Building Up Without Tearing Down: Interview with Chad Ellsworth

Several months ago, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Chad Ellsworth’s book Building Up Without Tearing Down: How to Cultivate Heroic Leadership in You and Your Organization.

Building Up Without Tearing Down is about heroic leadership. Chad uses his own personal experiences, awesome quotes, and stories of all kinds of heroes from ancient Greece to Wonder Woman to Malala to talk about heroic leadership. I found it fun, enjoyable, and accessible.

Chad generously agreed to do an interview ahead of his book launch on September 25, 2018.

Chad Ellsworth, Heroic leadership, college speaker

Interview Notes

Keith: In your book Building Up Without Tearing Down, you share your own story of experiencing hazing and the ways that experience was a crucible for fostering your own heroic leadership in that situation and now beyond. What have you learned about being a leader?

Chad: I think the biggest lesson I took away from that experience was that every one of us has the ability to change our organizations, our communities, and even our own lives, and that the biggest thing that holds us back are our doubts, our fears, and our insecurities. We are our own greatest inhibitors. I had no idea who Joseph Campbell was at the time, but one of his quotes sums up how I was able to find that capacity within myself as I was going through that experience. “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.” For me, that heroic transformation occurred when I focused on helping those who were struggling and suffering as a result of the hazing in the organization.

The experience also launched for me a drive to find ways in which we-as individuals and as groups-can build people up without tearing them down. In other words, that we can empower and equip people to become the best versions of themselves by starting with their strengths, not their weaknesses. As a leader, I cannot become my best if I’m investing my time and energy becoming somebody else.

Keith: Who is the audience you had in mind for this book as you were writing it?

Chad: I don’t know if this is cliché, hokey, or both, but the audience I had in mind was me. As I was creating the outline and drafting the main points for each chapter, I kept thinking about what I would want to impart to 20-something me as I was confronting the culture of hazing in my organization. What were the lessons and stories that would have helped me through that situation? It was very hard at the time, and it took me a very long time to recover from it. It definitely left a mark. But if I could gather up everything that I learned about myself in the almost 20 years since then and help somebody else through that experience, that was precisely what I wanted to do with the book.

In as much as this book was meant to help people like 20-something me, believe it or not, these stories are the ones that I still turn to time and time again even now to guide and inspire me, and the more I coach others in their own journeys, the more I’ve found these stories resonate with lots of people.

As we begin learning more and more about how our brains absorb and retain information, it is becoming increasingly clear that we learn best through stories, whether ancient or modern, fictional or real. I wanted to share these stories with the hope they will guide and inspire others as much as they do for me.

With all of that in mind, I wanted to write a book that was part inspiration, part instruction, and part reflection. I wanted to weave a book featuring some of the best ideas and emerging research from all sorts of fields, illustrating those great ideas with stories of real and fictional people, and finally providing an opportunity for people to reflect on and implement those powerful ideas in their own lives.

Chad Ellsworth, Heroic leadership, college speaker

Keith: You have awesome quotes throughout the book. What are a few that keep coming up for you again and again?

Chad: I do love quotes! Long before I wrote the book, I made a page on my website that is simply a collection of my favorite quotes. There are currently more than 250 quotes on that page.

The first quote that comes to mind is the one that leads Chapter 6: Finding Your Mentor, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” by Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter book series. Like many people, I struggle with imposter syndrome from time to time, and I love that these words from a great mentor figure remind us that any one of us can make heroic choices, regardless of our backgrounds, experiences, skills, or talents.

There are many more I could list, but if I were to choose just one more, it is more of a recent favorite of mine. The quote is, “Resilience is very different than being numb. Resilience means you experience, you feel, you fail, you hurt. You fall. But, you keep going” by Yasmin Mogahed, and it’s featured at the top of Chapter 18: Resolving to Rise.

I love this quote because I feel like, when we see resilience in others, it isn’t always easy to see the pain they’ve experienced. On the outside, it can look easy. But it’s hard. It’s really hard. One of the things I wanted to do in this book was make some of the greatest heroes in the history of our world accessible to the rest of us. Sometimes I feel like the pedestals we place them on are so tall that we forget they’re human beings, too. When we look at them, we don’t see people like us who made heroic choices, but we see larger-than-life, almost infallible, heroes. It wasn’t easy for them, and it won’t be easy for us. But we can make heroic choices like them.

Chad Ellsworth, Heroic leadership

Keith: You highlight the stories of heroes from ancient Greece to Wonder Woman to Malala. What is the hero story so powerful for you that you find yourself telling it again and again.

Chad: One of the stories I turn to over and over again is the story I share close to the end of Chapter 7: Trusting the Process. I wrote the story in the form of a parable-and I don’t want to spoil any surprises for anybody that has not read the story yet-but I have used the story in countless presentations for the last several years. The point of the story is that one of the most well-known examples of social change in our world was not the result of one powerful person who led that change, but rather the result of everyday people who took a stand for something they believed in. As I wrote at the end of the story, “The world is not changed by extraordinary people. The world is changed by ordinary people who choose not to accept the status quo. The world is changed by ordinary people who choose to do something out of the ordinary. The world is changed by ordinary people who do something extraordinary.”

Building up without breaking down, Chad Ellsworth, heroic leadership

Keith: What has shifted within you through the process of writing this book? How do you show up differently in your doing or being?

Chad: I think the biggest thing that has shifted for me is that through writing this book, I was able to get clear about why I love coaching people and helping them navigate their own journeys. I love digging in with them and helping them fight through their doubts, their fears, and their insecurities in order to create the organization, the career, and the life they ultimately want. I think it’s also helped me listen to others’ journeys with a deeper ear and a more open heart, to really pay attention to the dragon they’re trying to slay or the treasure they’re trying to find. One of the identities I’m beginning to own after writing this book I briefly described in Chapter 15: Engaging Your Enemies, which is that of a “Bridge Builder.” In our world today, and particularly in our political climate today, it is all-too-easy to attack, attack, attack, and the evidence that we can insult, meme, or tweet our way to victory is sparse, at best. I think our greatest opportunity to make a difference in our world is by building a bridge for others, by providing a path for them to follow to move from one side of the problem to the other. In some cases, it isn’t even enough to build the bridge. Sometimes we have to walk across that bridge first, put our arm around the other person, and then walk with them. When we do that, we can truly change the world.

Building up without breaking down, heroic leadership
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