What More Can I Do?
“Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.” - Billy Graham
I knew he’d be inspirational. I just didn’t know how his message would burn in the hearts of the attendees after he left the room, and how it continues to do so weeks later. I guess I wasn’t the first one to underestimate John O’Leary.
As a nine year old kid in St. Louis in the late 80’s John was involved in a horrific accident when a five gallon can of gasoline blew up in his hands. John was blasted twenty feet across his garage and burned on 100% of his body. He was given less than a one percent chance to survive.
John tells his story in a unique way. It is not “look at what happened to me, and this is how I persevered.” Instead he tells stories of the people who did things – sometimes simple, sometimes heroic – that made all the difference in his recovery. We heard about his parents, his siblings, and the doctor in the burn unit, all of whom you might expect. But we also heard about a janitor named Lavell and a nurse named Roy, whose daily acts of service and encouragement helped save John’s life. Behind each person and each selfless act was a lesson for all of us.
The day after the accident John’s world was bleak. He lay in bed, his arms held out to the side by straps and weighted bags of sand. The flesh had been burned off large areas of his body. The severe swelling made it impossible for him to see. He couldn’t speak due to a tracheotomy that provided needed oxygen to his badly damaged lungs. He lived in darkness, couldn’t communicate and battled his fears with prayer and the support of his family.
Despite all the challenges, John’s hearing remained intact. The day after the accident, John heard his door open and footsteps approach his bed. He recognized the voice of St. Louis Cardinals announcer Jack Buck, standing a foot from his bed, saying, “Kid, you’re going to live. And when you pull through, we’re going to celebrate and have John O’Leary day at the ballpark.”
John found out years later that when Jack Buck walked out of his room that day, he collapsed against the wall in the hallway. A nurse ran up to help him, and Buck asked her, “That boy, he’s not going to make it, is he?”
She tenderly replied, “No sir, he’s not.”
Before going to bed that night, Jack Buck repeated a daily discipline, and asked himself, “What more can I do?” With the image of the burned and dying little boy fresh in his mind, he came up with an answer. He would go back. Again and again he visited John in the hospital over a five-month period, and shared his dream of a John O’Leary day at the ballpark. When he traveled with the Cardinals for away games, he mentioned John on the radio, because he knew the boy would be listening.
Two weeks after John was released from the hospital, his day at the ballpark came true. In Jack Buck’s autobiography, That’s a Winner, he shares “I needed a bath towel that day to mop up all my tears.”
The foundation of John’s message is one of purpose and action, grounded in gratitude, and based on attitude of love. A room full of tough alpha-dog CEOs didn’t roll their eyes or kick each other under the table when John explained that love was the most powerful motivator of all. It made sense. John had us share our scars and discuss our dreams. We laughed. We cried. We also talked about how making a difference is intentional, and often comes in the relentless pursuit of expressing love in small ways.
In the days that followed John’s presentation to my Vistage members, an amazing thing occurred. Busy CEOs didn’t get sucked back into the day-to-day, and his presentation didn’t fade into a fond, but distant memory. Pardon the expression, but they were on fire.
Members internalized the message in different ways, but each felt compelled to do SOMETHING.
Members began to compare notes on corporate initiatives in the community and seeking ways to improve their own efforts. Some looked critically at how they could more powerfully and positively impact their employees. Others discussed how their corporate values could be made real, and move from a poster on the wall to a public brand in the eyes of vendors, customers and employees. We all came away with a new perspective on our daily challenges and setbacks.
The dictionary defines the word “inspire” as – “to fill someone with the urge or ability to feel something or do something.”
Before I heard John speak, I was comfortable that we would feel something as a result of his presentation. What I was unprepared for was the impact he would have in motivating us to do something. The kinds of initiatives that members are undertaking will not only improve lives, but get paid forward to other individuals, families, and communities.
Early in John’s presentation he shows a picture of himself lying on his hospital bed. It’s an image out of Star Trek. You’d swear it’s not human. It’s disturbing beyond words. But it is also a picture of a fighter. A dreamer. A kid capable of touching lives.
Late in the presentation, John shows a picture of himself, with his beautiful wife Beth, and their four children. He says that it took him twenty-eight years to realize that the accident, and all the pain and anguish he suffered, brought him to a wonderful family and a rewarding life.
As I sit and listen to CEOs wrestle with a conviction to do more for their families, their employees, and their communities, I realize the true outcome of John’s accident. His story motivates others to be more, do more, and help more.
John O’Leary only began to share his story five years ago, but his message is already impacting individuals all over the country. Last year he spoke to more than fifty thousand people, in churches, schools, convention halls, fire stations, and in boardrooms. As I witnessed his impact on a group of executives, a phrase from Tom Hill came to mind: “one idea, properly executed, can change your life forever.” John has extended that notion to suggest that one act, grounded in love, can not only change your own life, but it can improve – or save – someone else’s life.
Just like my Vistage members, I personally felt compelled to do something. At John’s suggestion I’ve started a daily journal entitled “What More Can I Do?” Is it to honor Jack Buck? Not really. To support John’s mission? Maybe. But more than anything else, I think I do it based on a mindset that I took from John’s presentation:
If I can do something daily to heal a relationship or improve a life, I can ultimately impact a community, and if enough of us adopt that attitude, we can change the world.
For more information about John, his story, as well as his current coaching and speaking activities, here is a link to his website: