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“Be dedicated to pursuing excellence, not perfection”, John L. Lehr and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Always stay focused on mission and what is in the best interest of the community you are serving; this will help limit distractions. Ask a lot of questions. Asking “why” is very effective, provided you answer candidly and ultimately reach an endpoint. Solicit the advice of talented people, so you have the best information to […]

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Always stay focused on mission and what is in the best interest of the community you are serving; this will help limit distractions. Ask a lot of questions. Asking “why” is very effective, provided you answer candidly and ultimately reach an endpoint. Solicit the advice of talented people, so you have the best information to take a course of action or make a decision. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes; the great household product WD-40 is named that way because it took 40 tries to get it right.


As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”,

I had the pleasure of interviewingJohn L. Lehr, president and CEO of the Parkinson’s Foundation.

John L. Lehr leads the Parkinson’s Foundation as president & CEO with more than two decades of nonprofit fundraising and management experience and a strong focus in the voluntary healthcare and medical research sectors. Under John’s leadership, the Parkinson’s Foundation has earned a 4-star charity rating from Charity Navigator and a Platinum Seal of Transparency from GuideStar. At the Parkinson’s Foundation, John has overseen the expansion of the Foundation’s Center of Excellence Network, which now includes 47 Centers at leading academic centers globally; the launch of PD GENEration, a groundbreaking study that is conducting genetic testing, counseling, and biobanking of genetic data on thousands of individuals with PD for clinical and research purposes; and the launch of the Newly Diagnosed Initiative to reach the more than 60,000 individuals diagnosed with PD annually in the U.S., and to connect them to the many Foundation educational resources. John has also overseen the build out of the Foundation’s regional network, expanding the Foundation’s signature grassroots fundraising and awareness event ― Moving Day ― to more than 45 markets, and opening 17 regional chapters to better serve the Parkinson’s community.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I am the youngest of six children, born in Chicago, but raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Being the youngest was great, as my parents were more relaxed, and I had the benefit of learning from the experiences of my older siblings. As a child, I played a lot of sports (football and baseball), and then gradually became interested in music, ultimately forming a band with my best friend. We played in the band through college, which was great fun.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a nonprofit leader? We’d love to hear the story.

My parents raised me to appreciate the importance of helping others. My mother was the most generous and compassionate person I have ever known. She believed deeply in helping anyone in need. My father was very practical, and helped me understand that to help others you have to have the resources and the skills to do so.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My role model throughout my life has been my maternal grandfather who, after a successful career in business, devoted himself to nonprofit organizations. His last role was running a college in Chicago where he took no salary. My grandfather was wonderful man. He treated everyone the same, with kindness, compassion, and genuine interest. He encouraged me to do the same. I try to live that every day.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Early in my career, I was asked to give a presentation on fundraising, specifically on corporate and foundation giving. I thought it would be an informal presentation to a few folks, and that I could wing it. The presentation was to an audience at a large healthcare conference, and more than 100 people showed up. I had not prepared at all. No notes, no PowerPoint, no visuals of any kind. I bombed. I lost the audience about 5 minutes in and knew it. They were kind and patient, but it was obvious they were not impressed. I resolved never to be unprepared for a presentation or any other professional commitment again. I am so glad I learned that lesson early on.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Be dedicated to pursuing excellence, not perfection. Perfection is not attainable, and you will just spin wheels and waste time. Excellence is a better pursuit. Then, show up on time, take on all tasks that come your way, be positive even in the face of adversity, and have a plan for the near- and long-term. There will be a lot of curveballs along the way, so expect them. Be flexible, and adjust your plans where needed. Finally, have a sense of fun and adventure.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham had a profound impact on me. I read it in high school, and was struck by the main character’s search for meaning after the trauma of WWI. His travels around the world to learn about different cultures played a key role in my applying to the Peace Corps and serving in Sri Lanka.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

From Foghorn Leghorn: “You’re doing a lot of chopping, but no chips are flying.” It means do things that have an impact, not things that simply make you feel busy. Staying focused on priorities is key.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

One of our most exciting initiatives right now is PD GENEration: Mapping the Future of Parkinson’s Disease. This free genetic testing and counseling program from the Parkinson’s Foundation is a first-of-its-kind program and is already making major discoveries. Our hope is that PD GENEration will lay the foundation for precision medicine, empower the Parkinson’s community, and drive people with Parkinson’s to the clinical trials and treatment options that will ultimately improve their quality of life. Genetic mutations are potential biomarkers that can help pharma develop new therapeutics for Parkinson’s. This project has the potential to have long-term benefits for all those affected by the disease.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?

Always stay focused on mission and what is in the best interest of the community you are serving; this will help limit distractions. Ask a lot of questions. Asking “why” is very effective, provided you answer candidly and ultimately reach an endpoint. Solicit the advice of talented people, so you have the best information to take a course of action or make a decision. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes; the great household product WD-40 is named that way because it took 40 tries to get it right.

Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Be prepared and anticipate the tough questions. If you don’t have an answer, know that it’s okay to say you will get it. Don’t try to fake it. This will help with confidence in all situations. On the corny but true side, go to bed early, and eat your Wheaties. No one functions well on little sleep and poor nutrition.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.

I was in the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka, where meditation is highly regarded. I learned how to do it there and believe in its benefits. I am also a huge fan and practitioner of deep breathing. I do it multiple times a day. It is an immediate stress reliever.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

At the Parkinson’s Foundation, we live by our mission, guiding principles, and core values. I do a daily check in my mind to see if we are being true to them. We also have a weekly revenue and expenses meeting. The discipline of this meeting is invaluable. It keeps us focused and minimize false moves and false starts.

We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

I am a creature of habit. I strive for consistency in my life. That does not mean life has to be boring. But having good work habits — being on time, being responsive, being collaborative, being open, and being positive — are critical. If you practice these, people will know they can rely on you, and that is the lifeblood of good relationships.

What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Identify the good habits, and then practice and have patience. Good habits are mostly learned. Bad habits are often easily acquired and hard to get rid of. A little forgiveness is also important from time to time. No one is perfect.

As a nonprofit leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

Flow comes from planning, executing on your plan, and seeing results. Things don’t just happen. Everything takes time and effort. If you put in the time and effort, you will find yourself in flow.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want people to know that being kind, compassionate, and positive are signs of strength, not weakness. Being difficult or temperamental rarely wins for very long. There are plenty of counter examples of course, but I still believe this is true.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I would love to meet Alan Alda. I am child of the 1970s, so grew up watching M*A*S*H, which was a great show in part because of him. After M*A*S*H, he continued to have a successful acting career, taking on roles that were different from his role as Hawkeye Pierce. That is hard to do. He also has a great interest in science and through his nonprofit has done tremendous work in making science interesting to lay people. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s just a few years ago, and continues to live with great energy and spirit. I admire him greatly.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow me online via my LinkedIn and Medium pages. They can also learn more about the Parkinson’s Foundation at Parkinson.org.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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