What would happen if I were able to bring you one of Inc. Magazine‘s Top 100 Leadership Speakers, Mr. Dov Baron, a masterful storyteller, considered by many as the leading authority on authentic leadership, and founder of Full Monty Leadership and the Authentic Speaker Academy for Leadership? Dov and I have been friends for some time now and I really admire this guy. He’s an amazing international speaker for 30 years. He’s the man with a finger on the pulse of the evolving world of next gen leadership.
Dov Baron on Living the Entrepreneurial Dream and Then Losing Everything
Welcome to the show, Dov. So happy to have you with us.
Thank you so much, Mitch. It’s an honor to be here. It’s a real pleasure. I’m really hoping that I can serve you and your audience with some real juicy treats.
We have to start with that accent, so give us some background on where you’re from and tell us that story.
The accent is labradoodle as I like to say. I live in Vancouver, Canada. I’ve lived here for more than twenty years. I moved here from Australia where I lived for many years. I was in Asia and Indonesia before that. Before that, I was one year in East Coast Canada and before that, a little bit of time in Europe but I was born in the UK. I’ve been gone out of the UK for more than 40 years. It’s a bit of everything. It’s a bit labradoodle as I said.
It’s a very distinctive accent. It’s not any of those things individually and that’s what makes it stand out so nicely. You speak so clearly as well, which is great. We’re going to go back in time. We’re going to strap ourselves into the time machine and we’re going to go back to when you really, really started being a true entrepreneur and got into business. Tell us a little bit of that story. Where did you start? How did you start? What did you sell?
This is interesting because I’m not usually asked this. I think that the original entrepreneurial spirit started for me that I was born in a ghetto in abject poverty. Where it started was just needing some money. Like most entrepreneurs, I started out with doing things like washing people’s cars and delivering newspapers. Back in the day when people remember these, I actually worked on a milkround delivering milk. I did all those kinds of things. For me, it was always about this desire to do my own thing, this desire to bring what it is that I had to the world even if I didn’t know what that was. It started there. Where the first real entrepreneurial business started for me was at fifteen. At thirteen years old, I was an artist and everybody who knew me thought I was going to be an artist including me. My art was in galleries by the time I was eleven. I had this wonderful careers officer who said to me, “What do you want to do when you leave school?” I said, “I want to be an artist.” They said, “One in 100 make it and one in 100 of those make any money at it. Find something else.” “Thanks for the encouragement, lovely.”
I went home and literally cried to my mother because I couldn’t be an artist, at least that’s what I believed. My mother said, “There are other ways to be an artist.” Then I went, “What is that?” She said, “Why don’t you be a hairdresser?” Where I was from, the ghetto, hairdressers were considered poofters, which was an English term meaning they were not men’s men. I thought, “I’ll go,” and I got this job. I completed a four-year apprenticeship in ten months, was teaching in the academy by the time I was fifteen and was like, “What’s next?” That’s how I started. I started out as what we called a mobile hairdresser, literally with a mobile. It was my pushbike, my bicycle. I would get on my bicycle and I would cycle to people’s houses and I would do their hair in their homes. I remember coming home with £200 in my pocket when I was fifteen, sixteen years old, which was a huge amount of money, and going, “That’s it. I’m never working for anybody ever again.” That was the birth of my entrepreneurial spirit.
I think you’re the youngest of everyone I’ve interviewed so far who had their first 1,000 clients before you were seventeen years old.
I had a massive client list. I did super well and I throw these hairdressing parties where people would feed me and take care of me and I’d take care of all these women and do all their hair and their husbands’ hair and their kids’ hair. It was a whole other world away from me where I am now, but it was definitely the birthplace of my entrepreneurial life.
I didn’t think you started with hairdressing parties. That came probably as you evolved your business as a very young man. When you started and you were just cutting hair, you must have figured some stuff out on how to do it better, on how to organize yourself. We, today, would use the word systems. How did you evolve?
It’s a really great question because I think it would be a really lovely fantasy for me to say, “I had a system.” I did not have a system. There was no system. The system was really something that is still fundamental to the work that I do today, which is always over-deliver. I was just so committed and dedicated to making sure that what I provided was high quality that people would go away and tell their friends about it. That was really the birthplace of that. My marketing model was a very simple one, which was, “Do an outstanding job.” It was combined with essential piece of the leadership work that I do which is, “Learn how to communicate. Learn how to speak to people and learn how to listen to people particularly in what they’re not saying.” That was a big clue for me because I had an interest in psychology since I was a little boy. This fascination with why people would do the same dumb stuff over and over again, that was there for me as a kid. When I was doing people’s hair, people tell their hairdressers things they wouldn’t tell their therapist. I would sit with these people and I would really listen. Very quickly, I became this faux therapist and people would tell me things and I would be able to sort things out for people. The systems really were understanding people’s minds, understanding how to listen to them, understanding what they’re asking for that they’re not asking for and then providing beyond what they expect.
You sound a lot like me in the sense that, and I’m going to make a guess here, the realization of what you were doing when you were a young man probably didn’t come until later in life. You did it naturally and you did it but it wasn’t until a little bit later in life that you looked back and said, “Now I understand what I was doing.” Does that makes sense?
It makes perfect sense and it’s well said. Thank you for bringing that up because this is an important piece that I work with leaders around is explaining to them that you have something called unconscious competence. It means you do it without thinking about it. This is the challenge. Because you do it without thinking about it, you’ll likely devalue it. There’s a very good chance that you will look at other people and think, “Anybody can do this,” but they can’t. It’s something that is ingrained in you, so you devalue it. That’s actually where you bring the most value.
As entrepreneurs, we’ve heard about unconscious competence a lot. It’s so valuable to listen to you and your example, which clearly explains and shows exactly what you’re talking about. I want to thank you for bringing that up because I think it’s in everybody’s life. I think we all go through life knowing that we have some kind of ability but not really because everyone else does it too.
In my work, I call it your genius blind spot. It’s where you actually have genius but it’s a blind spot to you because you take it for granted. Here’s the thing I would like you to do. I’m going to give you this as an exercise. This is going to help you. I want you to write down what’s obvious about you because you’ve likely dismissed what spectacular is obvious. Write down all the things that are obvious about you. I was having a conversation with somebody, Mark Levy, who’s a spectacular guy on helping you to really create points of differentiation. We had this very conversation about what it is that you write off as ordinary, what is it that you just don’t even think of that’s actually your point of distinction. We talked about how a very famous marketer from the early ‘20s who went in, was taken into a brewery because they were number six in the top six and they could never get past that. He said, “What’s different about you?” They said, “Nothing.” He asked for a tour of their facility and they walked him through this 2,000-foot artesian well and went through all these amazing things about how they filter. He was like, “This is amazing. We can market this.” They were like, “No, you don’t understand. That’s how you do beer. That’s how everybody makes beer. There’s nothing different here.” He said, “The public don’t know that.” The point was that you’ve dismissed it as average, as normal, as everybody does it, but in fact, your audience, the people you’re looking to create those 1,000 customers are the people who don’t know. It’s obvious to you. It’s not obvious to them.
I want you to take us a little bit further in life. You’ve been a successful hairdresser and I think that you probably have left that off of your resume by now. I’d like to know what happened next because you have some suspense going with me. I’d love to hear what happened after the hairdressing experience.
That did carry on for a while. I was in that business for thirteen years actually. I own salons in the UK, in Canada and in Australia. I’ve never done just one thing. I traveled the world to study with great teachers in religious philosophy and in psychology, then eventually into quantum physics. Thirty-four years ago, I was having a conversation with a very good friend of mine who owned a chain of menswear stores across Australia. He was a client of mine so I knew him very well. We would have these great philosophical conversations about these very amazing subjects. He was like, “I love talking to you. This is so great. I don’t get to talk to anybody else about this.” He says, “Here’s what I want you to do.” I said, “What?” He said, “I want you to come speak to my executive board.” I’m like, “You want me to do what? I’m not a speaker.” He goes, “You can.” I go, “What the hell would I talk about?” He goes, “You can talk about anything you want.” I got, “These are your execs. You must want me to speak about something.” He goes, “No, I’m going to leave it completely, totally to you.” I was freaking out. I was scared. He said, “I do have one condition.” I said, “What’s that?” He goes, “You have to look the way you look today.” You should know that I met him because he had a national menswear company and I used to have my suits made by him in the ‘80s, but I had a two-look thing. One was my very, very high-end suits. The other was I was in my early twenties. I’ve been a bodybuilder for 40 years. When you’re in your early twenties and you’re a bodybuilder, when you’re casually dressed, every muscle has to show. That day, I had a T-shirt on that was definitely too tight, tight jeans. My hair was chest length. I had long hair that looked like the Howard Stern ringlet curls, and earrings that you could swing parrots off. My hair was out and wild. He says, “The one condition is that you come looking like that.” I’m like, “You know I wear suits. I can wear a suit.” He goes, “No, I want you to look like that.” I go, “Can I put my hair in ponytails?” “No, entirely like that.” He was a very smart guy and I had no idea what he was up to at all, but I agreed to it.
I did as he instructed me, which was the day of the presentation I fronted up to the door to this boardroom and put my head in which is what he instructed me to do. All these guys are sitting at this long board table and they’re looking at me and giving me what we call in England the bugger off nod, which is this cock of the head to the side which is, “Get out of here. You’re in the wrong place.” They’re all looking at me like I’m in the wrong place. Finally, Steve introduces me. You can see these chins drop onto the desk. I woke up and I honestly don’t remember what I spoke about but I clearly remember my opening. That was the early ‘80s and there was a big issue with racism in Australia, particularly regarding the Aboriginal people. I said, “Put your hand up if you’re a racist.” Who is going to put their hands up? Nobody. I knew that. I’m already beginning to feel a little bit anxious asking it, but I asked that and nobody puts their hand up. I said, “Put your hand up if you would judge somebody by the color of their skin or the way they look in any way, shape or form.” Again, nobody puts their hand up. I just looked at them and I don’t know why but somehow I had the testicles to say to them, “You’re a bunch of freaking liars.” I said, “Every single one of you judged me when I popped my head in the door. You decided who I was, what I was worth. You decided whether I had any value. You decided whether I was your client. Here’s what you don’t know. The reason I know Steve is because I originally met him in your store. You guys make my suits. I have more money than you think I have. I have another business in which I make,” and I told them how much money I personally made a week and said, “You massively misjudged and you lost a potential customer if I’d have walked in or anybody like me walked in. That is how you’re damaging your business.” I look over at my friend, Steve, and he looks like somebody sliced his face open, he’s smiling so hard. I don’t remember much else of what I spoke about but that was the impactful moment.
That’s how I started my speaking career. I’d already been studying psychology and the psychology of excellence and wanting to understand that. I’d been putting that together with the philosophical things I’ve studied. That was the introduction to it. I want to tell people the other side of this because I think it’s important. There you’ve got this formula for me to become the kind of speaker I was. Steve told me it was outstanding, it was wonderful and as a result, he told somebody else in business about what I did who also said, “I want you to come and speak in my business.” I said, “Okay.” The date was set for three or four weeks later. I explained to you how I looked when I went to the first meeting. As soon as I was invited to do the second presentation, I went, “I’m a speaker. I’m going to be speaking.” What did I do? I cut off my hair, shaved off my designer stubble, grew what I call a copstache, meaning a moustache that looked like I was either a cop or a cheesy car salesman, wore a suit and a tie and didn’t look anything like myself, and corrected my language and did all those kinds of things. That presentation fell on its face in a hard way. What was my gift? My gift was speaking authentically, which I’ve been speaking about for more than twenty years now. I was authentically speaking but I looked instead to other people and made the assessment of who I should be rather than who I was that hit it out of the park. This is the clue for all of you. I want to remind you that part of the unconscious competence piece we talked about is you’ve devalued a part of your style and who you are, and that’s what’s keeping you from reaching that 1,000 clients.
I’d like to add one element to this that I have discovered in myself, and that is to watch for how we feel. I’ll give an example and I could use a similar example for you. When I’m in my element, when I’m being completely natural and the way I think about it is I’m channeling Mitch, I’m not really me, I’m not making it up, it’s just flowing. I feel amazing. I feel like I’m in present time. When I were to cut off the hair and buttoned down in the suit, I don’t feel like Mitch anymore. In fact, it doesn’t even feel comfortable. Do you relate at all to that?
It’s what Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal talked about as being in a flow state. When you’re in that flow state, there’s nothing edited. You may say things that are going to raise a few eyebrows. The thing about this, and I say this to the leaders that I work with, is you can’t lead from the fence. What that simply means is you can’t stand on the fence and you’ve got to not let anybody else on the fence. Being the real Mitch, being the real Dov, being the real you is going to push people off the fence. They’re going to love you or they’re going to hate you, that’s not a bad thing. You don’t want to waste time with people who are on the fence. How do you get them off the fence? Stay off the fence yourself. Then you’re in that flow state. Then you flow naturally. You don’t actually have to think much about what you’re saying.
We’ve got thirteen years of what sounds like an amazing hairdressing business, then you had a little bit of a rocky start as a speaker. You had one great experience and then you figured out that the second one wasn’t going to work that well. What happened after that?
The presumption is that I figured it out right away. I did not. In fact, I was encouraged by some friends and went on an Australian tour. In that first tour, I almost went completely bankrupt. I put everything I possibly had into it. I designed a program. It was a phenomenal program, but I was not authentic in it. That was the beginning of my speaking career 34 years ago, and it almost sunk me right out of the harbor. It just was brutally difficult and I really thought, “I’m in the wrong business.” I was not in the wrong business. The wrong version of me was in the business, a fraudulent version of me. I wasn’t trying to be fraudulent. What I was trying to do was what I thought was right as opposed to what was true. That’s what actually happened. That took me at least four years to really work out, “This is the problem. I get it now. This is the problem.” I’m looking at everybody else and going, “What’s popular? What are people asking for? What are they paying for? I can be that,” as opposed to, “What’s true to me?”
I think if we were to all naturally follow that advice, it would make it so much easier for us in life. We don’t. We stumble. We experiment. We’re not sure if we’re good enough. It’s like the imposter syndrome. We don’t know whether we’re good enough, whether it’s going to work for others, so we try things out. We try personalities or processes on. I think most of us that are successful come back to that moment where we go, “I just got to be me. Whether they like it or not, it’s just the way I am.” That’s mostly what works, right?
Yeah. I think part of the challenge is it’s cliché to say, “I’ve got to be me,” so it gets dismissed easily. The thing for you as you’re listening to this, what I want you to grasp is anything else is secondhand. It’s not got the greatest value in you. I was having a conversation with a high-level speaker that I consult with, that I guide and I work with. He was saying, “You swear.” I do. I swear on stage. Gary Vaynerchuk swears on stage and since the Tony Robbins movie on Netflix, we realize he swears on stage. This speaker was saying to me, “Do you think I should swear?” I looked at him and said, “Do you swear?” He goes, “No.” I go, “Why the hell would you swear then? That would be as inappropriate as for me to not swear.” Stop looking at the trend. Stop looking at experimenting with ideas. Rather, experiment with how you can peel the layer away. The model of our business, we call it Full Monty Leadership. What does Full Monty Leadership mean? It means to pull away everything that falls on top of everything, strip it away. Get rid of those things and go back to the very raw sense of who you are. What you’re actually experimenting with is what to pull away. This is the work I say to people all the time, “My job is not to help you have more, but to take away everything that hides the diamond of who you are.” That’s what you’ve got to experiment with is what will pull away the veneer and reveal the diamond of who you are.
What happened next?
After that, I started to refine that and I was really on top of my game. Then something very disastrous happened. I hope that people are getting from this that the path is not an easy one. It’s not a smooth path. It doesn’t go from A to B. It doesn’t work like that. In 1990, I was actually having enormous amounts of success. I was being far more authentic. I was having more success than I’ve ever had in my life. I was traveling and speaking. I had a beautiful big car, a big house, and all the things that I thought was success. Then in June 1990, I was free climbing. For those of you who don’t know what that is, if you think mountain climbing is for the crazy people, you might want to remember that they have safety lines, they have hooks, they have ropes, they have all kinds of stuff. Then there’s another sport called free climbing. Free climbing is climbing without any of those things. It’s a sport for the moderately insane, but you do have the right clothing, you have the right shoes, you have the right chalk.
If you want to take it from the moderately insane to the downright freaking crazy, then you do what I did which was I would free climb and on this particular day, I was soaking wet because I’d been behind a waterfall and I challenged my friend to free climb up by Whistler. For those of you who follow the Winter Olympics, it’s where the Winter Olympics were held. Free climbing this rock face at the side of this 200-foot majestic waterfall. Then about 120 feet, I reached for a rock that dislodged a bigger rock and it hit me in the face and sent me hurtling at maximum velocity onto the boulders below. It smashed me to pieces. It absolutely devastated me.
I couldn’t imagine surviving a fall like that. It’s amazing that you did.
It’s very miraculous. When I came around, I felt like my head was underwater. What I realized what I tasted in my mouth what tasted like rusty metal was that it was blood. It was filling every orifice of my face. As you can imagine, the recovery was long. It was slow and it was excruciating.
How long did it take to recover from that?
It’s interesting, Mitch, because I think I’ve had twelve reconstructive surgeries. I had about half a dozen of them pretty fast. Within about five months, if you didn’t know me, you would say I looked fine. I didn’t look like me but I looked fine. The first nine months, people who knew me would say to me, “How are you doing?” I’ll be like, “I’m great. I’m coming back. I’m a winner.” I was born in a ghetto, I had learned to be tough and I was a leader. There was no doubt about that. I was not going to be beaten down by this situation, until about nine months in and I found myself on my living room floor. I was in the fetal position, weeping. I was crushed mentally, emotionally, spiritually and financially. I just had nothing. It was at that moment that I realized all the “I’m coming back” was a lie because there is no back in life. The seduction of the present was so sweet. The idea that I could just not go ahead and I could just hold on to this victim story and feel justified in doing so was extremely seductive.
There was a third option. The third option was to crawl out of that hole with anything and everything that I’ve got, but not to crawl back but to find out what was missing. That was the birthplace of the work that I do today, which I describe as helping leaders and companies find the soul of their organization, find the soul of their leadership. That was what it was. It was looking at that purpose part of me, the soulful part of me, what was at the core, what was even deeper than the authentic core of who I was. That became the journey that pulled me out. It took about another nine months. Both of those were gestation periods. From there that I came forward with looking at, “It’s not about packaging this. This is what I do. I’m able to get to that nitty-gritty core piece in people, what is it that makes them unique in the way that they lead, and what is it that makes their company unique in the way that it is, and how does that serve the souls of others.”
Dov, this is an incredible story. I’ve not heard this before and I want to thank you for sharing it. I have to say that the moment in time when you had that realization that instead of just crawling out of that hole and finding what was missing, that began your journey and it took nine months. Is that almost a coincidence that it’s the same amount of time it takes to birth a human being?
It’s a gestation period. I really believe that I birthed me.
There are people listening to the show who probably hear this and go, “I’m not going to be falling off a cliff,” but there are also people who are saying, “I get that and I would love to find a way to find out that part of me that’s missing the way that Dov described.” How could you advise people to go in that direction?
Here’s what I believe. I believe every human being has a fall. Mine was quite literal. It was off a mountain. What people don’t know unless they ask me is that wasn’t my first fall. That was my fourth fall. I’d fallen 12 feet, 20 feet and 70 feet previously. What did it take? It’s what it takes to wake you up. As you’re listening to this, you’ve already had a fall. I guarantee it. Even if you’re 30 years old, I guarantee you’ve had some kind of a wakeup call. The fall may look like a diagnosis. It may look like the loss of somebody you love. It might look like a divorce. It might look like a bankruptcy. It might look like some other event that seemed so devastating. What I want to tell you is that that’s not the curse although it feels like it at the time and I would not in any way disparage that.
What it actually is, it’s the wakeup call to call you back to your very soul. You don’t have to fall off a mountain. You can twist your ankle and go, “What if this is the wakeup call?” Whatever it is, somebody just bumped into you in your car, there’s no big damage but what is that trying to wake you up to? The central philosophical question one must ask oneself is two-sided and it’s, “What do I need to wake up from? What do I need to wake up to? Where am I in some slumber here? Where is it that I’m doing something that is not truly aligned with who I am? What do I need to wake up to? What is that part of me that I don’t allow to come forward, that I don’t allow to express?” Because that’s where the truth is. That’s where the truth of you as a leader, as an entrepreneur, as an individual is actually where you’ve got the greatest amount of value to bring to the world. That’s the soul of what it is you do.
This is clearly your passion and I feel it. I applaud it. I love what you’re saying. Over a beer, I’d love to share with you what my fall was. I was addicted to heroin as a young man. I had a moment in time where I feel like God snatched me from death and saved me. That wasn’t the first time either, just like yours. The way I think about it is that the universe is a self-correcting mechanism. If you’re out there and you need to be corrected, the universe is going to gently tap you on the shoulder. If you don’t hear it, that’s fine because a few days, weeks or months later, the universe is going to slap you on the side of the head. If that doesn’t work, the universe is going to throw a bus at you. It’s eventually going to get through to you or else you’re gone.
This is my philosophy. You can call it the universe, you can call it your soul, you can call it whatever you like to call it, the infinite intelligence, you can call it God, Jesus, it doesn’t matter. That part of you starts off with a whisper. If you don’t listen to the whisper, it will shout a bit louder. It will talk a bit louder. If you don’t listen to the talk, it will shout until eventually it throws you off a mountain. You don’t have to wait that long. You could listen to the whisper.
Dov, I have to ask because I feel the passion, I know it’s there and I know you want to share it. I want other people who got excited by listening to your words to be able to either contact you or maybe get something from you that would give them a direction. Do you offer anything like that?
I want to do this in two parts. First of all, I’m going to give you my personal email because I believe it’s important for each of us to not just listen to this, but actually choose to do something with it. Mitch has taken all this time to bring you great guests. You need to write to him and let him know the value you’ve got out of this and what you’re going to do with it. For me, what I would like you to do is to do the same. Write to me. Tell me what you’ve gotten out of this and tell me what you’re going to do with it. My address is Dov@DovBaron.com. Write to me and tell me what you’re doing with this, what you’re going to do with it. You can find my website, FullMontyLeadership.com. What I have for you as a gift is authentic leadership falls into five pieces, five parts. What I’ve created for you is a self-assessment tool that allows you to go in and take a look at where your real strengths are and maybe what you need to bring up. You’ll find that at Matrix.FullMontyLeadership.com. You can have it as a gift. It’s a $197 value for that assessment. You can get it absolutely free because you tuned in to Mitch and because you must be a decent person if you’re listening to Mitch.
That’s a pretty cool gift actually. I have not taken your leadership assessment. I really want to do this. It sounds so amazing. A lot of what we share on this show are tips to people about how to improve their business and how to grow their customer base. I just want to make the point that what we talked about is every bit as important as every other topic we’ve covered here, but this is the stuff that turns people into leaders. I want to thank you, Dov, for being with me and for sharing this incredible wisdom of yours. I hope a million people reach out to you and let you know how great it was for them.
I want to thank you for having me on the show. It’s an honor and a grace and I appreciate it. It’s been a blessing. To all of you, thank you for your time and your engagement. I sincerely appreciate it.