Connections to Experts: Learning to Rise Above
When John O’Leary was 9 years old, he was burned on 100 percent of his body and given less than one percent chance of surviving the night. He went on to become a college graduate, business owner, chaplain, husband, father and a renowned international speaker.
Octane sat down with John to discuss the power of perseverance, discovering your passions and excelling in the face of adversity.
You faced such incredible hardships at such a young age. How did you power through this extremely difficult ordeal?
JO: When first told of the severity of the burns, I asked my mom if I was going to die. Rather than giving me an answer, she asked, “Do you want to die?” In that moment, my mother exemplified great leadership— she didn’t provide an answer for me, she asked the critical question. It was my choice: life or death. And that day, I told my mom that I wanted to live. Her response was: “Then take the hand of God, walk the journey with him and fight like you never fought before.” I followed that advice then and I still do today; it’s empowered me to not look backward or feel overwhelmed.
What has kept you motivated over the years?
JO: It’s an amazing paradox of life that the challenges of our yesterdays can either break us or lead us toward our tomorrows. The beautiful, empowering aspect of this paradox is our personal choice. Our success is ultimately not dependent upon externals, but on our daily reaction and freedom to choose the next best step. This truth has served me well in all facets of life.
In your presentations, you talk a lot about rising above challenges and fulfilling your potential. How can our members do these things when facing difficult situations?
JO: My favorite quote is relayed in the book Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. The quote is, “He who knows his WHY can endure any HOW.” As business leaders, parents and leaders in life, we spend an inordinate amount of time focused on the HOW or the WHAT instead of the WHY. I keep my WHY in front of me always. What ultimately guides us and motivates us forward is totally unique, but in discovering yours—and inspiring your employees and family to discover theirs—the challenges faced have a beautiful tendency of becoming gentle bumps in the road on the way to success.
What’s the best way to embrace challenges and transform them into a foundation for outstanding growth?
JO: It’s so important to keep our challenges in perspective. In thinking about every great challenge I’ve ever faced, it has become clear to me that those challenges were doing two things: Preparing me for something even more significant in the future, and showing me that things were never as bad as I thought they were! They became life lessons and definers of character that led to new relationships and opportunities; they always served as the foundation for the next step forward. I imagine as your readers review their challenges they’ll discover the same truth exists in their life.
Whether it’s in life or business, what should every person keep top of mind when navigating through life’s difficulties?
JO: What ultimately matters isn’t the challenges, but what we do with them. Think about this: When a market drops, is it a negative or a positive? When there is flux in markets or relationships or even health, is it a negative? It certainly can be, but it might also be an invitation for change and creativity, the opportunity to pursue a new direction forward, the ability to reassess what matters most and how we are going to take our next best step forward.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
JO: The more you make your business, your relationships, your dreaming, your strategizing, your networking and your LIFE about others, the more successful you will become.
An international speaker, John O’Leary has shared his incredible life story with more than 750 organizations around the world, as well as countless EO chapters. John is represented exclusively by EO Dallas member Gail Davis. To learn more about John’s experiences, visit