Phil La Duke is an internationally renowned business consultant, safety expert, speaker, blogger, trainer, and business author. He frequently guest lectures at universities including presentations at Tulane, Loyola, the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, and Wayne State Universities. Mr. La Duke sits on the Wayne State Biomedical Safety Board where he represents the community’s interest in the safety of research projects involving recombinant DNA.
Mr. La Duke is the author of a popular weekly blog, over 300 magazine articles (nearly 90 for Entrepreneur magazine) and two books, I Know My Shoes Are Untied, Mind Your Own Business: An Iconoclast’s View of Safety, and Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention and he has contributed content to numerous notable magazines and is published on all inhabited continents. Mr. La Duke was named one of the Top 20 Global Thought Leaders in Sustainability by Thinker360 and again as one of the Top 20 Global Thought Leaders in Culture. Mr. La Duke’s take-no-prisoners style garnered him positions on Industrial Safety and Hygiene News (ISHN) magazine’s Power 101 (a list of the world’s most influential people working in worker safety) and its list of Up and Comers in Safety Thought Leadership.
Mr. La Duke is an energetic and entertaining speaker who is highly sought after and his work takes him all over the globe.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?
I grew up in a rural area near Detroit with my parents and my 6 siblings. Our house was located on a portion of my grandmother’s farm who had given it to my parents as a wedding gift. I graduated high school at a time when there were no jobs anywhere but I managed to land one in a fast food taco chain. I was paying my way through community college so I took on a second job as a continuing education instructor, and soon after as a community stringer at a local newspaper. I married young and badly, but that union produced a wonderful daughter. Just before I got married at age 22 I started working the assembly line at one of the Big 3 car companies.
It was like I won the lottery! I was making more money than I thought possible! I knew the plant was closing but I wasn’t worried because I figured once I was “in the system” I would eventually get picked up by another location. Three years later, I was encouraged to explore other career opportunities with 60,000 other workers. 15 plants were shut down, and with my seniority there wasn’t much chance of me ever getting a job at another location. I still wasn’t worried, my father-in-law had a job lined up for me as a millwright, I had passed the test for a job at Detroit Edison, and I had passed the UAW apprenticeship test and was on the list. Sadly with the economy in Detroit each of my opportunities evaporated one at a time. I moved into the second floor of my brother’s ramshackle farm house and that was where and when my daughter was born two months premature, and my wife got sick, when her health returned she decided to leave me and moved out. I remember thinking, “I did everything right, how could this have happened to me.”
While I am an active Catholic, I have always found inspiration from other faiths particularly Taoism, and it was then in my darkest hour that it hit me, my life was on the wrong course. When you are moving against whatever forces govern this universe have planned for you, it works at you and tweaks your life until you find your way on the proper course. So I went back to school and got a degree from the University of Michigan in Training, Design and Development and on the strength of that program and a small amount of tuition assistance from the auto company and the UAW I found a job as head of training for a billion dollar construction firm. It was the right path and while I moved around a bit back in those days I never stopped believing that my career was guided by a higher power.
What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up? Do you have a funny or touching story about that?
I grew up in a very spiritual and mindful environment. My parents were not only generous to charities they gave of themselves. Our Thanksgiving Dinners were a rogue’s gallery of people who had nowhere else to go. They felt spiritually obligated to feed the hungry. My dad once met a stranger who had no place to live. My dad explained that the man couldn’t live with him because he had a family and seven kids. But next to our house was an abandoned house in very bad shape. It was owned by a rich eccentric woman who habitually bought and abandoned homes. My dad told the stranger that he would contact the woman, who would probably give him the house. My dad further offered to help the stranger fix up the house and make it habitable. Ultimately the stranger declined. My dad never thought ill of the man, never believed that the stranger was anything more than a fellow human being who was down on his luck. I could fill a book with the sacrifices they made to help others.
I was an altar boy and our church pastor was a saint that will never get the recognition he deserves, he was a kind, holy, decent, and humble man. I was an altar boy for so long I was practically vice priest. The funny thing is I only became an altar boy because I found mass so mind-numbingly boring. Years later when the now elderly priest was retired but called upon to fill in from time to time, he worried that he might fall during the mass. My meddling aunt volunteered me to support him. Literally. I was to stand behind him on the altar and catch him if he fell. It reminded me of my relationship with God. Standing close by ever watchful and ready to catch me if I should fall.
How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?
I try to live my values every day, but more than that, I try to be my best possible person. I caught a break because I worked for a faith-based healthcare systems that emphasized; even demanded, a spiritual workplace. We not only had values that the leaders demonstrated but also guiding behaviors with illustrations of what they meant. The behaviors are:
- We support each other in service
- We communicate openly and honestly
- We are fully present
- We are all accountable
- We trust and assume goodness in intentions
- We are continuous learners
I really strive to keep these values alive and have written about living these principles in various magazine articles.
Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?
Now this is a bit of a trick question because a spiritually-focused person is likely to define success in a much different way than a non-spiritually focused person. But living my values and practicing the six basic behaviors taught to me by the faith-based organization has given me a foundation that draws people to my writing and speaking. I have developed a network of people who support me and while much of what I write and say makes people uncomfortable, so did the speeches of all the great spiritual leaders. I am a continuous learner and as such I question the status quo. I can off as cantankerous and I’ve even hurled an insult or two, but that is just to get people out of logical mind and into the emotional mind. This is where modern brain research tells us, both our emotions and decisions are formed. Most people think their decisions are conscious when they are in fact emotional (we then gather facts that support our decision an ignore those that don’t). If I can make you angry or frustrated I can generally make you think, and if I can make you think we can accomplish astonishing things.
That’s just one reason to life a spiritual and mindful life, it brings an inner peace that helps you think more clearly.
What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?
Well, Christ said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and I would have to be even more arrogant than I already am to think I can do better than that. But that having been said, maybe I can elucidate what that looks like in a modern and practical way. None of us is perfect, and if anyone expects that they will never s he or she will be disappointed. The secret to living a good life, for me, is looking for what others need in their lives and do what I can to treat them the way I would want them to treat me. Doing this involves looking both inward and outward so it can be challenging. I have deliberately left Jesus out of my responses until now, because I have met so many people who identify as Christians, but behave deplorably — judging others and telling them that the non-Christians are going to Hell. As many people have been driven from living a spiritual life by people pompously proclaiming their religious identify (implying some moral superiority) as those driven from spirituality by the lure of luxury or hedonism. If I have to tell you I am a good person then I’m probably not a good person.
If we can agree that the foundation to lead a bad life lies in sociopathic behavior, and psychiatrists believe that sociopaths can’t empathize, then empathizing and reflection on the other people’s fears, pains, and needs must surely be the foundation to lead a good life.
A spiritual foundation is built a single good deed at a time. Giving change to a panhandler (without judging him). Smiling at a stranger who seems to be having a bad day. Speaking up against bigots and thugs and letting people know that you find this kind of behavior objectionable and unacceptable, or jump-starting a stranger’s car when you don’t feel like it. All these little good deeds, change the universe. The ripples that a single good act send out nudge your coworkers, your neighbors, your community, and eventually the universe to be more spiritual. It’s all in the prayer of Saint Frances of Assisi: “master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console”
Something that illustrates this idea of empathy is a time when I was in first grade and the school busses weren’t running so it was pandemonium. Cars were coming and going and I couldn’t find my mom’s station wagon. First I was worried, then scared, and then I started to panic. I stood hopeless looking in vain for my mother’s car among the fewer and fewer cars. Then an older girl came up to me and asked me why I was crying. I told her my tale of woe and she asked me what my mom’s car looked like. She spotted it write away and vanished so quickly I never got to thank her. I wonder about that little girl sometimes; how she grew up and if she was still somewhere within her that spiritual creature who rescued me. I hope she is.
Can you share a story about one of the most impactful moments in your spiritual/mindful life?
Certainly the death of my mother at age 60 impacted me spiritually. I don’t care who you are, the death of your mother tends to impact you deeply. And the death of my father 10 years later also reminded me of the importance of spirituality. My mother died suddenly (even though she had been ill for quite a while) but my father died slowly he had contracted mesothemia and underwent chemo knowing that there was no hope of a cure. Watching him bravely face his death without complaint or fear. “I had a good run” is one of the last things he said to me. But all my impactful moments aren’t rooted in death. My brother-in-law and I were talking during a barbecue at his house. He asked how I was and I was whining about my finances (I’m terrible with money and was having cash-flow problems) he was a steel worker and while he made good money he was by no means rich. He looked at me with love and concern and said, “Phil, I don’t have much money, but if you need money I will give you all I have.” I’ve never heard a sermon that affected me as deeply. I was summarily dismissed from a job I had held for nine years because the economy tanked. It was the end of a pay period and I was left with a single paycheck. A friend of mine from high school and I started a consulting company in the worst possible economy. When I went on the sales calls that I had set up for the week after I was laid off, my prospects were astonished and asked me, “how can you be so upbeat?” or “why aren’t you angry?” I looked just looked at them and said, “who wants to do business with someone who is bitter and angry? This wasn’t something they did to me out of malice.” Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. But I am most spiritual when good things happen to me. I ask myself how I can share my good fortune with others. If misery is the only thing that motivates you to be a more mindful and spiritual person than your life will fill with tragedy and pain. Celebrate the good things that come into your life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
This is perhaps the hardest question to answer because there have been so many people who have interceded in my life, sometimes family, sometimes friends, and sometimes strangers. Certainly my parents and my siblings especially my sisters who would babysit my daughter when I went to night school or when I traveled for work.
Dr. Joseph “Jerry” Lapides was my college advisor and when I was strapped for money, drowning in debt from a custody battle and making a salary that didn’t even meet my basic needs hand-picked me for a job as a consultant that paid enough for me to live and pay down some debt, and when I was going to quit college it was Jerry who talked me out of it. We were like oil and water but we both respected each other. I think he saw something in me and felt like if he bet on me I would make him proud, I’d like to think I have.
Peter Page, the Editor of Contributed Content always saw something in my writing and always gave me his honest opinion of my work. He published my work even though only a handful of readers clicked my articles. He believed that good work was good work even if it wasn’t appreciated by the masses.
Jim Giacino was my first boss in the white collar world and helped me transition from blue collar to white collar. When I left to pursue a promotion the department had a small going away party. In all seriousness, he looked at the people in the department he said, “someday we’ll all be working for Phil.” It made a profound difference to me that he had such faith in my future.
Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?
First and foremost, live the change you want to create, but you should recognize that this is going to be a lot harder than it seems. It takes complete commitment to living the values you want to see in your organization. You can’t lose your temper or behave badly without losing serious ground. Your example, what you DO is always going to be more important than what you say. Live a joy and healthy life and people will flock to you. Self-awareness, inner peace, and a good sense of humor are the basis of charisma.
Understand that creating a healthy and uplifting work culture means expending financial and physical resources. You can’t preach healing and happiness out of one side of your mouth and profits and productivity out the other side; there must be a balance.
Practice active empathy. Active empathy involves trying to identify and understand what everyone you meet is experiencing. Ask yourself, “have I ever felt that this way, and if so, what was the trigger?” Empathy is different than sympathy. You might think the other person is completely wrong for being angry over a trivial matter, you might think that you would react the same way, but you MUST understand what they are feeling and accept their right to feel that way.
Be genuine. Every encounter you have with a person should make them feel better. This involves tearing down the barriers that permeate many businesses. The CEO should be comfortable sitting at a lunchroom table with a college intern and the intern should not feel intimidated.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement it would be one designed to get people to show faith in themselves. Faith, is the belief in something without any concrete proof. So many people live lives of misery by putting limitations on themselves. Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t; you’re right.” I would like a movement that inspired people to ask “why not?” instead of telling themselves “we can’t.” I honestly believe that the search for deeper spirituality and a meaningful purpose for life ultimately leads to success, but spirituality and a life of purpose is in itself success. Reach for the skies but always remember who you are and that you can change the entire universe one mind at a time.
How can people follow you and find out more about you?
They can call me @(313)244–2525. Email me at Philladuke.mac.com, follow me on Twitter @philladuke, or LinkedIn @ https://www.linkedin.com/in/phil-la-duke-ba61a18/