Ed Brenegar is a keynote speaker and leadership consultant focused on teaching people to become people of leadership within their workplace and social circles.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My childhood was a happy one. I had a lot of freedom to go and explore the world of my neighborhood. I was fond of climbing trees, crawling through storm drains, making toy models, and reading history and sports books. My extended family grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were close and we remain so. As a child, we talked a lot about past generations. My father would always kid us that as a family, we practiced “ancestry worship.” However, having a knowledge of the past, and a family connection to it dating back to the early 1700s meant that there was a bond within our family that gave us a sense of continuity as individuals.
I was born in the South in the early 1950s and went through my entire scholastic school experience in segregated all-white schools. I played on the football team. In my senior year, a new head coach came. His name was Baxter Holman. He was an African-American, former professional player in the Canadian Football League, who had been an assistant coach at a local college. Through Coach Holman’s experience of a Black man coaching at an all-white school, we, the players on the team, witnessed racism as it affected someone we knew and cared about. Coach Holman was the first truly great man that I knew. His character of dignity and integrity in the face of people who sought to undermine his position had an indelible influence on me. In many respects, my work in the world of leadership is a way to honor his impact upon my life.
The other significant influence upon me was my mother’s mother. My grandmother was in many ways like Coach Holman. A woman of dignity and deep values. When I was about 12 years old, she took me aside and said to me, “You may do whatever you want, but do not bring shame to the family name.” I’ve lived by her admonition ever since. When I tell people this story, the response is often, “don’t feel that limits what you can do?” It is quite the opposite as it provides the boundaries that focus my direction towards the kind of impact that can become a legacy that will honor her as a result.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I have few regrets. It would have been beneficial to have had a stronger grasp on finances during my twenties. I showed no interest in making money, investing, or being wise in my financial decisions. Without that foundation, it took me a lot longer to understand how to care for my family and my business.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
- You can be anything you want to be. – No, you cannot be just anything. You should be what can let you become the best version of yourself.
- Follow your passion. – No, it will only create disappointment and chaos. Instead, focus on the impact you want to have and then give yourself passionately to it.
- Process is foremost. – No, because the only measure of the process is order and efficiency. The impact is foremost because it can be measured as the change that makes a difference that matters. I say this as a person who has become an expert at the creation of processes to help people and organizations create impact.
- Inspiration matters. Maybe, if it is directed at creating change. What I find is that inspiration is often used by people looking for confirmation of already fixed ideas so that they do not have to change. Inspiration matters when you have hard decisions to make that require sacrifice to achieve aims beyond your current capacity.
- Leadership is an organizational role or title. – No! Manager is a role and title. Leadership is a function of human performance. My definition of leadership is “All leadership begins with a personal initiative to create an impact that makes a difference that matters.” From this perspective, anyone can function as a leader of an impact. When an organization adopts this perspective, it can change from being leadership-starved to leader rich.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
Like many people, the Great Recession of the late 2000s impacted me in a fundamental way. Within a six-week period during the spring of 2009, all my clients left me. Over the next year and a half, I picked up new clients, though the indicators pointed to my practice never returning to what it had been.
In early 2011, I became the executive director of a church-based non-profit organization. We had a simple goal of raising money to support ministries on college and university campuses across the state of North Carolina. We had a modest goal. Our first commitment covered 55% of our goal. Like many organizations, the board viewed the executive director as the sole fundraiser. None of them made commitments to the campaign. I was ultimately fired.
At the same time, my marriage of thirty years ended. This meant that within a matter of about 18 months, my consulting practice closed, my marriage ended, and I was fired from my executive director position. I came to call this the time of the Three Losses.
For the past forty years, I have been an ordained Presbyterian minister. I have spent most of this time doing leadership development in a wide variety of contexts. Immediately following the Three Losses, I took a position as an interim pastor of a church in the midst of a leadership transition. I spent two years with them.
During the fall of 2014, as I sat in my apartment in Asheville, NC, pondering what my next step should be, I realized that “if I am going to do anything with my life, I’ll have to move.” Within a few minutes, I decided to move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was a place that I and my family had been to many times over the previous forty years. I made the move without a clear plan, yet with a desire to write.
During the next five years, I wrote my first book, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change. I spent a year traveling the US promoting the book. From that momentum came the opportunity to travel twice to Africa to do leadership training. I have continued to write, having now produced seven short books that serve as leadership guides. The Circle of Impact has been translated and published in China, and an Africa version in English and French will be published in 2022.
In the midst of the COVID pandemic, an opportunity to sell my home in Jackson was presented to me. I decided to sell and move back to North Carolina to be closer to my family. As a result, I have started a new business that features my coaching, training, and thought leadership.
Without the Three Losses, the successes that I have found during the last decade would not have been possible. With loss comes an opportunity to change, to be different, and to discover a new path towards a life of impact. It is a transition point that will determine a future of staying in the same place or becoming a person of the impact of increasing potential.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
It has only been until the past few years that I have felt that I was a success. I have been persistent in the face of loss, disappointment, and failure to believe that I was onto something unique and timely for people and organizations in the 21st century. I never entertain the idea of giving up. I may quit a project or as I have at times, let go of a client, because I felt that I was moving in the wrong direction. Even today with the success that I am realizing, I have no interest in coasting into retirement or the end of my life. As my high school track coach told me, “You run through the finish line, not to it.”
What is your morning routine?
I believe that my day starts when I go to bed at night. The quality of my day depends upon the quality of my sleep. I try to be in bed between 8:30 and 9:30 pm. I am a bi-phasic sleeper. This means that after about three hours of sleep, I will wake up. I may be awake for an hour or two. I tend to use this time to read or write. I typically rise up in the morning between 4 and 5 am.
In the morning, I get up. Take a few minutes to get oriented, to read email or other material. Some days I get some exercise first thing or days later in the day. I fix a cup of coffee and then sit down to write. I have two desks where I sit and write. During intensive writing periods leading up to one of my short books, I will typically work two to three hours with a break. During the writing of the Circle of Impact, I often would get up and walk the two blocks to my local Starbucks and write for two hours. Change of scenery creates a fresh stimulus for writing. I usually don’t eat until late morning. Morning is my prime time for creativity and production. This is why beginning with adequate sleep is so essential. As a result, I do nap during the day.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
As a person who is in constant transition, creating order is important. It isn’t just physical order. It is also personal order. Everything that I do can be described as a project. Unfinished projects, whether related to work or to the care of my home, become distractions that drain my mental attention away from things that are essential. So, create order or a way to repeating the right behaviors to foster an environment of simplicity and focus, and either finish or discard those projects that do not create order.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
First, I use Vern Harnish’s One Page Strategic Plan to create the structure of my life and business. With everything from a 25-year plan to this quarter’s business and personal plan on one page, there is order.
Second, I have a range of projects that I can move between. The creativity of one feeds the creativity of the others. Each project shares a common purpose of creating impact. Each in their own way, and each feeding the other. As a result, I have projects and programs for writing, consulting, coaching, training, speaking, video production, and the facilitation of the establishment of networks of relationships for people new to the idea. Each shares the values of the Circle of Impact, its purpose, and its goal of producing people who are persons of impact. They share the ultimate goal of 1% of the world’s population becoming leaders of impact in their local communities.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
I am a book hound. I read broadly and deeply, especially in fields where I have no background. My curiosity drives my reading habits. The number of books that have influenced me could fill several large bookshelves. The following are those that helped form the perspective that led to my creation of the Circle of Impact model of leadership.
Drucker’s book was the first to provide me with a perspective that would be formational in my own thinking about leadership. Here he distinguishes between leadership and management, efficiency and effectiveness, and change. Through him, I realized that I was more of an entrepreneurial leader than a manager. This quote from the book describes the heart of my appreciation for this book: “the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity“. This describes how I have been viewed by work over the past forty years.
Jim Collins’s work has influenced me significantly because he made the case for the centrality of values as integral to the leading of organizations. In particular, the distinction between values and cultural practices
Beginning in the late 1990s through to today, I have progressively been reading works of philosophy and the social sciences to broaden my understanding of the world we live in. The following represent writers who challenged me to look more critically at my work and my relationship with clients.
Reading these works of ancient thought helped my own capacity to think and construct my own ideas in response to my experience and the situations that I observed in my consulting work.
Boyd developed what is known in the world of strategy as asymmetric warfare. It was captured in what is called the OODA Loop. It is a model that combines Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action in a way to establish strategic control in settings of conflict. The primary application is on the field of battle in a war. The application of Boyd’s thought in business provided me an example of how to construct and apply my Circle of Impact model of leadership in the world of organizations.
The book helped frame my understanding of small, local, decentralized networks of relationships.
As a leadership and organizational consultant, I found over time that it was difficult for organizations to address the fundamental problems that they faced. Instead, they created alternative ways to ignore or deny that their problems exist. Instead of from businesses to celebrities to politicians and to Tik Tok video stars, the creation of narratives of simulated reality dominates the visual space of our computer and smartphone screens. These three authors helped me to understand a phenomenon that I call The Spectacle of the Real.
These two anthropologists have helped me to understand how organizational structures function across time and in different cultures. It has led us to see that leadership as a function of the structure of an organization or of society. In this sense, the senior executive leader is really just the chief administrator of the structure. Clastres’ research in Amazonia showed how tribal chiefs can lead without the power to rule through the power of their storytelling and economic development for the tribe. Tainter’s research shows how organizations and societies become experts at solving problems creating the problem of the sustaining of those solutions. Ultimately, the administrative weight required creates a scenario of collapse that he calls “a radical simplification of an overly complex system.” Their insights show me how organizations can change to remain agile and less administratively bound.
Business / Leadership Influences:
Published in 2000, this was the first great book describing the digital world of leading a business.
One of the first books to describe a decentralized leadership structure.
The wisest book on leadership that I have ever read. It is a starting point for any leader who seeks self-understanding.
The book introduced me, through Bill Watkins my business coach, to the One Page Strategic Plan. As a person who sees the world in big, grand, broad landscapes of ideas, relationships, and structures, Harnish’s work helps me focus on what I need to specifically do to grow my business.
Two great books on focus. Worth reading over and over again.
A simple book that persuasively distinguishes between our individual areas of excellence and genius. The key takeaway is to hire people to do what you are excellent at so that you can focus on your genius. My genius? My engagement one-to-one with people and organizations in transition.
Forty years after Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the authors describe the future of innovation as the creation of categories that dominate their markets. The methodology is called “category design.” From the moment I was introduced to this idea, I knew that the creation of Circle of Impact has the potential to become a category that creates a whole new way of understanding leadership.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
These are all my quotes.
Rule #1: Everyone needs an editor.
We are all in transition. Every one of Us. All the Time.
All leadership begins with a personal initiative to create an impact that makes a difference that matters.
Start Small. Grow Big.
Act Locally. Tell Global.”
Quotes from others that stick with me.
“You may do whatever you want, but do not bring shame to the family name.” Told to me by my grandmother. I have lived by these words.
“Your own acts tell the world who you are and what kind of society you think it should be.” Chinese artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei.