Leadership and Career Success—On Purpose: An Interview with James Whittaker


Cameron: You talk about choosing wisely. Are there certain traits that you look for that someone else should definitely look for when they are choosing a role model?

James: They've got to have something to teach you, man. You've got to be really good. It's so crucial that you take control of this. You literally are who you learn from, and you have control of that. You just can't take what's given you. You take the good with the bad, and you throw the bad away and you really learn from the good. It's a process—it's really important that you're in control of it and that you're doing this consciously.

Cameron: You talk about how leadership isn't something that happens by accident. It's something that you make happen. You go out and you find role models and you find people to mentor you and you find knowledge to gain. Let's have a little hypothetical here. Let's say somehow you stumbled into some success. Is there a way to keep that success rolling by doing something? Is it as simple as throwing away the bad stuff and holding onto the good, or is there another trick to the component there?

James: I have certainly stumbled into success before. I have made some bad moves, known they were bad career moves, and they turned out to be good moves through a series of accidents. Sometimes it's who I met. Sometimes it's a project I'd get assigned. Sometimes it's the role on the project I'd get assigned that I ended up turning into something good.

It's very important to be conscious of yourself and understand, are you in this failure mode right now, are the things that are happening bad to you, are the things that are happening good to you? And understand why. If you don't understand, "Hey, this particular part of my career is not good for me," then you're going to be stuck there.

You really have to be consciously and constantly introspecting. What am I doing right now? Is it good for me? What am I learning? Is there anything that I can take away from this, or is this just one of those experiences that I need to try to get out of as quickly as I can? You need to be conscious, constantly introspecting yourself, constantly introspecting your situation, and understanding what you're learning from it.

Ultimately we are a collection of lessons and a collection of stories that happened to us in our lives. Every lesson can be good if you approach it consciously and understand whether or not it's good or bad for you and digging out the lessons from that.

Cameron: You did say earlier that you also are giving a presentation on giving great presentations. It's titled "The Art of Stage Presence." What do you really hope that attendees take away from this tutorial?

James: Let's face it. We are boring the s*** out of millions of people every single day sitting through just dull—I mean, we call this death by PowerPoint, right?

Cameron: Right.

James: We don't call it discomfort by PowerPoint. We don't call it slightly irritated by PowerPoint. We call it death. There's nothing more permanent than death. If nothing else, I'm hoping that the people in that class can stop this. I have a little subtitle, "Putting an End to S*** Presentations Since 1989"—something like that.

We need to set the bar higher. This is a painful, expensive, huge waste of time having all these people sitting around being bored to death. I want to get an army of good presenters out there that just set the bar higher. I want people in the audiences to understand, "Hey, this is a waste of my time. This is boring. This is demotivating and I demand better." That's the way I think it's going to start. It's kind of what I did in software testing. I got audiences around and I said, "Look, this is important. Let's start taking this seriously. Let's start doing this right."

Stage presence is really needed out there. I could ask any of these courses I've ever taught, "How many people have sat in a boring presentation?" Everybody raises their hand. How many people have sat in a boring presentation in the last week? Everybody raises their hand. How many people have sat in a boring presentation yesterday? Everybody raises their hand. Then I tell them, "If this gets boring, walk out. Vote with your feet. Get the hell out of here." No one's ever walked out on me. I thought they did a couple of times, but it just turned out they had to pee and then came back and they weren't bored.

This is important. We're spending a lot of money wasting a lot of people's time, and it needs to end.

Cameron: This is really good for anyone of any sort of speaking skill set. If they're new to speaking or if they've been speaking, actually, for a long time.

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