As a young boy, John O’Leary suffered an unimaginable house fire that left 100% of his body severely burned. After fighting extraordinary odds, he inspires crowds of over 18,000 people to live intentionally.
John O’ Leary lived through horrific circumstances; he learned the true value of living with intention and purpose. When he was nine years old, John O’Leary was caught in a house fire that burned his whole body. He endured dozens of surgeries, having to spend five months in the hospital where he was cared for by doctors, family, and friends. During his stay, he received letters of encouragement from around the world, including Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. After his recovery, he continues to inspire people from across the globe, sharing his own journey and life lessons with people who seek fuller lives.
In his book, On Fire, he reminds people to wake up from accidental living so they can lead inspired lives. As he shares these lessons, he encourages people to embrace the gift of each moment. By doing so, he believes one is able to greatly impact others. As he gives his full love and attention to the people around him, he is excited to see where his journey goes from here. John O’Leary sat down with SVM to discuss what it means to be a present leader, speaker, father, and husband.
John is a childhood survivor of a ﬁre that burned 100 percent of his body, and gave him slim chances of survival at age 9. His painful comeback story — involving dozens of surgeries, years of therapies and the loss of all of his ﬁngers — empowers listeners to lead fuller, more productive and inspired lives. He is one of the guest speakers at this year’s Blanchard Leadership Forum on August 28th-29th.
John O’Leary spent five months in the hospital, underwent dozens of surgeries, lost all of his fingers to amputation and had to relearn to walk, write, and feed himself. He endured, persevered, and survived – largely because others emerged, served and inspired. He now live to share the life-giving lessons from his story in hope that he can spark. He spoke to SVM about what leadership means to him, his book “On Fire”, and how Jack Buck impacted his life.
What does leadership mean to you?
Well, leadership is the ability to influence things and events in a direction that you think can make a difference in society, in an organization, a family or an alliance. The ability to impact things bigger than ourselves and it starts with ourselves.
How would you define a successful individual?
I’ve been asked that a bunch. It’s easy to find success in dollars, or square footage or employee head counts and all these other easily trackable items. I think one of my favorite bible scripture versus is “seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God,” and what I have found in my own journey as a business owner, husband, father, son, and just about every other position I’ve been in is if I can actively do that, not only can I be a more effective leader and present to the people around me but more successful in the right ways in life.
When you are working with a business, what is the biggest piece of advice you give to their employees?
Ultimately realize the value and profound impact of their work in the organization and their life outside the organization. Too often we cheapen our ability to impact the things around us and I’ve learned from example after example as a child and now as a guy, individuals, employees, or business owners showing up and doing their best and doing exactly that, whether it’s a janitor or an executive, they can dramatically change the course of lives around them.
If you had to choose, what is the main message from your own book, On Fire?
That’s a great question. My primary challenge in that book is for individuals to wake up from accidental living so they can lead more inspired lives. Too frequently we confuse being out of bed with being awake, or being in school with giving it our best, or being at work with going all in, or being at the dinner table and being engaged, and I don’t think that’s true. Just because we’re in these places physically doesn’t mean were actively in these places. My job in this book is to remind them to wake up, to stand up straight, to do a little more of what they got, utilize their talents and their time in a profound manner, and in doing so they will dramatically impact the lives around them.
In your parent’s book, Overwhelming Odds, they talk about how you were able to survive through horrendous surgeries and hardships after a fire left you severely burned, largely because of others who served and inspired you. Who helped you during this time in your life and what did you learn from them?
It’s hard to be brief when there are so many and so profound. The burn doctor in charge of the team was not only a compassionate, great leader, as a surgeon, but also the kind of guy that would round up the entire team. The first person in line behind the doctor every single morning was the janitor, and the doctor’s reminder to this gentleman was that his work mattered and that he was keeping this little boy John O’ Leary alive, which means now the doctor and the janitor were doing their best work. Then he’d bring in the CNAs and the RNs and the tecnitions and the therapists, every single one of them one by one. But, it spread beyond a medical team, we had a community in our little church that offered up their homes to my five siblings, mom and dad while we rebuilt ours. We had people donating dollars, blood, time to sit by my bedside, and everything else you can imagine so that this family and this little patient could continue forward. Letters came in from around the country and around the world; Pope John Paul the II, President Reagan, trees were planted in Israel, I mean it was crazy- all these men and woman standing up and stepping forward to serve a 9-year-old kid and his family. It did make a difference.
In one of your podcasts, you talk about Hall of Fame Announcer and The “Voice of the Cardinals” Jack Buck. How has he impacted your life?
Jack buck was a busy announcer, yet he shows up one time, and makes a huge impact in a little boy’s life, me. He was told after he left that I was going to die, there’s no reason for hope, and the following day, Jack Buck shows up a second time, even though he doesn’t know me and there’s no hope. And then he comes back another time, and another and another, repeatedly for the five months when I’m in the hospital. He not only encouraged me with his presence but the promise of John O’Leary day at the ball park, a celebration of going home. We go to the ball park and learns that day that not only am I a huge Cardinals fan, but I can’t do anything with my hands. He gave me a baseball, and then a second one, and he said “hey if you want a third send me a thankyou letter, if you want a fourth send another thank you letter,” it just goes on and on from there with him eventually coming to my college graduation 10 years later and giving me the baseball he received when he went into the Hall of Fame as his gift to me. He taught me about generosity, hope, goals, purpose, life, meaning, success and significance, and he taught me about living even when you’re dying. When he showed up that night of graduation, he had cancer and he was dying and yet you would’ve never known it through his eyes, from his smile or from what he was giving away.
I actually asked his son Joseph, who’s also a podcaster, why was your dad so good to me? Why did he keep coming back? And Joe said it was the smile he saw in your eyes every time he’d walk into the hospital. Just that little light. Its humbling to know I inspired him in some way, and the gift of generosity is it never is.
Where do you find yourself implementing the most change?
We’ve had the honor of speaking to more than a million people in 50 states and in more than a dozen countries. We have had the pleasure of speaking to as many as 18,000 at once. And yet I think the greatest change I can be a part of is one life at a time. It’s being a great husband, being a great dad. My father has Parkinson’s disease, so it’s being a loyal son to him as he continues his own life journey. I’ve been a hospital chaplen, hanging out with kids in the hospital room. One by one, by loving these people wherever they are in life, by giving them what you can- which is presence, you impact them. Giving your full attention and full love, that’s where I see the greatest change in the lives around me and where I would expect to see the greatest impact and change going forward