I recently celebrated my 14th year on the speaking circuit. It’s been the honor of my life to speak to audiences and author books about how to build authentic relationships and positively influence the lives of others. Part of the reason I’ve been able to stay on the speaking circuit for so long is because my message is uncontroversial: Love. Heart-Led Leadership. Serving others. No matter what political party you belong to, what church you go to or don’t go to, what teams you root for—everyone can surely agree on that.
For the first twelve years of my career, after speaking to hundreds of thousands of people, I offended only one person. I was going through a rough period with my faith at the time, and I was speaking to a large corporation when I blurted out during a Q&A that I was a “recovering Catholic.” It was a dumb thing to say, and the next morning a woman from the audience, Joy, wrote me an angry email. I immediately apologized, and then something beautiful happened. Joy called me on the phone, and we had a long dialogue. She even helped guide me back to my faith. She was the one person I offended in twelve years, and it ended up being a beautiful experience.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I’ve managed to offend more than one hundred people. Once, while conducting an online seminar, I told a story about how a restaurant manager in Toronto sent a busboy to get Motrin for my son, Tate, who wasn’t feeling well during dinner. “I was so grateful because I had forgotten to pack his medicine,” I told the audience before adding, “it’s usually my wife, Jill, who does that.” I did not mean to imply that I blamed Jill, or that I expect her to manage all the childcare in our household, but that’s how a few folks understood it. I wanted to make it right, but this time no one was interested in having a dialogue with me. Then, a few weeks later, I lost one of my closest friends in the world because we voted for different candidates.
Don’t worry, this is not another rant about cancel culture. People who say and do genuinely awful things should be called out for their behavior, full stop. Except, somewhere along the way, we stopped seeing the best in each other. We stopped accepting people because they look different, sound different, vote different, or pray different. We assume the worst. We tiptoe around each other for fear of saying the wrong thing. For fear of unintentionally offending someone.
We shouldn’t have to tiptoe around the people who mean the most to us. My best friend in the world is Jewish. Another close friend is gay. We don’t tiptoe around our differences because we don’t care about them. I have friends and colleagues who disagree with me on just about everything except how much we love each other. We don’t tiptoe. I’ve lived in Asia, Europe, and Australia, and I have dear friends there who see the world very differently than I do. We don’t tiptoe. And if you’ve ever been to Thanksgiving dinner with my extended family, you’ll know that we don’t tiptoe.
Yet, I still tiptoe every day. We all do. We are obsessed with the things that pull us apart and we ignore what brings us together. We’ve turned it into a blood sport. I recently met a teacher who quit the career he loves because parents are screaming at each other during PTA meetings. It’s simply too exhausting. I’ve had to rewrite my keynote speech two dozen times so I can be extra sure no one will be offended—though, invariably, someone usually is.
I thought I finally had it right a few weeks ago, when I gave a speech in Florida about heart-led leadership. Toward the end of the speech, I told my audience how much I used to love Dale Carnegie, author of the quintessential business book How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book changed my life, I explained, but in recent years I realized Carnegie’s message was more about getting people to do things for you rather than doing things for others, like true servant leaders do. Well, the next day I got a nasty email from a man named John, who was angry with my characterization of Dale Carnegie. “You denigrated one of the most influential business books of all time in front of two hundred people,” he wrote.
I had to laugh. I couldn’t even tiptoe around offending a man who had been dead for 66 years! But then I remembered Joy, who had taken issue with my “recovering Catholic” comment all those years ago. Back then I didn’t write her off as a nut; we talked through our differences, and we ended up with a beautiful relationship. And so, I decided to show the same respect to John. I dialed his number and apologized for my comments, but I also explained where I was coming from. “We may not see entirely eye-to-eye on Dale Carnegie, but I respect that his book helped you become a better person, and that’s all that matters.” And do you know what happened? We had a wonderful conversation. We learned from each other.
I think we could all learn to stop tiptoeing and start embracing. More love. Less judgment. More grace. Less offense. Try and see the best in people we disagree with, even if it’s hard. If the past couple of years have taught me anything, it’s this: We are here to love and serve ALL people. If there is a government, religion, political party, or organization that disagrees—run!”