Episode 39 - Paul O'Brien

February 28, 2019 16 min read

Episode 39 - Paul O'Brien

   

  

In this episode, we are joined by Paul O’Brien, Director of Leadership Matters, a company that develops and implements leadership strategies, training programs and general interventions for organisations. Paul specialises in leadership development interventions, coaching and public motivational speaking. Pedals, Paddles and Potholes is the title of his first book that he is launching in March.

In this episode we cover: 

  • His journey from childhood, the biggest life challenges that he has experienced, leadership management, and writing his first book.
  • What his book Pedals, Paddles and Potholes is all about.
  • The 7 Elements model.
  • Elite athletes needing help with mental health issues.
  • Paul shares his thoughts about the question, “how well do people know us?”
  • Cycling as a way to bridge connections, friendships and releasing sharing.
  • An inspiring story shared by Paul.

Links

Transcript:

FELICITY:

This is episode 39. Welcome to the All Torque podcast, where each episode we interview an inspiring person to share their story with you. I'm your host, Felicity Dales, managing director of Body Torque.

I have with me today, Paul O'Brien, the director of Leadership Matters. Prior to establishing Leadership Matters, Paul spent more than 25 years in management and leadership roles with Victoria Police and more than a decade developing and implementing innovative leadership programs across emergency services, government agencies, corporates and sporting groups.

Paul has worked in Canada, Micronesia, the Solomon Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China and across Australia. Paul is a sports aficionado, having played most and watched all. He also enjoys adventure travel from trekking the Himalayas to fishing for piranha in the Amazon jungle, and exploring the salt plains of Bolivia to researching betel nut chewing in the Solomons and diving with manta rays in Micronesia.

Paul's specialties are leadership, development, coaching and public motivational speaking. Paul is currently working with a range of clients and is launching his first book Pedals, Paddles and Potholes in March.

Welcome, Paul.

PAUL:

Thank you, Felicity. It's a pleasure to be able to chat with you today and launching my first book sounds great.

FELICITY:

It's exciting, it's great to have you.

PAUL:

Thank you.

FELICITY:

Your background includes being a police officer in both State and Federal policing. You've dealt with armed robbers, terrorists, murderers, rapists and thieves and led up to 300 operational police. Your formal education includes a Masters in leadership and management, a Bachelor degree in business management and after leaving the police in 2010 and stayed in your leadership consultancy.. sorry, starting your leadership consultancy, you experienced life changing events that included a cancer diagnosis, acute depression and anxiety, a traumatic separation, financial difficulties and other significant life challenges all within the space of 18 months. Tell us about your journey, Paul, growing up to leadership and change management to writing your book Pedals, Puddles and Potholes.

PAUL:

Yeah thanks, Felicity, it's been a journey. I grew up in country South Australia to a poor Irish Catholic family of seven children and I was the youngest.

FELICITY:

Wow.

PAUL:

So, from an early age, I learned that we were the lower class and it had a significant impact as I reflect back now, on my outlook on life and my sense of worth, I suppose. But I went through school pretty well. I was a reasonable academic student and okay at most sports, so got along with most of the teachers and most of the students. Left school, tried Uni for a while but that wasn't for me at that time, and a couple of years later I joined Victoria Police and that was just as an interim measure until I worked out what I wanted to do in life.

FELICITY:

Right.

PAUL:

Had such a good time over 26 years that I stayed in Victoria Police and Federal Police and had a number of roles but I always had a burning desire to start a business for myself and as it turns out, that was in leadership development 'cause I developed a passion for leadership in Victoria Police. That was in July of 2010 when myself and my partner and her two children were living in Sydney, and then some 12 months after leaving Victoria Police which was a significant decision, and starting the private business, I was diagnosed with cancer which was a little bit of a setback.

FELICITY:

Absolutely.

PAUL:

Yeah, and then in early 2011 my business partner left with one day's notice, which was a little bit of a shock. My personal relationship was becoming toxic with my partner. I was in financial difficulty. I found out I required a hip replacement which stopped me from running, which had been my main form of exercise and also therapy, if you like, in terms of keeping my mind healthy.

FELICITY:

Yes.

PAUL:

I was 48 years old at that stage so it's apparently quite early to require a hip replacement. Mum was back in Melbourne, she was slowly dying so it was difficult with her being so far away and I was close to Mum, and I went to the doctors and I said I wasn't coping too well and I got diagnosed with acute anxiety and depression. That was in some sense a relief because then I knew what I was actually dealing with.

I'd sit at home as a consultant and I couldn't pick up the phone because I was afraid that I wasn't worth speaking to, and nobody would actually answer the phone so I sat there all day and just worried about picking up the phone and never ever did it. And then if the phone rang, I wouldn't answer it because I thought, "Why would they want to speak to Paul O'Brien when his own life's in disarray and he's not worth speaking to?" So, to put it technically, Felicity, life sucked.

And in early 2012, I separated from my partner and from that day forward, I was unable to speak to my two incredible stepchildren, which was just shattering to me, I suppose. And that was probably one of the low points. I didn't want to take my own life but I just didn't want to live. I just had nothing to live for.

And then one day, a mate convinced me to get into cycling. He'd been cycling for most of his life and he said, "Paul, try it out," and I said, "Mate I can't do cycling. I don't like Lycra and I'm not very good on a bike and I don't want to be labeled a MAMIL, a middle-aged man in lycra.

FELICITY:

No, that's right.

PAUL:

Not a good look. But he persisted and I took up cycling and it was one of the best things I did in life in the way of recovery. So I started bike riding from a point where I could barely ride 40 kilometres and have to spend the rest of the day on the couch, eventually engaged in some rides that were over 200 kilometres in a day.

FELICITY:

Wow.

PAUL:

Then did some kayaking as another challenge in life, I suppose. And also engaged in some public speaking Felicity, to talk about my challenges because one of the realisations I came to was that I was going through this and I was reasonably well educated and had a reasonable career and reasonably successful, then surely other people must be going through this. And the more I spoke about it, the more people opened up, to the point where I spoke to a room of 200 people that I knew none of them and I was quite apprehensive but the talk resonated with them and I've never had such a positive response to public speaking engagements as that one. And that was another turning point to say, "You know what Paul, share the story and it may help other people be more open about their own story."

FELICITY:

Yeah, so you made it okay to not be okay.

PAUL:

Yeah, and then it went from there. I thought, "I've written down the stories of the difficulties of my life because that was therapeutic to me." I thought, "Okay, let's form it into a book to show my commitment to supporting other people." So, it's not just talking about it, there's a book there. If people want to look at it and read it and say, "You know what, that might help me"- fantastic. And that's how Pedal as in the cycling, Paddles in terms of the kayaking and Potholes in terms of the challenges in life came to be.

FELICITY:

And of course, we also come across Potholes in our cycling, so it's a double entendre there.

PAUL:

Yes. Lots of those.

FELICITY:

Yeah, so your book is a memoir of triumph, trials and then finding a new level of satisfaction in life. It's a book that makes people laugh and cry and has a model for them to plan a better life. Let's talk about that.

PAUL:

Yes well, when I was at my lowest, I thought, "I just need to take a step forward, whatever that step may be." Being a planner, I started to develop a life plan and I started to envisage the future I wanted to have. And If I was going to achieve that future, then I needed a structured approach to it. I developed what I called the Seven Elements model which consists of the future, identifying what that is and then the other six elements contribute to that future.

So, your health is number one and that's physical, psychological and spiritual. Why you're here and if you're not healthy, you can't help anybody else.

FELICITY:

No.

PAUL:

Then came family 'cause they're generally the next closest thing to us in life and the thing we value the most. Then came friends because they're critical in life. I'm talking about the close friends, the people that will be there for you in good times but also the bad times. And then we have finance and work, which ideally support the first three elements. And then there's always fun, because sometimes we forget to have fun in life. I bought a couple of Dr. Seuss books three or four months ago because to me that represents a great time in life where reading Dr. Seuss was just fun. Green Ham and Eggs. Cat in The Hat. It's just fun and we forget to do that as adults. We get buried in the day to day life.

So that model helped me out. One of the things I wanted to do through that model was be in a position to retire because I didn't want to be bound to anybody else. I had financial issues and I just didn't want to go to work for the sake of making money, so I put myself in a position where I modified my expectations and I was able to retire a couple of years later. That was one of the key aims for me. So that model gave me a guide in terms of what I needed to do to get out of that dark space in terms of physical, psychological health and our relationship.

FELICITY:

What a fantastic guide and model to have, and also to be able to teach others.

PAUL:

Yes, I've run workshops around it. Over in South Australia, we ran a two-day workshop for all of the staff in one emergency service organisation. It was probably the most taxing two-day workshop, series of two-day workshops I've ever run but also the most rewarding because people opened up and we talked about real issues. We were able to deal with some of those issues and people realised they weren't on an island. Other people were experiencing the same things and they could reach out and support each other. The return on that investment was just amazing in terms of the feedback from people to say, you know what? They could deal with some of their challenges a little better now.

FELICITY:

That's fantastic and that's important. You work on a couple of voluntary boards with Outside the Locker Room preventing athlete suicide and other issues, and also the Victorian Institute of Sport running in an annual leadership program for elite athletes, and you say you've worked with elite athlete’s mental health issues. With sport being a known factor in helping our mental health, why do these elite athletes need help, Paul?

PAUL:

That's a great question. Felicity. I'd probably even expand it to, "Why do we all need help?" At one time or another in life, I'd suggest, we all face a situation where we're struggling to deal with what life puts in front of us. So, it's not just elite athletes, but elite athletes in my experience over a number of years, are human. They have an amazing skill and ability in one particular aspect of life, in their sport but they face the same challenges as everybody else in life. So, they're not exempt from having challenges in other areas such as their finances or relationships or what they do when they transition from being an elite athlete.

So, we all need help in life. When I deal with the elite athletes or when I've dealt with them, the first thing I do is recommend they see the sports psychologist if they haven't already done so and they look at me incredulously, as if to say, "I'm not mad." And we have the discussion about their access to other expertise such as nutrition, such as physical strength, such as sports science. I ask them why they wouldn't avail themselves of the expertise of the sports psychologist who can enhance their performance. We spend so much time building our physical capability, yet we often forget to build out our psychological capability.

FELICITY:

Yes.

PAUL:

So that goes beyond the athletes. The same applies to business people and experts in all areas of life.

FELICITY:

Definitely. I don't think there's any borders. I guess I just find it fascinating when cycling for me is definitely a release, and good for my mental health and I'm really aware of that, so being an elite athlete, obviously they're just say a step up because they're already doing that and having that release, but it's.. so yeah, I agree with you. I think that mental health's about everyone but it's just interesting that especially if they've got also access to other people supporting them like physiologists and psychologists and all that kind of thing, but of course if you're not asking the right question as you mention, then you're not really getting the right answer either. I guess it's all about the quality of the questions as well, isn't it?

PAUL:

Yes, and we sometimes I think assume that the people who are prominent and appear to be doing extremely well in life also have their challenges, and we think that they've got access to those support areas, well surely they must exercise that access and get the support they need but my experience has been that people are sometimes reticent for a number of perhaps valid reasons to actually access the support, “I’ll be seen to be weak if I access that”. Or, “I should be able to deal with this myself”.

FELICITY:

Right.

PAUL:

And by the way, should is probably one of the words that should be struck from the..

FELICITY:

Taken out. Definitely. Yes, I agree. Mental health is such a big topic, as we're discussing. There was an article by Matthew Tukaki, the chair of Suicide Prevention Australia where he acknowledged that he was lonely and yet surrounded by people, but not close friends to share worries and challenges with, who don't judge you and support you, and less than three people really know him. A friend of his passed and he thought he knew him well but made a remarkable discovery that he really only knew less than 20% of who he was. He made the comment, "How well do people know us anyway?" I thought that was a really interesting question. Has that been your experience?

PAUL:

Wow, what a powerful statement and a powerful question. Felicity, my god daughter when she was three years old, she penned a poem about loneliness and she compared loneliness to cold spaghetti. Wow, what a really powerful metaphor and where did the three-year-old get such wisdom?

FELICITY:

I know.

PAUL:

So, I often remind her of that poem that she wrote, and Matthew's insight says lonely is such a horrible feeling and I liken people to onions. We have different layers and we allow people access to different layers of ourselves depending on the level of trust and how much we want to share. There's a woman by the name of Renee Brown who's a U.S. research scientist.

FELICITY:

Yeah, she's fantastic.

PAUL:

Just amazing. Her basic research into love and connection, and you're familiar with it no doubt.

FELICITY:

I am, and compassion.

PAUL:

Love and she found shame that people didn't feel worthy to be connected to other people. That if they told people intimate details about themselves, about their fears, their concerns, then other people wouldn't want to know them. When I share that I came from a poor upbringing, I'm some ways proud of it but I'm also still ashamed that we didn't have the money to pay school fees or we had old rented homes that I was ashamed to bring friends home to because they'd look down upon me.

It's such a powerful emotion, shame. But I found over the last few years that by sharing my challenges, my fears, that people actually respond to that, and can I share that as a 26 year police, what they call a veteran, my whole career was spent not sharing information about myself because that increased the danger in some of the roles that I had.

FELICITY:

Right.

PAUL:

So, to actually share now is a relief but also I have to learn how to share. But every time I do, I get incredible return so one message I'd like to share with people is just open up and you reduce the leverage that people can have to ransom you. They can no longer say, "I know this about you and you don't share it with anybody so if you upset me, I'll tell everybody about it." You take away that fear and that people holding you to ransom.

FELICITY:

Absolutely. So do you see cycling as a way to bridge that gap with connection and friendships and a way of release and sharing?

PAUL:

Ah Felicity, I think this is one of the passions you and I share, that connection through cycling. In the book, I call it the men’s shed on wheels, and that's not to say it's not the female shed on wheels or the woman's shed on wheels but my experience when I got into the bike riding is I had so many wonderfully deep discussions with other men, because it was predominantly men in the cycling group up in Sydney, about the most serious of life's challenges, whether it be relationship or depression or financial issues.

The great thing about the bike is that when you're riding, you're not actually looking at the other person so you can almost talk to yourself and not have to face another person and risk being judged. And if the discussion gets too deep or you get too uncomfortable, you ride away or you drop back so you can disengage, so there's that escape route if you like.

One story that sticks out in my mind and will always I think, is that we had annual awards for the riding group, and the guy a few years ago who won the Rider Of The Year, basically for being the most dedicated rider, stood up and in front of a whole room of riders and their partners said that if it wasn't for the riding group and for cycling, he would have taken his own life.

FELICITY:

Wow.

PAUL:

You could have heard a pin drop in the room and I think the penny dropped for a lot of the partners who had previously complained that, "You guys are out early on the weekend and I don't see my husband or partner for three or four hours and that's valuable time," I think there was a realisation that the bikes.. Lance Armstrong, his six words of truth if nothing else when he said, "It's not about the bike”.

To me and perhaps to you, it's more about the therapy, the physical fitness surely but also the psychological fitness, the endorphin release and we believe we have some great conversations with other people.

FELICITY:

Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. Are there any funny stories or inspiring stories that you can share with our listeners today, Paul?

PAUL:

I don't know about inspiring, but when we did the kayak trip across Bass Strait, it came from a conversation after a few friends and I completed a Three Peaks bicycle ride to Hotham, Falls Creek and along the gap.

FELICITY:

Oh yeah.

PAUL:

Which is 235 kilometres and 4,500 metres of climbing in the one day, which I felt wasn't too bad at all. I thought, "Maybe I can ride a bike."

FELICITY:

Great achievement.

PAUL:

Afterwards, a mate rang me and said Obie, which is my nickname, "Obie, maybe we can do another challenge," and I said, "What's that?" And he said, "We could go kayaking." I said, "Where?" and he goes, "Tasmania."

I said, "I don't have a kayak," and he goes, "They're on sale at Anaconda." I said, "Okay I can buy a kayak. Where are we going to paddle in Tasmania?" He goes, "No you idiot, we're going to paddle to Tasmania." I said, “Okay”, and he hung up the phone. So I committed to paddling across Bass Strait to Tasmania and we trained for 12 months. People said you could never do it, you need 10 years..

FELICITY:

Wow, massive.

PAUL:

We said, "Well, you know what? We'll do our best." So, we trained and we planned and a couple of days before, we still hadn't decided if we were going to share tents, so I bought a really good three-man tent because I thought we'd share a tent to five of us all up who were going. And then about two days before we were due to leave, it was decided that we'd have single tents.

FELICITY:

Okay.

PAUL:

I walked around to a budget outlet and bought the cheapest one man tent I could buy on the basis that I would only have to sleep in it for about 10 days, and I bought a cheap Li-lo on the same basis.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

PAUL:

Easter Saturday, we're down at Port Welshpool in Victoria and we couldn't paddle that day because the weather wasn't favourable so we had to set up camp in the local camping ground. So the other guys have put up their tents and I put my tent up and it was about 150 centimetres long and I'm 185 centimetres.

FELICITY:

Oh.

PAUL:

So there was much laughter at my expense. I then inflated the Li-lo and the pillow end went up and the other end, being laminated and turned into a big bubble. So for 13 days, I'd sit in the kayak for up to 18 hours a day. Then I'd get my five-foot tent out and inflate my bubble Li-lo and could barely get two hours sleep. So, I was the source of much amusement at the end of each day on that trip but you know what? At the end of the day, we paddled Bass Strait and I don't know of any plan that goes 100% according to plan, so I'd just urge people- If people are making fun of you, great. Keep going with your plan and your goals and when you've got there, maybe they congratulate you.

FELICITY:

Wow, that's amazing Paul. That's a really incredible story and you survived, so that's fantastic.

PAUL:

I'm pretty happy with it, Felicity, to survive.

FELICITY:

Massive achievement, well done. I'd like to thank you, Paul, for joining us today. Our listeners can find you on your website which iswww.leadershipmatters.net.au which is about maximising individual team and organisational performance. So, our listeners can find you there. We'll also have that link in our show notes so on the Body Torque website, they can see that so yeah, thank you once again for joining us and all the best with your book launch.

PAUL:

Thank you for having me, Felicity and if anybody's interested, if the podcast goes out beforehand, the book launch is on the 17th of March at the Black Rock Yacht Club in Melbourne, so you find it on Eventbrite apparently, so everybody..

FELICITY:

We can put the link to that in our show notes too, so that's fine. Yeah, it will be out before then.

PAUL:

Awesome. Thank you for that, Felicity.

FELICITY:

Lovely. You're welcome. Thanks, Paul.

Thanks for listening to the All Torque podcast. We'd love it if you would leave us a rating and review on iTunes. This helps us to deliver content you want to hear about. Please take a moment to share it with your friends and family on Instagram and Facebook. I'm Felicity Dales, see you next episode for another story of inspiration and motivation on the All Torque podcast.


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