Trial by Fire

Best-selling author and renowned motivational speaker John O’Leary—who was nearly burned alive in a gas explosion when he was 9 years old—talks about turning challenges into opportunities.

Realizing the trials of life bring us opportunities to do even better than we would have without them

Thirty years after an explosion left him badly burned and without fingers on either hand, John O’Leary is a globally recognized motivational speaker and the author of “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life.” Here, O’Leary discusses overcoming obstacles, leading by example and the power of the piano.

BBTLI: Your accident changed the course of your life. Tell us about some of the people who have made a difference that day and since.

John O’Leary: When a lot of folks share their stories, it’s all about them and how tough and resilient they were. The reality is nothing happens without everybody else showing up. For me, that began moments after the explosion, from my 17-year-old brother who picked up a rug and rolled on top of me until the flames went out, to my sisters who helped him, to the paramedics and EMTs, to the doctors, to the love my mother and father showed me. There are just too many others to mention.

BBTLI: You’ve talked about a transformative moment when you decided to stop trying to be like everyone else and embrace your own life. Tell us about that.

John O’Leary: It was after my father wrote a book about me being burned. I recognized not only all I’d been through, but what a gift the fire was. Many of the best things in my life are the result of the fire, such as where I went to college and met my wife, which has led to four children.

I started to learn a lot more about me, the good and the bad. I wasn’t the only one who got burned that day. My mom, dad, my brother and my four sisters, I’d never once considered what the fire meant to them. That allowed me to open up my own heart—not only to others but to my own story.

BBTLI: How does one stay hopeful during difficult times?

John O’Leary: By realizing the trials of life bring us opportunities to do even better than we would have without them.

BBTLI: There are as many challenges and opportunities in the workplace as there are in our personal lives. What should leaders be doing differently right now?

John O’Leary: Intentionally creating a little bit of space throughout your day—not to do, but to reflect, consider and dream.

BBTLI: How can leaders create a more engaged workforce?

John O’Leary: By making sure we tie the things we do to something bigger. The more the work isn’t work but a mission, the better.

Also, get a pulse on your employees’ lives and relationships, where they’re going next and what matters to them.

BBTLI: You’re known for playing the piano when you speak to audiences. Why?

John O’Leary: During a visit to a school, the students asked me, “Can you shoot a basket?” I shot a basket, and they just loved it. Another asked, “Can you drive?” I said, “Well, how do you think I got here?” Another said, “Can you dress yourself?” And I responded, “Well, am I naked?” Then one said, “Can you play a musical instrument?” There was a piano on the stage, and I played a song. The kids loved it, and it jarred something in me. If a little boy with no fingers can be taught to play the piano, you can do more with less too.

BBTLI: How do you think your life would have been different had it not been for what happened to you?

John O’Leary: I’d be in the twilight of my career as a St. Louis Cardinals shortstop. It’s highly unlikely that would have happened...but I’m also glad it didn’t. I would have missed how incredibly remarkable life is, how sacred and finite it is. I think I would have taken life for granted.

BBTLI: What do you hope the leadership conference audience takes away from your talk?

John O’Leary: That I had some incredible leaders come into my life—everyone from world-class physicians to Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. And as influential as these leaders were, the most important leaders in my life were unknowns.

So, yes, job titles matter, the ability to influence others matters, and success matters. But embrace your own worthiness, the ability to positively transform the life of another person. Later on, someone’s going to look back and recognize you as the person who changed their life.

Photography by Franz Krachtus

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