Dave’s Really Bad Day: A Prius, An Ambulance and UCLA

It’s true what they say about car accidents. At least the bad ones. Or at the least the only bad one that I’ve had—last Wednesday night. I don’t remember the Prius taxi cab turning to get on Southbound 405 in Los Angeles. I don’t remember the “large” or “enormous” Mercedes turning into us (the taxi driver and me). I don’t remember the impact. Thank goodness.

I do remember coming to slowly, in the Ronald Reagan Medical Center at UCLA, with a neck brace to prevent cervical movement and an IV in each arm. I remember the feeling of the scissors as the custom made Brooks Brothers suit was removed from my body. I remember thinking of a scene from the sequel to Patton when his general’s uniform was cut off of him after a traffic accident that led to his paralysis and, eventually, to his death.

I remember words: “morphine,” “CT scan,” and “head injury.” I could see the concerned and focused faces of the medical professionals and the police. The word that summarized it was “bad.” Perhaps, “oh shit, really bad.”

I could think of a few words myself: “Feinberg” (as in Dr. David, the CEO of the UCLA Health System), and “plastics.” By the time I was enough of myself to know that this wasn’t an alien abduction, purgatory or nightmare, my wife was there. She was holding my hand, looking brave and comforting, but that post-accident altered state of awareness turns the smallest quivering muscles into meaning. I knew it was bad. As I could talk more, I felt that my teeth were not where they were supposed to be. The tip of my tongue was feeling the top of them. I have vague memories of the doctors stitching up a gash on my chin that looks like a second smile and people looking at my right ear and frowning.

At one point, the trauma team began a series of simple tests, each one making me feel like I’d live. Could I see through my left eye? Yes. Right? Yes. My ears worked, although the right one hurt to the touch, even through the morphine fog. I had no broken limbs, my ribs felt okay. I could feel and move my toes. Anything involving talking, my jaw, my teeth, or my tongue led to scribbling on clipboards and more of those “oh shit” looks.

Those looks kicked me from the present to the future. How would we tell my four-year-old daughter? The daddy of a four-year-old is supposed to be superhuman—not a bleeding mass of bandages, unable to talk. While my wife pretended to be ok, I knew that she was wailing inside, and soon the wailing would be out loud. When would we be able to kiss again? Would I be able to work? I make a lot of my living, and support a small company, through keynotes, workshops, consulting engagements, and writing. Writing I knew would be OK. My brain worked, and my fingers seemed alright.

When I got to my patient room, it was perhaps 5am.  My dinner, the day before, had started at 7pm.  It was the end of day two of a three day live event our team had cooked up called “Leadership Unleashed: Live in LA” at the Skirball Center just north of the Getty Museum. Day two had ended well and I started to see how day three would snap into place. I could see this new content becoming a new book, a new live program, and hundreds of keynote speeches. We had dinner with a company that had brought several of their team members to the event and it was wonderful. We had great food and a little too much to drink which is the reason for leaving my car at Skirball and making plans to take a taxi home. I’ll remember the last food I’ll taste in a long time, especially the butterscotch pudding. For the people at that dinner—thank you.

The last topic of the second day was “inventing a crisis.” One of the participants had noticed, quite correctly, that the content of days one and two had brought us as far as we could go as individuals. But, it was “all about me,” rather than “all about us.” It was about creating heroes, and leaders go way beyond what heroes achieve. Leadership often starts with a person and then goes “tribal” before it seeks to create massive change in an organization or in the world. One of the last things I said to the group before we ended at 6pm is that it takes “inventing a crisis” to do that. I asked them to think about how to do that overnight. A crisis is “invented” or made apparent to people through pro-active leadership. Sometimes it shows up from the outside at the perfect possible moment, even though it usually sucks for everyone when it arrives.

When word got out to the CultureSync team that the taxi driver and person behind the wheel of the massive SUV had “invented a crisis,” there wasn’t much I could do. As a type A wacko, I wrote email from my bed (shout-out to Apple: my new MacBook Pro with Retina display works perfectly, as does my iPhone 5, and my iPad—all survived the taxi ride better than their user), high on morphine and who knows what else, to offer advice to our team a few hours before day three would start at 10am. They wrote back and said they were glad to hear from me and that things were looking good and that I should shut up and get some rest and let them work. In other words, they were unleashing a new level of leadership, and that’s what this three day event was intended to do—for everyone there, starting with the CultureSync team.

As my mentor Warren Bennis impressed on me over and over, leaders create other leaders. The roots of our company are star-driven, with people talking “we” but really meaning “I.” We’ve done a lot to course correct that in the last 18 months, mostly by having non-founders run many of our training programs, but it would take a crisis to jolt us from a hero with friends to leaders on a quest together. The crisis is here.

About 20 hours after getting to UCLA, a remarkable plastic surgeon led a team to rebuild what could be reconstructed of my jaw. The surgery estimate of four hours went to five and almost to six. I now have two titanium plates in my jaw, am missing several teeth, and there’s a question about whether some of the ones I still have will make it.

I’m now at home, six days since the accident. I have a big day today: drink liquid food and go see the dentist for the “stop scaring young children” project of 2012-13. I have a massive cut on my chin. The trauma surgeons closed it and the plastic surgeon reopened and closed again. It looks like a second smile, which is probably good because I can’t feel enough to do a normal smile. I do feel a bit like the Joker.

I have some sort of gum holding my right ear together, with a lot of stitches in it. I can feel about 70% of my lower lip, and I’m missing enough teeth to make people talk of a bridge rather than an implant. My lower canine teeth were deep in my jaw and moved back to something resembling normal. I’m not sure if this is a plastic surgeon’s standard speech or not, but he said, “I trust you not to eat food, so I won’t wire your jaw shut.” That’s like saying, “I trust you not to try to play with the zombies I left in your garage, so I won’t chain you to the bed.” The thought of trying to eat anything is right on par with playing with zombies.  In fact, I’d choose the zombies over this.

Because this event is a crucible, and crucibles are so central to leadership, some of you have asked me to relate the series of events that lead up to the accident, and what happened after.  If you’re not interested, then thank you for reading to this point and I appreciate your thoughts and concerns.

As I mentioned earlier, the accident happened between the second and third days of the “Leadership Unleashed: Live in L.A.” event. About 100 people attended, from all over the U.S. and Canada. The way it played out was spooky, coming at a time, and in a way, that accomplished something impossible without it.

We were wrapping up looking back at major life milestones: a crucible experience, which is a loss, setback or period of self-doubt (thank you, Warren Bennis); a “high-five!,” which is a time of achievement; and a “hell no!,” a moment when your internal compass told you to not do what was easy or expedient.

We then mine these stories for our core values, our “great gift,” and our “origin story.” Our great gift is something unique to us that operates best in only certain circumstances. It’s just there when we need it, when we reach for it in a desperate situation. Our origin story is a statement of why we’re here, as though our life was constructed to handle the challenges immediately before us. All of this is “invented”—a combination of discovery and creativity, harkening back to the Greek idea of “inventio.

We then focus on a present situation that pisses us off, that is an “outrage” of something that violates our values. For me, the outrage is that organizations are largely soul-sucking monsters which need vitality but outlaw its expression instead. They become pathological and antisocial in many cases. The people in them are generally good natured, but within the context of unthinking machines of processes and structure, the people often act in service of something other than mission, passion, and core values.

We call the outrage “a crisis” and people’s perception of it changes. A period of instability begins, where the status quo now seems in doubt. Leaders broadcast the “call” to others, to take up the challenge with them. People in key roles make themselves apparent, their titles taken from the literature of quests. “Masters” are ones who know us most deeply, see our ability, and what there is for us to do. “Wizards” have seen the future and make prophecies about what will work out. Today’s wizards are good at extrapolating trends and finding historical parallels. “Magicians” can do amazing things, today, mostly though technology. “Diviners” (many are intuitive and trained in psychology, coaching, or leadership) can see others’ core values, great gifts, and sense of outrage as though these hints were tattooed on people’s. There are teachers, fellow travelers, and friends. What results is a “quest,” a movement of a tribe (20-150 people), to seek its “object.” Leadership begins at this point—when the person broadcasts a call and others respond. They own the quest together.

Literature isn’t real life, but it was created to explain patterns and provide meaning. Readers of my work will know I’m an “empiricist.” I believe in what can be proven. Looking back over the past week, it’s as though every step in the process revealed an order far wiser than any of us on our best day. The crisis, I was thinking over during and as I got into the taxi, is often when the hero’s great gift no longer functions (like kryptonite), or isn’t enough.

At about 11pm on Wednesday, our crisis started, when the Mercedes and the Prius impacted, creating a period of uncertainty. I had, at least for the moment, been rendered unable to talk, with a recovery that would force me out of planes and engagements, which is how CultureSync earns a lot of its money.

I am incredibly proud of the CultureSync team. None of us wanted this crisis, but from what people at the event tell me, they stepped into the crisis and took charge. They used everything we teach and everything we stand for to turn this crisis into an opportunity and to deliver on the promises we made.  This is leadership unleashed. This is what this event was about. If you want to be that kind of a leader or you want to have teams of people around you that can do what they did, you really should check out the Tribal Leadership Intensive or the Tribal Rainmaker Program, because this is what we teach. I’ll bring a lot of what I’m learning from my personal crucible experience into those programs, and a lot to the next book. Thanks to my doctor’s orders, I will be off work for a month.

I want to thank all of the participants at the event for your leadership and for your commitment. This is what leadership looks like. I often joke with people that when you say you want to become a leader, treat that pledge with seriousness. Now you understand what I’m talking about. Life has a way of shaping you in short order. And I want to thank everyone in our community for all of your good wishes and emails. I’d love to stay in touch with you and to actively continue this conversation with you and support you in your leadership.



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