Spaulding Companies' President, Tommy Spaulding interviewed by the Opportunity Coalition's CEO, Brian Watson

Brian Watson: Welcome to the Opportunity Coalition Podcast. Today, we have Tommy Spaulding, President of the Spaulding Companies, and New York Times’ best-selling author of "It’s Not Just Who You Know."  Tommy, welcome to the show.

Tommy Spaulding: Thank you, Brian. Glad to be on the show.

Brian Watson: So Tommy, for our listeners who are not familiar with you, tell us a little bit about what you do at the Spaulding Companies, and then we can dive into your book and your speaking engagements.

Tommy Spaulding: I’m on a speaking circuit full-time. I wrote a book five years ago, or almost five years ago, and doing that, it’s an honor to share my message around the world, and to corporate America. I do some consulting and some coaching, but my main passion is really working with leaders, and teaching them how to be heart-led leaders.

Brian Watson: You know, I read your book, It’s Not Just Who You Know, and you’ve had a very interesting beginning to your career. It’s not something necessarily you have planned, but you were there at the right time, and took advantage of those opportunities. But there’s a real common theme. It’s about connecting with people, and where that leads you. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Tommy Spaulding: You know, we live in such a transactional world, and a selfish world, and people always want something from somebody, and I just think that the best business leaders, the best organizations, the best sales teams, the best managers, the best friends that we have are when you build relationships that are pure, that are authentic, that are genuine, that are vulnerable, that are giving. And not so transactional. And so the book that I wrote, published by Random House, is really a testament to the power of building authentic genuine relationships in your professional lives and your personal lives. If you can build those types of relationships, they’ll transform your organization, and transform your relationships.

Brian Watson: Do you believe in society today that we have become more transactional and disconnected, because of things like technology, or do you think we are more connected than ever before, but it needs to be in a more intentional meaningful way?

Tommy Spaulding: Yeah, I guess there’s two sides of that coin, but I’ll pick the tails side, and I think we’ve become more transactional as a society, and I think the Internet has actually changed that, because we text, we email, we send notes, we do everything electronically. And when was the last time you wrote a handwritten note? And when was the last time you got a handwritten note from someone in your mail that just shared their heart about how they feel about you? Just that personal touch is just lost with technology. And so I believe we need to have a revolution to get to back to the old ways of building authentic relationships the old-fashioned way.

Brian Watson: Now, before you launched Spaulding Companies, you were an interesting career with Up With People. Would you mind talking a little bit about it?

Tommy Spaulding: Sure. For those listeners that don’t know Up With People, it’s an incredible worldwide leadership organization, one of the largest leadership organizations in the world, and it was founded in the ‘60s, and the mission was to bring young people from all over the world, usually 18 to 25 years old, and in different religions to different political beliefs to different socioeconomic classes, I mean from all over the world, every walk of life, they bring these young people together for a year, and you travel all over the world, living with host families and doing community services. And then they stage this two-hour musical show, which is really about building relationships with people that are different than you, and building relationships, and building bridges of understanding among cultures and religions.

And so when I was a senior in high school, I wasn’t really destined to college because of my grades. I have dyslexia, and really struggled academically in high school, so I wasn’t really going to go to any really prestigious college. So I didn’t go to college when I graduated high school. I joined Up With People at 17 years old, and I spent pretty much nine years of my life, in my 20s and 30s, working on and off with Up With People. I eventually did go to college and get a business degree. And then 25 years after I was a student with Up With People, I became the CEO and President of Up With People, and ran that worldwide organization for four years.

And Brian, much of my message about love in the workplace, and about authentic relationships, about changing the world, and having a heart for serving others, with the bottom line results of building profitable businesses, really came from my experience traveling to 60 countries with Up With People, and living in Europe, and living in Asia for two years, and living in Australia for two years, and living in Europe for 2.5 years, and traveling the world. It really impacted my heart for serving others.

Brian Watson: You know, you bring up an interesting concept, about showing love in the workplace. What do you mean by that? I mean, do you think that is something that actually occurs in society, and do you think it’s well-received?

Tommy Spaulding: Yeah, you know, there’s always these buzzwords that are in our business code. When Jim Collins wrote the book Good to Great, everyone talked about the hedgehog concept and the flywheel concept, and people on the bus. And these great authors come out with these wonderful taglines, and the word love in the workplace is a bad word. It’s a word that’s not used in the workplace. And the next book that’s coming out, that I’m writing next year with Random House, it’s called, It’s Who You Are, it’s really all about heart and love in the workplace. And if you’re scared of the word love, because you think it’s more of a romantic word, or love, a word that’s just used for your wife and your children, then use passion, then use care. There’s so many other words to use, but love does exist in the workplace.

And if you look up the word in the dictionary, as my friend Dee Farber likes to say, you don’t see an asterisk next to the word love, and it doesn’t say not applicable 9:00 to 5:00 Monday through Friday. The great leaders in America, the great organizations of America, are run by heart-led leaders, that know how to bring love, which is vulnerability, often, to see care, character, integrity, and heart, transparency into the workplace. And organizations that get that are incredibly profitable and incredibly successful, and organizations that don’t get that are going to die, period. They’re just going to die.

Brian Watson: You know, you bring up some very interesting points all through this, and as a leader in an organization, do you believe they inherently have love and passion that they bring, and that helps them to rise to become that successful leader, or do you believe it can be a learned trait that they share, and become an even better leader in time?

Tommy Spaulding: That reminds me of that whole thing, are leaders born, or they’re made? And I’m a firm believer that they’re made. You might be born with leadership qualities, potential, but they’re made. And I think for a leader to become an incredible, what I call heart-led leader, which means you lead from the heart, you have to have experiences in your life that help shape your life, to become a humble, genuine, caring leader, and not lead from a place of arrogance. I think through volunteering, through unique experiences.

Brian, just two weeks ago, I’m writing this book, and I really wanted to research organizations that have been transformed by heart-led leaders, and so my new book kind of talks about all of these companies in America that were billion-dollar companies, that were built by leaders that led with their heart. Interviewing all of these great leaders, but I didn’t want to just do corporate America. I wanted to do non-profits, and I wanted to do schools, and interviewed Frank DeAngelis, who was the principal at Columbine High School. He was the principal during the tragedy back in 1999, when those children were killed in the school, and how he transformed that school a decade later to one of the beacons of life and love and hope, using heart-led leadership.

And so I’ve become addicted to meeting leaders that have transformed their organization through using love and heart-led leadership in their organization. And one of the people I interviewed was a guy named Warden Burl Cain, what a story, Brian. In a nutshell, Warden Cain was hired to be the Warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and everyone knows about Angola. 15 years ago, Angola was the bloodiest prison in America. Number one. More murders a year. They had 600 murders or capital crimes inside the prison. 5,000 people in that prison, the largest prison in America, and by far, the bloodiest. 98% of the people in that prison were lifers without parole or death row. They never get out. And it was the fifth largest – it was the fifth dangerous prison in the world. So it was the bloodiest prison.

They hired Burl Cain, and in 15 years, through love and heart-led leadership, he changed that prison, Angola, to the safest prison in America, and the story that is told there is just unbelievable, what he has done. And if you can transform a prison with hardened criminals, rapists and murderers, where there is zero murders, and the culture is incredible. I went there and I spent two nights. I slept in his home. I wanted to see first-hand what love in the workplace, what heart-led leadership in the workplace can do, and it’s transformative, and I can’t wait to tell that story in my book. There’s so many other amazing stories, Brian, of companies, organizations. Fortune 500 companies that have been transformed with leaders that lead with their heart.

Brian Watson: Who do you believe is one of the greatest leaders of all time, and why?

Tommy Spaulding: I’m going to answer that in a couple of ways. One is, I think one of the greatest thought leaders that’s out there on the speaking circuit, because that’s really my full-time job now, I’m on the circuit, so I meet all the speakers out there. I’ve met all of them. You name a leadership speaker, I’ve shared a stage with him or her. I think the most authentic guy on the circuit is a guy that’s kind of retiring from the circuit, because he’s getting older, but a gentleman named Ken Blanchard, that wrote The One Minute Manager.

And a lot of people know him for that incredible book, and he’s written 35 incredible leadership books, but what’s so neat about Ken is that he’s the real deal. He’s just – his heart is so pure and so authentic, and he totally believes and lives servant leadership. And we use and abuse that word, servant leadership, in all the wrong places, but he truly gets what leading, serving, and loving is all about. And so that’s probably one of the best leaders on the circuit.

Probably one of my favorite leaders of all time is just Abraham Lincoln. I’m just a big of his, for what’s he done for our country, but I love the story that he basically failed in just about everything he’s done, business and school, and every election he lost, and the first election that he actually won was when he became President of the United States, and I resonate with that, Brian, because I failed out of high school, completely dyslexic, and went to summer school and really was struggling academically, and bottom of my class. I struggled all through college academically, graduated with a 2.0. I like to joke with my friends that I had a 4.0, only if you added my high school and my college GPA together. I like Abraham Lincoln’s tenacity, what he stood for.

Brian Watson: That’s powerful. What would be your recommendation? Clearly, you’ve led a very interesting life, and not the planned life of this path is where I’m going, it’s been by, again, being at the right place at the right time, and also, you’re going after certain things. But what would be your recommendation to somebody who is struggling right now, and maybe even failing from a world perspective in different areas? What would be your recommendation to that?

Tommy Spaulding: I think the most important thing for leaders, and people try to figure out their career is to really think about what’s truly in their heart, and what they want to do, and then not think about making money. I think we’re just programmed to pick the top job out of college, or the job that’s going to make us the most amount of money, and times in my life that I’ve been the least happiest is when I pursued money first.

For example, when I graduated business school, I thought the right thing to do was to get a job with a Fortune 500 company, so I got hired by IBM, which owned Lotus Development in Boston, and worked in the software sales, and I just hated it. I made a lot of money, but I hated it. And when I lived my life with passion and followed my heart, and being an entrepreneur and starting organizations and leading organizations, that was my heart. When I made decisions based on my passion, not money, the money always follows. That’s number one.

And number two is, I think mentors are hugely important. When people ask me how I became so successful at what I do, I immediately say the people that got me there. I mean, it’s the Ken Blanchards, it’s the people that mentored me, that inspired me. The mentors in my life that have helped me become a better man, a better husband, a better father, a better leader. So those people that are struggling their career, figuring out what’s next, ask yourself, who could you work for that would invest in you, and invest in mentoring you, and helping you become a great leader. That’s pivotal in their career choice.

Brian Watson: I always think it’s kind of interesting in the world that sometimes, when you look at making yourself vulnerable, how in fact, that makes you stronger, and this idea of finding a mentor that you can share with and walk the path of life with, be encouraged by, or sharing love in the workplace. From a lot of people’s perspective, that would be making yourself vulnerable, when in actuality, it helps to strengthen you and make you a better leader, or a better person. It’s amazing, the power of that at the end of the day.

Tommy Spaulding: Brian, before your next question, I want to touch on that vulnerability piece, because I believe that in ten years, we’ll look back at that word, and we’ll just say, I can’t believe leaders even led without being vulnerable. I mean, we know those leaders. We call them the command and control, the old-school leaders that know all the answers, they’re strong, they’re articulate, they have a vision, they don’t cry, they don’t show emotion. They know every answer, and if they don’t know the answer, they fake it until they make it. There’s no vulnerability. Old-school, I mean, believe me, I’ve worked for those leaders before. Those leaders are dinosaurs, Brian. They’re dying. They’re like World War II veterans that are becoming 80 and 90 years old, and just moving on into Heaven.

You cannot lead an organization without being vulnerable, and without being authentic and genuine and transparent. First of all, Generation Y and X won’t even listen to you unless they trust you, and trust is such an important part of leadership. And when you’re not vulnerable. And vulnerability doesn’t mean you go to work and you share all of your dark deepest secrets, but vulnerability means you go to work, and you let people know what’s on your heart, and what you’re thinking. And some of your challenges, your opportunities, your struggles, and telling some of your stories.

I was always embarrassed or afraid to tell people how I couldn’t read, that I was dyslexic, that I went to summer school all through high school. That I graduated at the bottom of my class. That I got a 2.0 in college, and went to summer school during college, and I was always embarrassed to tell people I couldn’t get into law school. I applied to 37 schools, got rejected at every single one of them. Every one rejected me. I couldn’t go to law school, because of my grades and my learning disability. I was afraid to tell people, because I was afraid of being judged. Afraid people thought I was stupid, or I was ignorant.

And when the book came, I wrote about my story, I literally see thousands of emails, thousands of them, from all over the world, thanking me for opening up my heart in my book, and sharing the vulnerability of what I struggled and overcame, and how I became to really appreciate the importance of relationships in my life, because of my handicap. And I think vulnerability is contagious, and when you’re vulnerable with someone, they become vulnerable to you. And if you want to lead people, you’ve got to be able to lead their hearts, and to be able to win their hearts, you have to be able to show them yours. And so I’m a big fan of vulnerability in the workplace.

Brian Watson: That’s very powerful. Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate that. Well, I could talk to you for a very long time about leadership and the different things that you’re doing, and the positive impacts you’re having, but I want to transition to you now on a personal level, so our listeners can get to know the real Tommy Spaulding. And so with that, what is one of your favorite quotes or sayings, and why?

Tommy Spaulding: Oh, I probably think my favorite quote is Kennedy’s quote, Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. And I’m a patriot. I’m a moderate Republican, I’m a compassionate Republican, but I’m a patriot, and I love our country. And I’m worried. I think there’s things that happened in our country that has just disengaged America to really believe in our country. The lack of trust in our government. I have some strong reasons why I think that disengagement happened, but I want people to raise the flag, and be proud of our country. And I want people to wake up in the morning and ask themselves not what the government can do for me, what people can do for me, what society can do for me, but what I could do to help society. What I could do to help government, what I could do to help my company, and have a heart for serving others. I think Kennedy said it best.

Brian Watson: Well, you and I share that. I’m a patriot as well, and I think it’s so important to figure out how we can do our part to help, and I often tell people, you have won the historical and locational lottery of all time, to live where and when and how you do. And in that, you also have a responsibility to contribute in a positive way, and to come alongside people. So I really appreciate you saying that. Tommy, what is some of the best advice you have ever received?

Tommy Spaulding: Well, my grandfather, who lived to 82 years old, every Christmas we’d surround a table, and he’d say, there’s three most important things in the world, and that’s family, family, and family. And I’ll never forget that. He said it every Christmas. Just the first the thing that came out of his mouth at the toast, and I grew up with a family that valued that, and I think that we live in such a busy world, and a fast world, and I love building businesses. I love being busy. I love changing the world, but the bottom line is, my love for my wife and my three children are the most important thing. And my legacy is in raising my three kids to love the Lord, and to love and serve others, and am I modeling a great marriage, and I’m just a big fan of, you want to change your family? Then stay married, and model a great marriage, and that’s just one of the things that I’m committed to do.

Brian Watson: So important, so important. What is your definition of success?

Tommy Spaulding: I think the definition of success is not monetary success, because that just comes naturally with it, but I think the definition of success is your ability to lead and love and serve others, and to make a positive impact in the world. And when you look back at your journey, have you changed hearts? And have you built relationships that are authentic and real? I think the journey of leadership is critical, and the next book I’m writing is called It’s Who You Are, and it’s all about the 18-inch journey, and I want to introduce to the world what this 18-inch journey is. And we’re so worried about this 6-inch journey between your ears, what’s in your head, but the 18-inch journey is connecting your head to your heart, that’s 18 inches, from your head to your heart. And we can send a man to the moon, we can travel around the world on a jet. We can travel hundreds of thousands of miles, but we can’t, as leaders, travel the 18 inches.

And I think if we, as leaders, can travel the 18 inches from your head to hearts when you go to work, whether you’re a teacher or a politician or a principal or a lawyer or a businessman, businesswoman, or stay-at-home parent, that you lead with your heart, and bring those qualities of vulnerability and authenticity and transparency and love to the workplace, that’s what’s going to bring America back. It’s not our government. I think it’s business. It’s our citizens. It’s our local communities that’s going to win back America, and do that in a way that we’re bringing our hearts to our communities.

Brian Watson: Well, you’re giving us little pieces of that book, and I can’t wait to read it, so looking forward to having it come out. When is that going to be released?

Tommy Spaulding: September 7, 2015, by Random House.

Brian Watson: Seems like a long time away, but I know it will be here very quickly, as time goes on. Tommy, what do you believe is one of the biggest challenges or threats facing our country or world, today?

Tommy Spaulding: Oh, I got it. The word is apathy. Apathy. It’s the cancer that’s killing our youth, because they’re entitled. The lack of engagement, and the apathy we have as a country. And I’m going to say one thing on your show that might be a little controversial, but you know what, the heck. I think it should stir some minds. I’m one of the few Americans that believe that getting away with the draft was a bad decision, and I don’t want my sons to go to war, I don’t want to lose my kids. So I’m, in a way, relieved that we don’t have a draft, because I wouldn’t want to lose my boys to war. But I think, personally, that where America started to downward spiral into apathy and disengagement is when we did away with the draft, because the draft, Brian, is the greatest litmus test of engagement of society.

Because if you can lose your son, if you can lose your daughter to war, then you’re going to pay attention, and not just watch the war on TV. America went to war and sent their soldiers, but we as citizens, we didn’t go to war, we went to the mall and shopping, and we’re not engaged. And I think once that happened, and we outsourced our military to a professional military, we became disengaged as citizens. And there’s five or six things we’ve done as a society that sparked this disengagement, and it’s killing us. It’s killing us, and I think that we need to bring back this sense of love, duty for our country, and serving our country. Not just the military, but other parts of the world, and other parts of society. The apathy, we need to get people engaged, and be proud of being American.

We live in the greatest country, and when I worked for Bob Dole, when he was running for President, and he put all of us in a room one day, and he told the story, that when he was running for Senator, and at a war, 35, 36 years as US Senator, he said that he heard hundreds of people call him on the phone, thousands of letters to his office, saying that Senator Dole, please help my uncle in Mexico get a green card. Please help my aunt in Bosnia get a visa. He said he received hundreds and thousands of letters in his 35 years as a servant leader in government, begging to get into our country. People begging to get into our country. And then he said, but in 35 years, I’ve never got one letter that said get me the hell out of this country.

And so that just taught me that America’s not perfect, and we have flaws. We definitely have some parts of government that’s broken, but our Constitution is the best in the world, and people are fighting and dying and wanting to get into our country, not get out. And so we do live in the greatest country in the world. And quite frankly, I think our country and our citizens need to start acting like we live in the greatest country in the world.

Brian Watson: It’s interesting, I was interviewed myself not too long ago, and they asked me a similar question, and I mentioned apathy. It’s apathy, but also the entitlement syndrome. And both are very bad for a Constitutional Republic like we have, and for a society based on capitalism. And so it’s interesting, but I’ve never heard somebody bring up the draft, and I appreciate that. It’s a very interesting concept, and one I’ll definitely have to think about a lot more. So I appreciate you sharing that.

Tommy Spaulding: Well there’s one thing that, I think that there’s a lot of hope, is about 15 years ago, I started a high school leadership program. It’s a nationwide program called the National Leadership Academy. We bring in high school kids from all over the country. Hundreds of them, for four-day leadership symposium at Denver University, and it’s incredible. We’ve had thousands of kids go through the program. It’s probably my most prized thing I’ve ever had a part of being a part of, and founding. And we teach kids about citizenship and leadership and servant leadership and community service and volunteerism. Bring kids from all over the country, that are black, that are white, that are Jewish, that are Christian, that are Muslim, that are public school, private school.

And we teach kids how to love themselves, and love to serve others, and have the self-confidence to befriend and have relationships with people in their school and their community, that are different. And teach them to be servant leaders. It’s an incredible organization and program. And more information is, but I share this, because when I attend these academies, and I meet these high school kids, and I’ve met thousands of them, I’m inspired, Brian.

So in one breath, I say there’s a lot of apathy in the world, but this younger generation, they get it, and they care. And they want real leaders. They want servant leaders, and they don’t want dictators, and they don’t want command and control leaders. They want vulnerability. They demand it, and they have a heart for changing the world, and I have a lot of hope when I meet young people like that.

Brian Watson: Well, I agree with you. I think there’s a lot of rays of hope out there, and a lot of positive things happening, and it’s about planting those seeds, especially with the younger generation, that appreciate that you’re doing that, because that’s going to have a rippling effect, a positive effect, throughout society. Tommy, what is some parting advice, or golden nuggets of wisdom, that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Tommy Spaulding: Important decision in our lives. One is to have faith. I’m a believer of Jesus, I’m a Christian, and I choose to have that faith, but whatever your faith is, and I respect whatever that faith is, but whatever that is, to have it. Know there’s a God here on this earth to serve, and love.

Two is to marry well. I’m just now 45 years old, and I’m watching all of my friends get divorced, and what that does for kids, and what that does for society. And I think really the most important decision we can make is our spouse and who we pick, and then being committed to staying married. I watched my parents get divorced and grandparents get divorced, and it’s something we need to work on as a society.

And then lastly is just our careers. I would like to part with really challenging our listeners to really think about what they do for a living, and why they do it, and who they are, and what contribution they are really making. And I would argue that half of the people listening hate their jobs, they’re not really in the job that they really want to do, and life is just too short. And start surrounding yourself with mentors. Start to really thinking about what you really want to be doing, and going for it. Everything that I’ve ever accomplished in my life, I have accomplished because I took risks, and I came from nothing, came from a middle class family with no money, public schools, struggled through school, failed out of school. I grew up the hard way, but I think when you have the work ethic and the love in your heart for serving others, and a vision for changing the world, if you have those three things, you can do anything.

Brian Watson: Each one of those is so powerful at the end of the day, and that last one you were talking about, your work, I encourage people all of the time. I say, your work is such an integral part of your life, you spend a good amount of hours there, you should enjoy it. And really trying to make that transition to, instead of just focusing on your profession, focus on your passion. And I think when you turn your passion into your profession, some very, very positive things happen, and transformational things. So I appreciate you saying that. Tommy, what is the best way for our listeners, again, to learn more about you and your different organizations online, or in other ways?

Tommy Spaulding: My website is, and that’s Tommy Spaulding with a U, And then the nonprofit that I founded is the That’s the best way. And then also more information is, and that’s a wonderful organization that I started with my partner, Maureen Brooks, that we have heart-led servant leader speakers that are consulted, and speakers around the country, that we’ve brought together in a family of a speaker management company.

Brian Watson: Well, Tommy, I want to thank you for your time today. You know, I always love spending time with you. It’s very encouraging and instructional, and you’ve had a very positive and transformational impact on many people around the world, and so I just want to thank you for that service, and you never know the lives that you’re impacting, and what that will look like down the road. So I appreciate your time today.

Tommy Spaulding: You bet, Brian, and thanks for what you’re doing. And I just want to wish everyone in the Opportunity Coalition a happy new year.

Brian Watson: Well, thanks for listening to Opportunity Coalition podcast. We’d love to have you subscribe on iTunes, or like us on Facebook.

If you’d like more information about the Opportunity Coalition, or if you’d like to see a schedule of upcoming events that you can attend in person, please visit See you next time.