Grace Under Pressure While Making An Impact In The World With John Baldoni

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There are so many ways you can make an impact in the world. This episode’s guest has utilized art in so many forms and integrated it into his work, amazing us with his great artistic background and how he took it to inspire and educate. John Baldoni is a globally recognized leadership educator, certified master corporate executive coach, and author of sixteen books that have been translated into ten languages. He joins Tony Martignetti to share his great journey and the lessons he learned along the way. John takes us to his days writing, photographing Presidents, filming Formula One races, and, later on, coaching. Through it all, he learned the value of grace under pressure, perseverance, and self-care, especially for leaders facing change or crisis. Follow along to this conversation and gain some great wisdom on how to make a difference in others with grace.


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Grace Under Pressure While Making An Impact In The World With John Baldoni

It is my honor to introduce my guest, John Baldoni. John is a globally recognized leadership educator, certified master corporate executive coach, and author of sixteen books that have been translated into ten languages. John's thought leadership is reflected in his writing as well as his choice of media, columns, videos, and books.

John also integrates piano improvisations into his keynotes, which I love. He illustrates with his still-life photos and that's brilliant too. I love how you bring art into your work. John is also the host of LinkedIn LIVE’s GRACE under pressure interview series, which is a platform that has enabled him to interview more than a hundred global business, academic, thought leaders, and doers.

John's books include Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World, GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us, MOXIE: The Secret to Bold & Gutsy Leadership, Lead with Purpose, Lead Your Boss, and The Leader’s Pocket Guide. Lastly, his new book, Grace Under Pressure, which is absolutely brilliant. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife of 43 years. His passions include golf, piano, and grandkids. I am so honored and thrilled to welcome you to the show, John.

What a warm welcome. I think you can keep going on. I like hearing all these good things about myself.

We don't get that often.

No. We all need self-affirmation and it helps us. That's a good theme. We don't affirm our own value from time to time, so keep pouring it on. I like it.

I do love your intro. One of the things that's present for me is this sense of using art in all its forms to express ourselves and integrating it into the work we do because it helps us. It's not just about the words. Sometimes it's about using other mediums to get out there. Well done. What we are going to do now is we are going to spend some time uncovering how did you get to make such a big impact in the world, and it's truly a huge impact.

Sixteen books, that's not something that you can get done overnight. That's for sure. I want to do this journey through what we call flashpoints, these points in your journey that have ignited your gifts into the world. I'm going to turn it over to you in a moment. I'm going to have you share the moments that you are called to share. Along the way, we will pause and we will see what themes are showing up. John, take it away.

I love the title of your show, the Virtual Campfire, and that's where we share stories as you talk about it. A couple of years ago, pre-COVID, I was up in Canada with a client and they literally sat around the campfire. That image comes to me. If you throw me under the bus as you have done with no preparation like, “Tell me your life story, ” thank you very much. I appreciate that seriously.

If I look back, my life is coming full circle. My earliest hobby was photography, which I inherited from my father and grandfather. My father was a family physician whose hobby was photography. My grandfather had been a newspaper photographer as well as a publisher of a small paper and worked in public relations. In many ways, I'm following in his footsteps.

I remember the very first time I picked up a camera to take pictures. I grew up in a little town called Perrysburg, Ohio, which is due south of where I am here. There was a Memorial Day parade. As a child, I was 15, 16, or something like that and so I wanted to take pictures of the parade. It was my first photo-journalistic exercise.

The image that comes out and I wrote a poem about it. I remember the men at the head of the parade and they were all World War I vets. They seem very old to me. From my standpoint right now, those men of that same age would be Vietnam vets, and so that's how far back it was. I pursued photography. It opened a lot of doors for me. I went to Georgetown where I was an English major. I'm one of the few people where English has been a practical thing for me because it taught me how to write.

I think I wrote the same essay 100 times, not copying it word for word but the structure, exposition, explanation, and then summary. I became a speech writer. That's what I did. I was in Georgetown during the Watergate, which at that time was considered a threat to democracy. It’s a little less so in hindsight of history on the times when we look at today.

I became a photo editor part of a startup school paper called The Georgetown Voice, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. I was a lot of time in the city of DC and I have one memorable. I covered all the student demonstrations and all that stuff. I remember photographing John Kerry, former senator, and Hubert Humphrey.

The one thing was Richard Nixon's second inaugural. I went down and I had a press pass. In those days, I looked like a counterculture kid in every inch, Army jacket and photo. I remember I was on Pennsylvania Avenue and the motorcade went past me. Just where I was, Richard Nixon decided to pop the bubble. This was in 1973. This is not even ten years after the assassination of John Kennedy.

Presidents at that time were pretty sheltered. The security was tight. I remember raising my camera to take a picture of Richard Nixon and there was this heavy hand grabbed me in the shoulder and pushed me aside. I said, “I have a press pass.” The secret service agent said, “Nobody walks with the president.” I said, “Okay,” but I did get the photograph. That was my education as a photojournalist.

I continued taking pictures. After I graduated from Georgetown, I went to London because I wanted to be a filmmaker and I went to London Film School. I spent three years in London which was wonderful. I have traveled to Europe and worked on a film crew with the Formula One team. We were with a Marlboro team and that was the year that James Hunt won the World Championship, which has now been made into a movie called Rush.

I saw the movie and I go, "I lived that." Anyway, claim to fame. Art and creativity were important. Now, flash 50 years later, I gave up photography. I didn't do filmmaking, but now I do videos on the other side of the camera, and I take pictures of my grandchildren. Also, artistic photographs, which I work into different forms and things. My previous book, Grace Notes, illustrated some of my photographs.

VCP 204 | Grace Under Pressure

I play piano. During COVID, I wasn't able to play live anymore. I started posting little videos on Mondays on LinkedIn and I have been doing that for almost two years now, but I play piano in hospital lobbies where I'm called the headliner because no one else is there. It's a full circle. That’s probably more information than most people want to know, but that's my life creativity journal story.

I got to say that you put out there a great coaching lesson, which was something about how if you want to get good at something, make a very public commitment to do something. Practice it in public very much out there. Play the piano and record it, and put it out there so people see it. I'm sure through that time, you probably even refined your skills even though they are probably good from the get-go.

I played as a child. I took lessons as a child. Let's put it that way. I hated every single minute of it. My grandmother was a very gifted piano player. She played in her church, taught music, and all these things. My mother was bound and determined to make me one. That's where I learned time management and negotiation skills. I would negotiate with all my friends who were outside playing and I was inside practicing. My mother would say to me, "You will thank me someday," and God bless her. I got to tell her that many times before she passed, so thanks. I gave up piano for quite some time but went back to it and tried to play every day now.

One of the other things that came up for me as you shared your story so far is I can't help but think of grace under pressure being a theme for you throughout your journey. You have maintained a sense of grace and I want to know where this came from for you. Is it something that was modeled for you as a child? It's a common theme for you?

I have not thought of it. If you put me up against a wall, it's a good thought. I'd have to say that it came from my parents. My father was a very skilled medical practitioner, but he was very involved in the science of medicine but also the art of medicine. My father was mentored by physicians who came of age in pre-antibiotics. When you’re a family physician, there weren't a lot of things you could do except the bedside things, and dad’s practice was “modern” medicine, antibiotics, and all those types of things, but he maintained that common touch. He was always pretty cool and calm.

My mother too. Mom was very active in our community. She became a mayor of the town, but she was also very much a communitarian and ecumenical, so much so that when she was mayor, in the township there was a mosque. They wanted to build a mosque, and mom mobilized forces and put things together to help make this happen. This was in the mid-'80s well before where we are now.

Mom was very out and interesting. They always remembered her. A wonderful thing about that is mom was 89 and they had her local community did something for her and I am so grateful they did it. I wrote a little presentation for her and she delivered it perfectly. A year or two later, she wouldn't have been able to do it.

What was wonderful is I call this a living wake because mom got to see how much people treasured her leadership, her humanity, and her grace, and she was still around to partake in that. The other thing when we talk about the topic of grace, I'm Jesuit educated. All my traits can be attributed to my not learning enough from the Jebs. I remember the topic of grace and probably didn't pay attention at all.

The Jesuits as well as my parents taught me leadership. I often say this. When I was in high school and in college, I went to Georgetown, I don't remember hearing the word leadership ever. I heard leader as in reference to a national figure or something like that. The concept of leadership as we have it now is a relatively new phenomenon.

Leadership has been with us through time immemorial, but the way we frame it is a new concept, and we got it from the military but it was a fad in the '80s and '90s. Now, I hope it's here with us in the civilian sector. What does it mean to be a leader? I have written a whole bunch of books on leadership, but this Grace Under Pressure is my third on the topic of grace.

This is where I'm hanging my hat now. Maybe it's coming full circle from the examples of grace, and so what is grace? Grace is the connection or the facilitation we have toward one another. It's the catalyst for the good. From a leadership standpoint, grace enables us to reach out and help others. From a leadership standpoint, it fosters courage, commitment, compassion, caring, and kindness. That's what people are looking for now, especially in the wake of the pandemic. That's the origin story I suppose.

From a leadership standpoint, grace enables us to reach out and help others. It fosters courage, commitment, compassion, caring, and kindness.

There's something about that that also has me thinking that you said it wasn't just the person at the top. There's leadership from every chair in the sense of wherever you are, you can lead. You can embody all those things you mentioned, which we all need to do. It is realizing that we all can play a role in being a leader wherever we are.

Without a question. The very first book I did, I called Personal Leadership was about exerting a sense of responsibility and autonomy regardless of title.

I want to get back into your journey. The last we left off in your story, we had this person who is going into the film industry that led you to the next chapter of your life or maybe the next flashpoint. Take me back into your journey and tell me what were some moments that defined you.

Going from London, so where do you go next? You go to Los Angeles. That didn't work out so well entertainment-wise, but I got to discover I could write. I drifted into marketing communications and did pretty well at it. We relocated to Ann Arbor which was my birth city, but it was close to my parents, about 60 miles from where my parents are, and I wanted my children to know their grandparents.

I started doing marketing communications for auto companies and other companies in Midwest. I was asked to write about leadership topics. It was running for executives at the very top of the house. I said, "I'd rather be saying this." I went back to school. I got a master's at the University of Michigan, Dearborn campus. I then started writing on my own and then none other than Marshall Goldsmith crossed paths with him. Marshall said, “You ought to be a coach.”

I went back and pursued that. That's my journey but I have always been independent other than a few times here or there. As a result of my books, I started speaking in public, coaching, doing workshops, and things like that. That's been the last 25 years or something like that. I'm now 70. I'm proudly saying. As my wife says, “You are semi-retired.” What does that mean? It means I work when I want to work.

When there are good opportunities to speak and great people to coach, that's what I want to do. I continue to write. I write regularly for Forbes as well as SmartBrief. I write books too, but I also do a podcast, thank you for mentioning, GRACE under Pressure. I was doing it twice a week. Now I have cut back to once a week. For the book launch, I'm cutting it back a little bit even further.

I have had the opportunity to speak to great people. The bio said 100, but it's over 200 now and thought leaders and women in many different fields. We explored what it means to lead when the pressure is on or whatever is on their mind to help educate us to become more effective in what we do. In every episode, I ask the guests to tell me a story about grace they have experienced in their own personal life and I have got some extraordinary stories. That's been a joy and it's a privilege for me to be able to speak to a lot of great people.

It's an amazing journey that you walk us through, but there's also a sense of allowing things to unfold and things to connect from one to the other. When you say, "I'm 70 years old," and not to harp on that, but you stay young at heart. There is a sense of when you are doing things that are aligned with who you are and your passions, it keeps you in this place of perpetually energized and full of vivaciousness, for lack of a better word.

My knees are 70 years old, but I hope I had the spirit of a little bit younger there. When you get older, if you pay attention, you learn a few things and learn to put things into perspective. We call that wisdom I suppose, and so I have been very blessed to be around some very wise people. One of whom is my wife who has put up with me for 43 years. Even before we were married, she was a very wise person. I learned from her.

Speaking of learning, I want to ask, what are some things you have learned about yourself along this journey that you feel would be helpful to share with others? In all these books, you have written a lot of things that are insightful. What about the personal lessons that you want to share?

I'm glad you mentioned that because it gives me a chance to get a shout-out to my father. I learned perseverance. In my first job, I worked on a large estate as a gardener and things like that, and the next year I was told I couldn't come back because the gardener was hiring his pastor's son. My father said, "You should write a letter to the owner of the estate," and I did. I got my job and so did the preacher's kid and we became friends at the time.

That was a good lesson. At first, you don't succeed, try and try again. I have always been perceived as an independent, you are always pushed against walls. There are continuous obstacles. There's always adversity and nothing great in my life, but you are always pushing. I am pretty resilient because anybody is 70 years old, you have been knocked down more than a few times, in my case deservedly so.

Life throws you curveballs and you learn to deal with them. I believe in myself and my abilities. The older you get, you do what you can. A good friend of mine has said this. We have all heard it, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should." For example, certain things are as simple as creating graphics. "Yeah, I could and I can do basic things but should I? Is that a good use of my time? That's a very simple time management thing." Just because I could do a project or this or that doesn't mean I should. That's a good lesson to keep in perspective.

While grace is a topic near and dear to me, I know I don't always live with grace. Integral to the concept of grace is the practice of patience. It is a virtue but it doesn't apply to me. I'm working on it and patience is important. Why is patience important to me? I'm an executive coach so I need to listen and I need to observe.

If I'm always out there and acting or speaking. In a coaching thing, if I'm the only one talking that ain't coaching. You got to listen, you have to be patient, and you have to walk. I'm a doer. I like to make things happen, which is good. Sometimes you got to take your foot off the gas. A colleague of mine, Sharon Melnick, who's a PhD in Psychology, writes about resilience. She has a brand-new book out, and I quote her extensively in Grace Under Pressure about personal resilience. We deal with the topic of burnout. You have to be off. There's on and off.

VCP 204 | Grace Under Pressure

For high achievers, that's hard, but you can't because if you are always on, you wear out over time. Burnout is very insidious and leaders have trouble at times because they are well-intentioned and outward-directed as they should be because that's what leadership is, but they neglect self-care because they shun it to the side. "I need to be doing this for my people."

The old cliche about in a plane, if there's a depressurization, put your mask on first and put the child's mask on. The same applies to your people. They need you at your best and you need to back off. You need to take care of yourself because if you are not at your best, you are not leading them. That's an intro that I have shared with many leaders. It’s like a penny drops because it's not just about me, it's about my team and they need me to be the best. That's a lesson that I like to share.

I felt you were speaking to me directly with a lot of those lessons. They felt so real. There are so many things I would love to reflect on. One of them particularly is a sense of when you are sharing that just because you can doesn't mean you should. It almost has this sense of scarcity versus abundance and also looking out and seeing all these people doing these things. The reality is that you feel this pressure to do it because you can capitalize on that or do more of it. That would maybe build more business or do something for me, the reality is that there's an abundance in doing less.

You focus on what you can do. I always share a little anecdote about the strategy that I borrowed from Michael Porter, “So much of strategy is what you don't do.” I take the example of Habitat for Humanity, which builds houses for the disadvantaged. Our former president, Jimmy Carter is very active in that. I know he was still building houses in 95. Bless him.

Ask yourself the question, “Does Habitat for Humanity provide clothing?” No. “Do they provide meals?” No. “Do they provide transportation?” No. They focus on building houses. That's their sweet spot. That's what they focus on. When we are too many things to too many people, we are nothing to nobody. Know what your niche is.

When we are too many things to too many people, we are nothing to nobody. Know what your niche is.

Adam Grant wrote about this in his first book Give and Take and he talked about the topic of burnout, and why successful people in social service do not get burned out in many instances. It’s because they invest only part of themselves in the sense they do not become overly invested in the outcome. They know what they can do and they do what and they learn a limitation. They are still very kind and all of these kinds of stuff, but if you are overly invested, that's a trick to self-defeating and burnout.

There are a few things that I want to glean from this which are reading between the lines. First of all, the sense of knowing your limitations. When the world goes left, maybe you need to go right and focus on the gap. I think that's an important thing because sometimes there's a sense of the niche hidden in that gap that is being left behind, and that's an important aspect.

I tell people if they talk about getting their message out, "Promote your book where you think it's going to be reading or people might read it to." You have to do it to the HR community, whatever it is, but how about the trades? How about the financial community or how about legal? People who are executives in that field or managers in those fields would be interested in your topic too. This is a new audience for it. It's a gap. It's an unserved market if you will.

I want to ask about Grace Under Pressure. We have talked a lot about aspects of the book, but tell me more about what is the big message. Sometimes the title itself says a lot, but I want you to dive deeper and tell me why is it an important book right now.

The book is called Grace Under Pressure: Leading Through Change and Crisis. When we have change or crisis, leaders do three things. They take care of their team, they take care of themselves, and they prepare for the future. My twist on it is you have to do it with a spirit of grace. What is grace? It's the connectivity. It's caring, compassion, commitment, and courage.

Grace is not just namby-pamby. People with grace often have great courage. It's exerting yourself for the cause of your people and that's showing compassion. We talk a lot about empathy, and empathy is critical. It's the ability to feel one's pain, but also one's joy. We never talk about the joy side of empathy, but that's the other side. Compassion is the expression of empathy, what you are going to do about it.

People with grace often have great courage. It's exerting yourself for the cause of your people.

Why Grace Under Pressure is a book for our time because we are in a time of upheaval. We’re coming out of the pandemic. We are forging new ways to work. Our society is very contentious and polarized right now. The polarization may not be as stark as depicted. I want to believe that, so we need grace. We live in a gotcha culture. People you trip, you make a mistake, and you get pounced on.

How about easing up on that? How about showing some grace? How about showing some kindness? A sub-theme or theme of Grace Under Pressure in the book is the sense of community. Amy Edmondson has championed the thought or the practice of psychological safety where people feel they belong. That's community.

People in the community don't all think alike. They don't all act alike, but they have common values and a common purpose. Let's think of our workplace as a community, and that will enable us to deal with whether we are in person, virtual, or a mixture of the two. We still have our community. We have our values.

I have written extensively about the topic of purpose. As Simon Sinek said, purpose is our why and many others. Purpose sparks our vision, which is our becoming. It sparks our mission, which is our doing. You know and I know companies and individuals who achieve their vision and their mission in spite of people but how much better to do it with people? That's where values come in and values are the outcome of community grace.

You brought together a lot of great elements at the right time in a book that is truly something that people should be picking up. We have done enough plugging right now but that's okay because it's a beautiful book. On the topic of books, we are going to move to one of our last questions of the day. I'm dying to find out because I know that you read a lot of great books. What are the 1 or 2 books or 3 books that have had an impact on you and why?

I told you this was going to be difficult for me because I probably take a lesson from everything I have read. A little nugget from something, even if I don't read it in its entirety. I have been influenced by the works of Peter Drucker, John Maxwell, Marshall Goldsmith, and folks like that who have had an influence on me.

Michael Useem, a professor at Wharton. I love his work. If I think back, one of the books I read that liked in my twenties is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I do not practice Zen nor do I ride a motorcycle, nor do how to repair motorcycles, but it was an outlook that changed my perspective on things.

VCP 204 | Grace Under Pressure

It’s simple things as always go to the work, which is basically the Japanese concept of Gemba. Go to where the work is done so you discover it. That book was seminal and there have been the works of Thich Nhat Hanh. I like his philosophy and what he taught as a Buddhist and a very kind person. That's the kind of it. As soon as we hang up here, I will think of ten more books, but that's it for now.

I love that you bring up Thich Nhat Hanh because what's interesting about some of those people who are coming from Eastern philosophies is that there are so many great elements of leadership in their teachings and their beliefs. When you bring it to the current day and you think about these are the things that we are teaching now.

They all interlace and blend with all the different other schools of thought. Every book has a lot of through lines of building on giants that came before. That's the beauty of being part of that lineage and being able to say, “I'm building on an institute of knowledge that has been passed on for years and years.” It's great to hear you say that. It tells me that you respect and honor that lineage.

I try to embrace a diversity of thought and so I try. Do I always succeed? No.

I feel like we could go on for hours and share more of your journey. We could ask you to play piano if you had your piano nearby, but that's going to have to be saved for people to go on their own journey to discover more about you. We will have to do that. With that, I want to make sure that I can share where they can find out more about you.

You mention a piano. I post a little short piece on LinkedIn on Monday. I call it Motivation Monday. If you follow me on LinkedIn, you will get notice of that. My website is Imagine that. If you put a /books at the end, you will find information about Grace Under Pressure and my other books too. I also have a blog where I collect my works from Forbes, SmartBrief, and other places too. That's a good place to learn about my work. I also do infographics. I have ideas. I have a graphics person that does them. You can find it on my blog site, and people like it when everything is on one page. I wish I would have learned that 200 pages previously.

Thank you so much, John. This has been truly a pleasure and an honor to have you on the show.

You are an excellent interviewer. You ask great questions and you enable your guests to shine. I'm grateful. Thank you.

Thank you. Thanks to the audience for coming on the journey with us. I know you are leaving with so many great insights. Please go out and pick up some of John's books, especially the new ones, and check out his podcasts. Just go out and find out more about John. You are going to love it. That's a wrap. Thank you.

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About John Baldoni

Graphics - John Baldoni Headshot - VCP 204 John Baldoni less than 100kbJohn Baldoni is an internationally-recognized keynote speaker and author of 16 books that have been translated into ten languages.

John’s thought leadership is reflected in his writing as well as his choice of media: columns, videos and books. John also integrates piano improvisations into his keynotes which he illustrates with his still life photos. As the host of LinkedIn Live’s GRACE under pressure interview series, John has interviewed more 200 global business, academic and thought leaders and doers.

John’s books include Grace Under Pressure: Leading Through Change and Crisis; Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World; GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us; MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership; Lead with Purpose; Lead Your Boss; and The Leader’s Pocket Guide.

Thinkers 360 named John the No. 1 Thought Leader in Coaching in 2023 and a Top 10 Thought Leader for both Leadership and Management in 2022. Global Gurus ranks John a Top 15 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2021, the International Federation of Learning and Development named John a World-Class Mentor and named him to its Hall of Fame. In 2018 named John a Top 100 speaker and Trust Across America honored John with its Lifetime Achievement Award for Trust. In 2014 listed John as a Top 50 leadership expert.

John is also a member of the renowned 100 Coaches, a group of executive coaches and thought leaders from the worlds of business, academia and social service. 100 Coaches was founded by Marshall Goldsmith.

John established a career as a highly sought-after executive coach, where he has had the privilege of working with senior leaders in virtually every industry from pharmaceutical to real estate, packaged goods to automobiles, and finance to health care.

John has authored more than 800 leadership columns for a variety of online publications including Forbes, Harvard Business Review and John also produced and appears in a video coaching series for SmartBrief, a news channel with over 4 million readers. John is the author and host of two online leadership courses: “Leading through Change & Crisis” and “Leading with Resilience + Grace” for Methods of Leaders/100 Coaches. John’s leadership resource website is

John lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Gail who is an retired health care executive. They are the parents of two grown children and two young grandchildren. For fun John golfs and plays piano at an area hospital.

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