Achieving Success Through Meaning And Self-Leadership With Tony Gambill


Achieving success in life can simply be finding meaning in the work that you do. That’s how it was for today’s guest. Tony Gambill is the Founder and CEO of ClearView Leadership, LLC, an executive coach, speaker, author, and a Forbes Leadership Contributor. After trying his hand at a corporate job, Tony found his passion in helping young teams hone and work through their leadership skills. He found meaning in the work that he did and left his well-paying job to pursue his passion. Now, he uses his expertise in executive leadership to help global for-profit, non-profit, technical, research, government, and higher education industries. Tony believes that a foundation in self-leadership is what allows us to show up at our best in any situation. Listen in as he joins host Tony Martignetti to share the flashpoints that allowed him to find his path at such a young age.


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Achieving Success Through Meaning And Self-Leadership With Tony Gambill

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Tony Gambill. He brings more than twenty years of executive experience delivering impactful coaching, consulting, and leadership solutions within global for-profit, nonprofit, research, government, and higher educational industries. He’s proven experience collaborating with organizations and delivering meaningful results in the area of leadership development, executive coaching, talent development, team effectiveness, and strategic planning.

He's a regular contributor to Forbes, and he's also the co-author of the book, Getting It Right When It Matters Most. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his 2 sons, 1 daughter, and his wife. He enjoys the outdoors, playing games with his family and competing with each other. I can't wait to know more about that. I want to welcome you to The Virtual Campfire, Tony.


Thank you, Tony. I appreciate being here. It's nice to meet you. We've been going back and forth, and I'm excited about the day.

Same here. I love the idea of being able to bring someone on who has done so much great stuff in the world and is continuing to do great stuff. Being able to reveal the story that brought you to where you are now, it's going to be a great conversation. The fact that we're sitting around the virtual campfire is intentional.

I love the virtual campfire. Probably as we speak, moving forward, you'll find out that one of the things that I did in figuring out who I am and what I want to do was work with Outward Bound. The reason I say that is because when we worked with kids or adults, we had a campfire at the end of the night. It was amazing how the campfire would relax everyone and bring everyone's tensions down. We would have great conversations around the campfire. I feel so comfortable in this. It brings back so many of those memories in relation to that, so I love that.

We've now begun. This is awesome. For your sake and for the readers’ sake, we're going to tell your story through what's called flashpoints. These are points in your story that have ignited your gifts into the world. As you're sharing your story, we’ll pause along the way and see what's showing up. With that, Tony, you can start.

It's interesting for me. The first flashpoint for me was something I always knew. I don't remember being told, but I was adopted at eight weeks old. I didn't have a big trauma or transition around that because it was always part of what I understood. Because of that, I'm eight inches taller than both my parents. I was nine, and I was as tall as my parents. There are differences in relation to that. I was brought into a loving, supportive family. My parents are still alive, and they have a great relationship. They loved and prayed for me my whole life. I've been blessed with that. That had an influence on how I view the world in relation to things.

I feel like I had a normal upbringing. I was raised in Memphis, Tennessee. My passions were sports and friends. That was it. I didn't like school a lot. I did what I had to do to get through. My parents were middle class. I'm a first-generation college graduate. My dad was a salesperson. He sold conveyor belts for the first part of his career. He worked as a salesperson at Bass Pro Shops for the second part of his career. My mom was an executive assistant. I was loved, cared for, and taken care of. I played hard growing up.

I went to college, and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I did what everybody else did, and that was to get into business because there's opportunity in business, but I didn't know. I floundered through and got through. I got a job at NCI, an old phone company. For people that don't know it, it used to compete with AT&T. I’m selling long-distance to small businesses and cold calling. I hated it. It’s awful, but I had a great manager. She called me in our office, and she said, “Tony, we think you have potential here, but I don't know how to motivate you.”

Situations matter. Environment matters.

Her name was Christie, and I'll never forget. I go, “Christie, I'm not sure either. Let me think about it, and I'll come back.” The next day, she called me in, and I said, “Christie, I could sell every account in Memphis, Tennessee, and I don't think I will be motivated.” That transitioned me to search for my next career. That was great because it took me to work for Outward Bound. I left to go to Alabama and Florida for 30-day trips as an intern. I had to beg for the internship $10 a day. My parents were flipped like, “You just graduated college, and you're leaving a decent job. You're going to take a $10 a day internship. Really?” I did, and it was the best decision of my life.

I worked on the rivers of Florida. We take month-long trips, 14 to 18-year-old males that have been court-appointed. The real intent was to put them in stressful situations and help them develop their self-leadership skills, coping skills, and working together skills under strenuous situations. It can be volatile. I learned a lot of things and that was a real flashpoint for me. I started as an intern. I was an assistant instructor and then became a lead instructor for these trips. I felt huge responsibility and accomplishment within that.

What I took away from that is a couple of things. First and foremost, I don't know what setting I would have been in if my parents wouldn't have adopted me. It was just circumstance and chance that I was loved and put in a safe setting. The kids that I was working with were great and amazing kids, and they were in hard situations. What I learned is that situations matter. Environment matters. That has been so impressioned on me.

The second thing I learned there was my passion. I knew I loved working with groups and forming teams. Facilitating, I was a natural at. I was good at mentoring and coaching these young men. It gave me the gift of finding my passion, and that was the start for that. I took that and worked with professional development programs and worked with longer programs, and I said, “There's got to be more to that.” I went and got my Master's in human resource development because I wanted to continue my career there.

First of all, there's something about this that is powerful. This element of understanding that people are choosing you and love by choice. There's not an element of being stuck with you. When you come from a place where people have adopted you and they bring it to their environment, you realize that the love you receive is by choice and not by force. That's a powerful motivator.

If you think about it, there's an element of seeing that and you wanting that more in your life. When you brought that into the Outward Bound experience, that's something that is beautiful to experience and to give to others. I love that you brought in this element of the environment being an important place to see that the environment shapes you. That's something that a lot of people don't understand, but it's important to be reminded of that. I loved hearing that.

It became clear that I could have been in a lot of different situations, and I was gifted the situation. That was highlighted in that setting. The other thing is once these kids found out you cared about them, you didn't always agree, but they would let you partner with them, and I loved it. They've left an impression on me. I know they had a bigger impact on my life than I did with them. I wish I could have had more with them. The other gift they gave me was finding my passion. I never knew what I wanted to do. I knew I loved my friends. I knew I loved playing sports, but now I have a new love. It was an opportunity to use that as a springboard to starting a professional journey.

How old were you when this happened? It sounds like this was early on in your career. For this to happen at such an early age, most people wait a long time before they figure out all this stuff.

Some people know what they want to do at birth but I didn't. I was bored with school. I was bored with college. I didn't have any real focus and passion in relation to that. What I learned about myself is that I'm an applied learner. I’ve got to have meaning behind my learning, and then I'm good at it. I finally found that meaning around that. I was almost 23 or 24 when I started. I got out of college at 21, worked at NCI for about 14 to 15 months, and then took this role there. It was fairly early on.

What’s interesting is I did it for 4 or 5 years, and then I got my Master's. I didn't get my first “real job” until I was 30. I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, and got my Master's. I worked at the local community college. I worked with the city government putting programs together for youth. I worked at something called Upward Bound for first-generation. I piecemealed a lot of things and didn't get through my Master's degree. I still did North Carolina Outward Bound School. I did some programs with that in the summer, so I was able to move that forward.

When I got my Master's, I got a job up in Baltimore. I’ve done Outward Bound courses up in Baltimore, and I got an opportunity for an interview with T. Rowe Price. I didn’t even know what T. Rowe Price was at the time. I was like, “I'm not going back to Baltimore. There's no way, but I'll go to this interview because I want to say hi to friends.” I did the interview, and they offered me the job, to my surprise.

It was something I couldn't turn down. It was around the tech boom. They needed people to help develop and work with their IT department. I came in, and I started doing what was called organizational development, organizational effectiveness, leadership development, and management development. The experiential learning from Outward Bound was always foundational for me.

My next flashpoint was I left there to take a job in Washington, DC, which was with an organization called Conservation International. They are a conservation organization that works around the world trying to save what they call hotspots where most of the diversity is located. What was amazing about that is I got the opportunity to work with hardcore physical scientists in different places around the world. What that taught me are two things. First is standing on the shoulders of research was critically important because the people I was working with demanded it, and having that rigor around that. That was a huge lesson.

The other was, if you're working globally, what makes us all human? What are human universals? Those are the only things you can bring around. What are the human universals around what people need for motivation? What are the human universals that people need when you're giving them feedback? I didn't know their contacts. I gave them space, and they would fill in their context. I've learned so many lessons. I've delivered in over 20 to 25 countries working around the world. It was an amazing opportunity. That was a real flashpoint for me as well. Opening up that world and understanding and being able to see how different and how similar the world is in different places.

There's something about what you described, which is so important for people to experience. The more you make your world bigger by getting out there and seeing what's out there, but not just going and traveling and saying, “Here I am, I'm in Paris,” and having a croissant in a café. That's great, but doing something inside of another place and being with the people expands your view of what it means to be human and what it means to live in another person's shoes. That's where you come back to your own world transformed.


I went to Papua New Guinea and Madagascar three times. I walked in as a complete stranger and vulnerable. Even though I was one that was bringing the content, lessons, and facilitations, I came in vulnerable. What I learned is that people were accepting of that and were okay that I didn't know certain aspects. Putting that out on the table was powerful, blending what I knew and what I could bring to them, and them making it work in their world was a lesson that has served me well in any setting.

I don't know the context of any group that I'm working with, the way that they do, but it helped me how to be comfortable in that space and creating a shared experience around that. Great lessons. Wonderful people and a great experience with that. There was a flashpoint there as well. I started having a family. I was commuting two and a half hours each way to DC. I was traveling internationally and I was becoming clear that I wasn't aligned with my values anymore. Part of my values was helping others and doing quality work, but the other was family and I wasn't able to be present.

I took a job at Virginia Tech and it enabled me to be in one place in a small town. We had our 2nd child and 3rd child in Blacksburg, Virginia. I got to continue working with technical mission-driven, passionate people in that. It was a little small for us, so we moved down to North Carolina and worked for RTI International. It's a research organization with about 7,000 people. It was my absolute dream job. After 8 or 9 years, it was no longer my dream job. I'd been there and done that.

I led three functions at different organizations. I had the portfolio that I wanted. I had a talented group that I started to become where I was counting my days. My passion had always been a differentiator for me. That was a flashpoint. I went out on my own and started ClearView Leadership. I've written probably over 100 articles. I'd never written an article before. I co-authored a book, doing podcasts, creating content on LinkedIn, and running my own business. I'm a beginner at everything. In the content, I know but I'm a beginner in so many different ways, and it's been so exciting and amazing.

The path you've taken to get here, it's interesting to reflect on it. If you lose your passion for what you're doing or your life has gotten to a place where it's like, “Now it's time for a shift,” there's always something on the horizon that you can unlock. There's a new path that can be had. You're building off of something you've already had in the past. Where you've done something in the past, you can connect to and build from, and that's cool.

When I thought about the things you've done with traveling and being in these different places, it's hard to say, “Now I've got to set my roots and be in one place.” You feel like that passion for being out there as being lost, but it doesn't have to be lost. You can still be driven by the impact. You can still be driven by doing things in the place where you are, but then also still be connected to the sentiment, feeling, and lessons that you've learned while being out there in the world.

Two things, the first is connecting to meaningful work. Connecting to meaning is important. It's too hard if you don't because even when you're working in an area of meaning, there's trials and tribulations and things that get in the way. For me, I have been blessed. When I look back on my career, I feel like I got to choose. Because of that, it's not, I’ve got to. It's I get to.

I’ve had hardships and setbacks. I've been in situational factors, where I didn't have any good leverage points. We all do. We all get those situations, but the meaning kept me moving forward. The meaning helped me through all of those things. Once I felt disconnected from that, that was a flashpoint for me. It was like, “I’ve gotten so far away from the work. I had talented people that were doing the work. I had the portfolio. I was making the salary that I’d never felt like I would make, but it wasn't enough because I had been disconnected from my meaning.” That has been a driving factor for me within that.

What you described makes me think about this element that we don't have to prescribe to this one set path in life. You can have multiple meanings, purposes, and passions. As soon as you feel like you might be losing your way, it's time for a check-in and say, “What is the meaning of my life at this point?” There's not only one thing. It's multiple things.

You talked a lot about passion. There's always this debate, at least in coaching circles, that I talked to. People say, “You can't just follow your passions because that's not enough.” It's passion, but there are other things. You said meaning. I love to know your thoughts around this. There's an element of, don't just set up for one set path. Be open to what shows up at different points in your life.

Meaning keeps you moving forward.

A book that had an impact on me earlier in my career is First, Break All the Rules. What comes from that is this concept of strengths. The way that I have experienced strengths in my life is strengths aren't just what you're good at. They're a combination of your values, aptitude, and things you enjoy. They align with your goals and your purposes, and you're good at it. When people think about this strengths concept, it's not just passion but there's so much tied into that. There's aptitude, desire, and intrinsic value in doing that. It is more than just passion.

If you're doing something that you love and get flow with but don't get paid for, it's a hobby. It's not a career. I do have responsibilities that are highest in my values about trying to provide security and the basics for my family. I agree 1,000% that it's not just passion and meaning. It's all tied into those other concepts of values, intrinsic motivation, and aptitude that we all bring. When you can hit that sweet spot, that's when you've found your niche. Even when you hit that sweet spot, there's no perfect role that's all you get to do. You're still always going to manage your blind spots, attitude, ways to grow, and challenges.

This is the essence of who I am. In certain situations, it highlights my weaknesses. How do I continually regulate and evolve in relation to that? All of that is the foundation of the ideas of what I started to think about while I was still working at RTI about a book. The concepts of understanding self-leadership and who I am are the foundation of success. In my jobs, I've had responsibility for developing people, developing leaders, performance management, success, high potential development, corporate universities, team effectiveness, and organizational effectiveness. I had this big platform.

What I've learned is the technical knowledge and skills. Most of the people I've worked with, if they want to learn it, they can learn it. That's not why people succeed. The reason people succeed is because they're able to navigate complexity and relational situations that are important. The way that they do that is because they have a foundational understanding capacity around self-leadership. We put all this emphasis on education, which we need about knowledge and skills around science, math, communications, or whatever your technical discipline is. Those will get you in the door. Without a foundation of self-leadership, you're not going to be successful with your personal or your professional life.

I love that you bring it back to self-leadership because it is the cornerstone. Something that came to mind as you're explaining this is that we're always evolving. The way we constantly evolve is by always leading ourselves through what is the next thing that's happening for us and to us because ultimately, some things are out of our control, and something is in our control. We're constantly having to deal with the inside and outside.

It's dynamic and complex. I used to work for a CEO, and he said something that I thought was funny at the time but it stuck with me. He goes, “Tony, any idiot can make something complicated. You’ve got to be smart in something to make it simple.” It's been true. Thinking about self-leadership, all of these disciplines around self-leadership, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, high stakes, difficult conversations, learning agility, empathy, all of those concepts are out there. There are reams of research and information. The leaders, managers, and people that I was working with didn't have time to study it like me.

I took this challenge of, how do we create a simple and practical approach model that people can take these concepts and learn the fewest most important things from a person-centric approach versus a topic-centric or technical-centric approach? What I did was I came up with the acronym called SOAR. It's self for self-awareness. Self-awareness is all around what we've talked about, understanding your purpose, values, strengths, weaknesses, self-care, all of those things around static self-awareness.

As soon as you get into this complexity of a hard situation, it's your outlook. How do you view that? We talk about, what are the perception biases that we all have? How does that impact us? How do we navigate social threats and bring ourselves back to balance? How do we bring our best selves? How do we understand and align our long-term goals with our short-term intentions at the moment? That's all around outlook.

The action is all around the conversations we have. How do we engage in empathic, leading with questions, handling other’s defensiveness? How do we engage in high-stakes conversations? There's our reflection, which is all around how do I continually focus on goals, practice, get feedback from myself and others, and reflect? What happens? So what? Now what? It's this learning agility piece.

That's a person-centric approach to, “I bring myself to every situation. If I run into a situation, my outlook drives my actions. I manage my outlook. I bring my best actions to my conversations. I reflect on it and see what I didn't do well and what I did do well, and decide what to take forward to continue to grow.” It's a cycle that goes round and round.

I love this framework. The important thing about it is you can't shortchange any part of it. You need every piece of that pie to make sure that it comes to life. It's such a brilliant way to package it up. I want to shift gears a little bit. When you think back to your life, and you look at the lessons you've learned, what are the things that you feel are the 2 to 3 lessons that you've picked up about yourself personally?

I tell my kids this all the time. There were certain stages when I was younger that I thought when I was at a certain age, I'd have it figured out. I sure have not reached that age. The point is there are certain weaknesses and strengths that are going to come with me and situations are going to highlight them in different ways. I've got to continually be rigorous to develop myself if I'm going to bring my best self to these situations. I have never made it. As soon as I think I did, life throws me something to let me know really clear. That's one.

The second is I'm fairly outgoing in who my personality is. If you look at the emotional intelligence, EQ-i, I'm more on the reactive side, which serves me well and has weakness in certain situations. Because of that, even though I've written on these topics, studied on these topics, taught others, coached others, mentored others, and created programs around that, I feel screwed up a lot. I've learned to apologize quickly when I have.

I don't think there's any situation more than parenting that has taught me that. I sure never thought parenting was going to be a scenario where I would apologize a lot at one point in my life, but I have. I haven't done anything so egregious, but I mess up all the time. I react at certain times. I do things that aren't serving my long-term goals with my kids sometimes at the moment. I have to acknowledge that and get back in good favor with that.

The third, I may have already hit on, but I've learned a lot about social psychology. I also know that neuroscience supports behavioral science. It's important to understand that our results are a combination of our behaviors and our environment and acknowledging and understanding that from two ways. When I'm judging others, I see their behaviors, but I don't understand their situation and giving allowance and grace for that.

That's a huge thing called correspondence bias or fundamental attribution theory in social sciences. Reams and reams of research around that. The second is when I'm encountering or working with a challenge, an issue, or opportunity for myself or others, it's not just focusing on my behaviors or it's not just focusing on the environments, it’s focusing on both, to get a holistic perspective on results and impact.

I'm glad I asked this question because you gave us a master's class and reflected on your past. That was beautifully said. I thank you for sharing that. That was cool. I want to play with our last question. What is top of mind for you now at this time? What are the things that you want to share with people that most need to hear that advice?


It's easy to give advice. It's hard to live it. What's top of mind for me is knowledge and skills can be acquired if you work on yourself. I feel like the emphasis is on the wrong syllable most of the time with businesses and schools. We focus on rote learning, learning the steps for things. That's great, and it gets you in the door. For me to live a life that's fulfilling, meaningful, impactful, and however I define that, the vehicle for me to do that is myself. I don't believe we invest enough in ourselves. That is such a foundation for me.

With technology moving the way and science is moving, it's even become more important because that is one aspect that machines can’t replace. Our ability to continually evolve, grow, engage, and motivate ourselves to self-leadership, it's underserved. It's complex because it's vertical in many different ways. How do you do that? We’ve got to create rigor and we've got to invest in that, from my perspective, to be successful however, we define that towards a meaningful life and career.

There's something about that, that has us come back to having to connect with our humanity of who we are and how do we bring that out to ourselves and the people around us and make that impact. If we want something to change in the world, we have to start with ourselves and be that person who's going to bring that change. That's what came to me when you were saying that. This time has been hard. At the same time, a lot of the things that have enabled us to stay connected and move forward have also allowed us to do so much more than we ever thought we could. That's pretty cool.

We're having to learn new technical skills. How many people learned Zoom or whatever medium? There are so many new ways. We can do that if we want. We're bringing ourselves to all of those scenarios and engaging in those dynamics, especially the harder situations, ones that matter the most. It's important. I'm a huge believer in the investment of always investing in self first.

Now we have our last question. What are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why?

I spoke to one, which was First, Break All the Rules. I know it's old school and it's giving away my age. It's amazing how the StrengthsFinder, I still find people that are wanting to do it. It's got such good face validity. People see it and go, “That's me.” I love the way that they say, “Lean into your strengths but understand your weaknesses. Weakness is only something that gets in the way of the success of something you care about.” Only focus on those things.

The other, which complements that in a nice way, is Mindset by Carol Dweck. The reason it complements that is that it brought me a whole picture. Depending on the way our mindset looks at that and if we have a growth mindset and say, “We're not doing it yet,” the research shows that we can grow tremendously. Our brains are malleable in our opportunities to move forward but it's hard work. We got to have meaning because we're cognitive misers. We don't like to work sometimes. If we have meaning, it pulls us out. It brings us like a magnet and it brings all of our other foundational abilities towards that. I thought those two concepts together were powerful. They've been impactful for me as a friend, a father, a professional, and a husband.

That's well said. They are complimentary. I've never heard the two books put side by side but that makes a lot of sense. From that perspective, I could see a class being put together that says, “We need to have these two books being taught together.” Tony, I can't thank you enough for being here sharing your stories and all your insights. Many things that you've shared are going to hit people right where it counts. It's going to be something that they need right now at this point, where they're navigating through challenges and thinking about how to move forward and navigate the next steps in their lives. Thank you so much for bringing all of yourself to the space.

Without a foundation of self-leadership, you’re not going to be very successful with your personal or professional life.

Tony, I appreciate you so much. First, your challenging and insightful questions. You brought out some things that maybe I wasn't aware of myself. That's what a good coach does. Thank you for that. I also appreciate you letting me be a guest on your podcast.

It's my honor. Before I let you go, I want to make sure that people know where to find you. Your book is on Amazon. People will go check that out. Where are you hanging out these days?

I don't have enough time to hang out on all the social media sites, but LinkedIn is one I choose. If you look at Tony Gambill, I always welcome you to join my network there. I create regular content there. I'm also a Forbes contributor. There's a Forbes contributor page where you can follow all my content there. Check out Getting It Right When It Matters Most. You can go to Amazon or any of your major retailers and check that out. We have a website called I'll give that to you, Tony. You can put it out there. You can read the first chapter and see some videos on the book and see if it's something that's of interest to folks.

Thank you again. Thank you to the readers for coming on the journey. I know you're leaving with many great insights. This is going to be a great show for you to check out.

Thanks, Tony. I appreciate it.

You bet.

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About Tony Gambill

Tony GambillTony Gambill brings more than 20 years of executive experience in leadership and talent development within global for-profit, non-profit, technical, research, government and higher educational industries. His clients benefit from a strategic perspective combined with practical design and delivery expertise at building knowledge, skills, and processes for leadership excellence and career growth. Tony has proven experience partnering with organizations and their executive teams in delivering meaningful results in the areas of Leadership Development, High Potential Development, Executive Succession, Leadership Coaching, Strategic Talent Planning, and Team Consulting.

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