More than anything else I want anyone reading this to understand something: the very worst thing about you can become the best thing about you. I used to think admitting I was an addict was a lifelong sentence. I used to see recovery as this thing that neutralized the curse of addiction. No one ever explained to me that my recovery would make me a great leader. So, if you are reading this right now and you are a successful leader but struggling with addiction, you truly have no idea just how successful you can become. If you own your addiction, get help and enter recovery you won’t have a stigma, you will have a freaking superpower.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Brody-Waite. His TEDx Nashville YouTube video, “Great Leaders Do What Drug Addicts Do” is the number one talk in the history of TEDx Nashville. It has been seen by over one million people in over twenty-five countries and provides insight into his seventeen-year journey from addiction and near homelessness to CEO and co-founder of an Inc. 500 startup that he sold to a publicly-traded company. This talk sparked the #MaskFreeMovement and brought awareness to Michael’s Mask-Free Program, built on three principles inspired by his recovery, showing leaders how to achieve balance, reclaim energy, and thrive in work and life.
Michael is an acclaimed speaker, entrepreneur, award-winning three-time CEO, leadership coach, and now author of the upcoming book, Great Leaders Live Like Drug Addicts (out May 5, 2020). His accomplishments include being named a Most Admired CEO, named to the Top 40 Under 40, and is recognized by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce as Healthcare Entrepreneur of the Year.
Today, Michael is on a mission to teach individuals, organizations, and communities how to lead themselves by living mask-free. In his personal time, he is focused on being the best husband, father, and recovering addict he can be. For more information, please visit MichaelBrodyWaite.com.
Thank you for joining us! Can you describe your childhood?
My mom was a professor at Stanford, my father was a lawyer and I have one sister who is 17 months younger than me. We lived in Los Altos Hills, California before it became Silicon Valley. It was a small, quiet and semi-rural community with pastures of cows and gravel roads. My life was pretty normal.
Then, at 10 years old we moved to Beverly Hills and that was a complete shock to my system. I was surrounded by kids with completely different values. My first day at school, in 5th grade, the first thing someone asked me was, “What does your dad do? What does he drive?” I was peppered with questions about status and materialism and apparently the answers I gave were not impressive. I had never asked myself the question, “Am I a popular kid?” prior to moving there. Unfortunately, when you combine my inability to cope with the material jungle, the fact that I was one of the youngest and smallest in my grade and the social liability of overprotective and emotionally sheltering parents… it didn’t take long to find my answer. I was NOT a popular kid and I never felt comfortable in my own skin.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
When I was 14, my parents sat me down to have a serious conversation about alcohol and drugs and it went like this: “Michael, your father is an alcoholic. He hasn’t had a drink since you were six months old, but you have the genes. So, if you drink alcohol, you’ll ruin your life.”
Here’s a piece of advice: Don’t EVER tell someone biologically wired to be an addict not to do something. Because that’s exactly what we’ll want to do.
During my freshman year of college, I started to notice that I didn’t feel equipped to deal with life on life’s terms. It was like they had handed out the instructions on how to deal with life, and I had been skipped. I was trying to figure out how to navigate newfound freedom. I had an intense fear of failure and I didn’t know how to be successful with school, friends and dating at the same time.
I turned to alcohol to modify how I felt. I didn’t know how to deal with my feelings so remaining numb was extremely helpful. After a while, I decided that I was certain I would fail at school, friendships and dating. But I was confident I could be successful in becoming an alcoholic. It was in my genes after all!
By my senior year, I had only one-year worth of credits. I went through a terrible breakup with a girlfriend, was cut off from my parents after a big falling out and had started a business to pay for school but it had failed because I was getting drunk every single night.
As I started to realize I had an alcohol problem, I tried to solve it by only smoking weed -that worked for maybe two weeks. After a while, I realized I needed to be drunk and high every single night to be sufficiently numb. As I started to consume massive quantities of alcohol, weed, cigarettes and whatever other drugs I could find, I was kicked out of school.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
I had a tremendous amount of fear and insecurity like most people do. I just didn’t have a healthy way to deal with those feelings. So, I turned to the most effective tool I knew how to use. If we dig a little deeper, I had been told my whole life I was destined for “great things” and was terrified I would fail. When I became a failure in everyday life it was demoralizing. So, I decided to be great at being an addict. In many ways, I was not running away from something. I was running toward the only thing that actually worked at that time in my life.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
One day I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognize the person that I saw. I had gained 50 lbs.; I was sad, and everything was a mess. I remember thinking I was watching a painful reality show instead of my actual life.
Despite all of this, what frustrated me the most was “not getting high enough.” I was consuming more chemicals in a day than most do in a year, but it was never enough. One evening I sat down with a six-foot bong and I made a promise to myself. I said, I’m going to keep taking rips off this bong until I pass out right here. The second before my brain shuts down, I’ll finally be high enough.
For a normal weed smoker, one rip of that bong with the type of weed I had would probably make anyone pass out. So, I sat there and kept smoking and taking hits for 45 minutes. I didn’t pass out, but eventually, I had this moment where I felt like I was high enough. Then 10 minutes later I wanted more. And that’s when I knew; that’s when I realized that I couldn’t continue to go on living this way.
That was my mental bottom — no matter how hard I worked to consume as much as possible, it would never be enough. Shortly after that I was jobless, homeless and throwing up blood. My doctor told me that the only thing higher than me was my liver enzymes. I knew I was nearing the end of my run. Either I was going to kill myself or my body was going to shut down.
That’s when my dad offered to send me to treatment.
Can you tell us the story about how you were able to overcome your addiction?
I finally took my dad’s offer for treatment as a last-ditch effort to turn things around. My first day clean was September 1, 2002 as a patient at the Betty Ford Center in California. I then transitioned to a rehab facility called The Ranch in Nunnelly, TN. I was in rehab for six months and then moved into a halfway house for an additional six months. Throughout the first year in recovery, my entire life centered around working a 12-step program. 17 years later it still does.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
I want to preface that I believe in any recovery method that works for an addict. I know there are multiple ways to treat our disease. My personal experience is in working a 12-step program, so my reconciliation came through the process of working the steps. The 12 steps are specifically written and engineered in such a way that reconciliation happens in the amends phase. But amends doesn’t mean you’re going to apologize for your behavior. It’s about changing your behavior and making things right. That’s why the steps are in order for a reason. We can change who we are and stop causing pain, that way when we make amends, it’s sincere.
When I eventually did my amends it wasn’t easy, but I had put so much work into changing who I was prior to that it was an incredibly healing process. Nothing makes you understand the power of addiction and the power of recovery more than looking at yourself in the mirror. The best mirror I have ever experienced is the one provided by the people that I loved in my life and had hurt. Facing them, making amends as a new man, that’s where reconciliation happens.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
I used to spend 15 hours per day chasing money so that I could chase drugs so that I could chase my high. Getting clean gave me a tremendous amount of free time back. I had enough time to work a full-time job, a part-time job, and still go to meetings every night. In my free time, I would call my sponsor, work the steps, hang out with other recovering addicts. Every once in awhile, I’d go to a movie, but it’d be with people that were in recovery. Over time, I started to find more time to do the things I never could do when I was high, like go on dates and pick up a hobby. Eventually, I started a business. One hour a day invested in my recovery started to return the full spectrum of life I had always hoped for but never experienced.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
Even today with 17 years clean, I still go to meetings, sponsor people, do service and read literature. Over time the promise of the 12 steps has been fully realized in my life. But the most unexpected part is how successfully I integrated my recovery into my business life.
Using my recovery as my leadership framework allowed me to get promoted 8 times in 8 years at a Fortune 50 company. It allowed me to be the CEO and Co-Founder of an Inc. 500 startup. It allowed me to author and publish a book about my experience called Great Leaders Live Like Drug Addicts: How to Lead Like Your Life Depends on It.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
I had an experience where I couldn’t make a doctor’s appointment online or see how long my wait would be. A Boeing 737 for Southwest could text me if it was running 15 minutes late, but my doctor couldn’t tell me that he was running 2 hours late. So, I found myself trapped in a waiting room and pissed off.
From this experience, I started building a business plan for how patients could book appointments online and wait virtually, but I shelved it as I continued to climb the corporate ladder. Then I came across a young man who had created a piece of software that essentially did what I wanted to do, but for emergency rooms. The software enabled patients with non-life-threatening conditions to wait in the comfort of home instead of the waiting room until their time to be seen. That was essentially my idea, he just applied it in a different area. I decided I was going to make him my partner. I didn’t know him at all so that meant I had to basically become a stalker. It was either going to end with us working together or being served a restraining order.
After relentlessly sending him messages he called me, and we set up a meeting. After informally working together for six months I left my corporate job in 2010, during the recession. We had no investors or experience, but we were hell-bent on reinventing access to healthcare and InQuicker was born. To fund this venture, I drained my bank account, 401k and maxed out my credit card. We bet everything on the company. After navigating some close calls and almost going out of business we went from $50k in revenue to $2M in just 18 months.
Eventually, InQuicker became an Inc. 500 company with hospital and health system partners in over 30 states. We grew 20,000% in six years and sold in 2015 to a publicly traded company.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship? Please share both the positive and negative.
That’s a great question. There’s tremendous overlap between addicts and entrepreneurs.
In active addiction, I did whatever it took to get what I wanted. I spent 15 hours a day doing whatever it took to get high. As an entrepreneur in recovery, I was able to use that same drive. Instead of 15 hours a day chasing drugs, I spent 15 hours a day building a business and chasing the American dream.
But just as there are consequences to drug addiction, there are consequences to business addiction. In my pursuit of the next business high, it cost me my health and my relationships. I could be in the newspaper or on stage accepting an award and feel completely empty inside.
The problem was that I was an addict. In active addiction or recovery, my default wiring is to pursue what I want at any cost. So, I had to make a decision that was similar to when I first got clean. I decided that I wasn’t going to use my addiction to be a successful entrepreneur, but I decided to use my recovery.
Instead of wearing a mask to win a deal, I practiced rigorous authenticity. Instead of obsessing over and trying to control every aspect of my business, I surrendered the outcome. Instead of always looking for the easy way out, I did the uncomfortable work. This process is actually what I discuss in my book, Great Leaders Live Like Drug Addicts.
So many entrepreneurs let their addiction run their businesses. The road less traveled is leading with our recovery. When I made that switch, I finally achieved INNER success without sacrificing EXTERNAL success.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
There is still such an intense stigma around addiction. For centuries the only solutions for an addict were hospitals, mental institutions, prison or death. Those were your options. Nowhere else to go and no viable recovery solutions. Then, 80 years ago, 12-step programs were born, and the prospect of recovery started to become real and accessible.
We still have such a long way to go through. We talk a lot about the stereotypes and prejudices that need to be challenged when it comes to race, gender identity or sexual orientation. We haven’t begun to truly challenge the stigmas associated with addiction. Yet it affects everybody.
So, when we talk about entrepreneurs, we are talking about a class of business people who have a tendency to be obsessed with how they are perceived because of the implications to their business. They may be more likely to demonstrate addictive tendencies, but the stigma associated with addiction can motivate them to not talk about it.
Can you share three pieces of advice that you would give to the entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?
- Practice Rigorous Authenticity: If you’re being true to yourself and you know that you’re an addict, stop pretending that you’re not. You wouldn’t want someone on your team to hurt the company by refusing to admit they had a weakness that needed to be corrected. Hold yourself to the same standard.
- Surrender the Outcome: This is scary stuff. You may be thinking What will people think if I ask for help? How will this impact me and my business? What if I can’t stick with it? Where do I even start? These are all outcomes that needed to be surrendered. The way to surrender the outcome is to identify what you CAN’T control. You CAN’T control that you are an addict, that this shit is deadly, that the idea of seeking help is scary and what people will think. You CAN control if you do something about it.
- Do Uncomfortable Work: I know it’s uncomfortable as hell but don’t let a tingly feeling in your gut stop you from changing your life. Ask for help. Seek resources. Take suggestions. Do it one day at a time. A great place to start is visiting https://www.samhsa.gov/ or calling 211.
- More than anything else I want anyone reading this to understand something: the very worst thing about you can become the best thing about you. I used to think admitting I was an addict was a lifelong sentence. I used to see recovery as this thing that neutralized the curse of addiction. No one ever explained to me that my recovery would make me a great leader. So, if you are reading this right now and you are a successful leader but struggling with addiction, you truly have no idea just how successful you can become. If you own your addiction, get help and enter recovery you won’t have a stigma, you will have a freaking superpower.