are not a leader in how they live their life, I am not sure how they can bring any leadership to their work. Everyone is the CEO of their own life. We take it from there.
Marcella Bremer: So, you teach people to associate with what they want and to take action?
Julian Bolster: Yes. It doesn’t matter what you are or where you are stuck. Ask: Where do you want to be in six months’ time? Then you will get inspired.Motivation is when you take an idea and get it somewhere. Click To Tweet
It has to do with the difference between motivation and inspiration. Motivation is like a parking meter. It works as long as you feed it. Typical incentives are money, power, the corner office, and status. Motivation is when you take an idea and pick it up to get it somewhere. Inspiration is when an idea picks you up. When you get people inspired, anything is possible. You don’t need to feed it – it feeds you.Inspiration is when an idea picks you up Click To Tweet
Think of the most difficult, cynical leaders. Keep asking them where they want to be in six months until you hear a visceral change in their voice, excitement, and energy. Then reflect it back to where they are right now – they are stuck and they are complaining. Ask: If you weren’t working 50 hours a week, what would you be doing? If you get people in touch with the true cost of their unhappiness and make them feel what they want, they will start moving.
Marcella Bremer: But what if they blame the others? What if they place the locus of control to change outside of themselves? I have seen this happen regularly. Managers were saying: I want a great team, but that’s not possible with this incompetent group. I want this – but because of the others or this outside factor – I can’t achieve it.
Julian Bolster: Sure, that happens. I keep teasing them to look at themselves. But the world doesn’t need another salesperson. So I am not selling my idea that they can change anything. I learned this from my first and favorite business coach: If you are not willing to get fired by your client, you are not doing a good enough job.
So, if I work with a CEO, who says that he’s surrounded by idiots, I say: “Aha, so there is no hope for you. There are no options, and nothing can be done. How does that make you feel? What does this belief cost you? Can you prove that this is true? Are there only incompetent people in your organization…?”
At some point, they might admit they can’t absolutely prove it. Then, there may be possibilities again. There’s a crack in the belief and the light shines in. There’s a little hope….
Marcella Bremer: You bring hope and your core message that anything is possible.
Julian Bolster: Yes. I got myself out of a wheelchair and redid my schooling. You have to challenge the status quo. Anyone can do so. No one wakes up in the morning eagerly committed to the idea that everything is miserable. People want to have hope. That’s universal in all countries where I work.
Marcella Bremer: Do you see trends? What is happening worldwide?
Julian Bolster: I see start-ups and small businesses getting the idea of decentralization of leadership. In large organizations too, but they are slower to respond. “Everyone-a-leader” is happening.
Marcella Bremer: While you travel the world, giving advice and coaching CEOs, how do you maintain your health and sanity? Being positive is great, but traveling and working hard is demanding for all of us.
Julian Bolster: I tend to run my body the same way I run a business. There’s a balance sheet and I need to make more deposits than I take out. Fitness, sleep, and food are important. Exercise on a daily basis is a must. It’s also the quality of time that I spend with loved ones. In my calendar, I have four categories: mental, physical, social, spiritual. I make sure I do activities in all four. For instance: I have two dates a week with my wife and that makes me feel renewed. That’s how I stay sane. That’s how anything is possible!
Julian Bolster can be reached via http://www.julianbolster.com/
Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI-online.com.