By Rachel Lyons / Staff Writer

In order to be effective, a leader must change the world one life and individual at a time. But, according to John O’Leary, an individual must be willing to transform their mindset before changing another’s.

It took a horrific accident at age 9 for O’Leary to realize that he would need to change his mindset to let go of the negative, and embrace positives that could be made out of every step on his journey.

O’Leary’s journey began on Jan. 17, 1987, the day that one action of mimicking kids three years older transpired into a long road to recovery.

“As a 9-year-old boy, it is mesmerizing to watch 11-year-old boys light a puddle of gasoline into a dancing pool of fire,’” said O’Leary, who was in Hutchinson on Tuesday as part of the 2019 Ray and Stella Dillon Lecture Series.

However, on that fateful January day, when O’Leary lit a piece of cardboard on fire in his family’s garage while his parents were gone, he would be thrown, by the explosion, against a wall between 15-20 feet away.

“That weekend, I got the wrong example in front of me,” O’Leary said. “My father is at work, my mother is out (of) the house. I walk into a garage, bend over a can of gasoline (and) try to pour a little bit of gas on top of a piece of paper that is burning. … Before the liquid, came the fumes.”

O’Leary believes that is what we cannot see that hurts us, and what makes events like the Dillon Lecture Series necessary. He said that we train our mind to be ready to complete an action during a given event, such as stop, drop and roll if you are ever on fire. But the reality is that if the time ever comes that we find ourselves on fire, the fear of the fumes that are now on fire will prevent us from acting how we were previously trained.

“… But you love your life, have you students, and have you leaders ever noticed (that) when your life’s going splendidly well, we seldom pause long enough to realize how great it is,” O’Leary said.

Often, he said, we miss the small details that show how blessed we are in our day-to-day lives, until our story suddenly changes. But often, in these moments of change, when a child thinks that their parents might kill them, that another’s love overcomes. It becomes the perspective of how one looks at a given situation.

O’Leary gives the example of his father who, as a 41-years old is old to 9-year-old O’Leary, but today 41 years old doesn’t seem that old. 

Throughout his presentation O’Leary indirectly asks the audience to answer the call, and to have enough of saying no. When asked what his favorite event to speak at was, O’Leary stated that it was talking to prison inmates, such as those at United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, because they are some of the most engaged students. These inmates are broken, but he has found that they are ready to make a change for the better, regardless of the length of any given inmate’s sentence. 

To be an effective leader is to change the world one life at a time, because life is short, fragile, and “Essentially, we are all walking miracles”.

Being a leader is also about overcoming the impossible, or seemingly impossible, and changing your mindset to adapt to the challenges at hand. It only takes one person to drive a great change that can reveal what is beyond the horizon. 

Change is necessary to make progress as a nation, especially when our “Epidemic of Loneliness” contributed to more than one million people committing suicide in 2018. From time to time, tears are strengthening, but when no one is willing to stand up for those who otherwise wouldn’t, they become a problem.

Change is made when people like long-time St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck show up at the bedside of a badly-burned child and say “Kid wake up, you are going to live. And when you get out we’re going to celebrate and call it ‘John O’Leary Day’ at the ballpark.”

O’Leary closed by reminding the audience that they must insist on change by asking three questions: Why me? Who cares? What More Can I do?

Answering them the next day, and repeating the process the next day. The three questions that O’Leary wants the crowd to ask at the end of each day could be made negative, and if given the opportunity, would destroy one’s self esteem, but if they are asked positively they can transform our direction in life.

O’Leary said, “We are called to live and as leaders connect connect our hearts and our heads”.  Be the person who shows up with plans for 100 years in the future. Take a note from Jack Buck, who made a commitment and followed through, he wanted to grow people and he did so by motivating 9-year-old John O’Leary to give up when the odds were against him.

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