Misti Burmeister is a force of nature, single-handedly shaking the noise out of leadership development and making it authentic and more valuable. A serial innovator, she was an early subject matter expert on generational leadership before introducing her groundbreaking work on “measurable greatness.”
She was honored as the first American to be selected for the Peter Drucker International Essay Contest with “Empower Teachers, Transform the World” placing fourth globally. She was also selected as a finalist for the Elizabeth Dole Young Entrepreneur Scholarship for outstanding leadership in her community and entrepreneurial ventures. Burmeister was recognized by the Washington Business Journal as one of the “Women who Mean Business.”
Misti has written four books on leadership, communication, performance and generational collaboration. Her educational background includes two bachelor’s degrees in psychology and kinesiology and a Master’s degree in communication from The University of Northern Colorado.
I have never met someone so highly passionate or insightful. Misti talks about her fascinating childhood, including a stint in special ed, and the winding journey to authenticity and living passionately.
Q: Can you fill me in on your story? How did you come to grow into the person that you are? Where were you born and how did your childhood shape your life?
MB: I grew up in Colorado as the youngest of four children. My dad is a mechanic and my mom works for child protective services with the state. I wrote a book, Hidden Heroes about the people who shaped my life.
I became the person I am today through so many challenging experiences. My journey started from a place of worthlessness and feeling like I didn’t matter. I was in special education during middle school with people who were physically in need of special assistance. I lost most of 7th and 8th grade. I learned a lot from the teachers and the people in my life who couldn’t tolerate people like me. And I learned even more from the people who not only tolerated me, but helped me to use my energy for good.
My special ed teacher in the 8th grade, Donna, taught me more about kindness, patience, and generosity than anyone in my life to that point. I hated Donna – my hour with her was my reminder that I was abnormal/deficient.
One time, right in the middle of a lesson, I simply got up and walked out. When she grabbed me, I gave her a shove and took off running. She took off after me and she caught me! She wrapped her arms around me and I couldn’t move. Other teachers came out, but there must have been a look on her face and the teachers all went away. We ended up sitting with our back against the lockers when she asked if I was ready to learn now. I agreed, and off we went.
Donna kept at it, being friendly, offering to buy me snacks at the football games, which I refused. She never pushed me off on administration and she never called home. She was the first person who showed me such fierce kindness, and over time, her persistence broke through my shell.
Then I discovered sports and realized anything that I put my attention to, I did well in. Thanks to sports I graduated high school – a complete miracle. After graduation I got into the Challenge program at the University of Colorado. I had to prove my academic ability in this program and was not able to play sports for the first year of college. So, I dove into academics and fell in love. I ended up with two undergrad degrees and a Master’s degree.
Jan was a teacher with the Challenge program who taught college algebra. I had missed all the basic algebra classes in high school and there I was in her class. I’m listening to the lecture in the first day of class, and I was taking notes only because everyone else was. I was really curious about the “pies” in the equations. “Do you eat these pies?” I stayed after class and talked with Jan, who asked if I took the math placement test. The placement test indicated that I should take remedial math at the community college. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Are you a teacher? Well, I’m a student, so will you teach me?” After a bit of back and forth, she realized that I wasn’t going to give up. She said that I would be in her office hours for every available hour and I was. She taught me five days a week, for at least two hours a day. But dammit, I passed the class and that really gave me confidence to take on other things outside of my comfort zone.
Q: Your mission is “provoking measurable greatness” (see more http://www.inspirionllc.com). How is greatness provoked? Why does it need to be measurable?
MB: You don’t have to put greatness in anyone. Greatness already exists inside of everyone. All you have to do is pull it out – that’s what I call provoking.
When I challenge people, I take the time to get to know them and understand what’s driving them, underneath the surface, pushing them to achieve excellence. Calling out in them what they’re already good at. That’s what greatness is. Greatness is already there, you just have to create space for a person and ask them. Most people will stay safe, but safety is not where greatness lies. Greatness lies where fear and vulnerability meet.
There’s a model that I use in my business called the VOICE model:
All of those areas are absolutely measurable. If you know where you are, then understanding where you want to go is possible. If you don’t know where you are, you can’t go somewhere different. Measurable greatness is understanding the strength of your own VOICE. Systematically, over time, anyone who wants to can increase his or her ability to provoke greatness. For example:
V: Do you have a clear vision, or are you hoping your version of NFL players will charge the field void of an end zone?
O: Do you see yourself as the center of the results you’re getting in their lives? The more they see themselves at the center, the more they take responsibility for getting where they want to go.
I: Are you intentionally developing the strengths of the people on your team? Do they know how to be successful under your leadership? Do you know what success in your career looks like?
C: Do the folks on your team feel a strong connection to each other, and the vision?
E: Do focus your time and energy on the projects/people that feed your energy? And, do you empower others to do the work, freeing you to lead?
Everything is measurable, including your ability to consistently reach your own greatness, which is already there.
Q: What are the benefits in your life to being transparent, authentic and vulnerable?
MD: It generates trust. Trust creates the opportunity for connection, and I enjoy feeling connected to others. Connection is about more than superficial conversations about the weather – a deep and genuine connection comes from my willingness to share myself with others and providing the opportunity for them to do the same. Meaningful connections are priceless, regardless of whether you’re my relative or friend. That connection is at the source of life.
So many people try to fake vulnerability. They think they are being vulnerable, but they’re not because vulnerability is uncomfortable. At the end of the day, you can’t fake vulnerability. If you want connection, you have to open up.
Transparency is also vastly misunderstood. It’s recognizing that I don’t have control over anyone else, only how I think and how I choose to act. The benefit of transparency is being OK with being scared in the presence of another.
Vulnerability is revealing the truth of who you are in spite of your seeming insignificance.
Authentic is real. Real is sometimes not so pretty. I have a client who gave me feedback – he said, “You laugh loud, it’s jarring and I don’t like it.” When I’m nervous my laugh gets louder and it’s already loud. At lunch a few days later he said something hysterical and I laughed loudly while he shushed me. I recognized that this is just the way I laugh – it’s authentic for me. The benefit of being authentic is that I never have to worry about whether I’m good enough. It’s not about enough or not enough, because it’s who I am. Though I certainly struggle with not being enough.
I’m also gay, and I worry a lot about that. Every time I worry, I have to make the decision to be who I am. Because of that, I get to be totally present. I don’t have to worry about them anymore, all I have to do is choose me. The very least that I can do is inspire them to be themselves. Even when you think you’re done dealing with it, it comes back up. I’ve lost clients because I’m gay. Being transparent and vulnerable and authentic is more important to me than clients.
Q: What legacy do you hope to leave? How do you “live passionately”?
MB: A better question for me might be, How do you not live passionately? I don’t know any other way. And, believe me, sometimes I really wish I did. I’m a high achiever, and it can be exhausting!
The legacy that I hope to leave is one of total and complete self-acceptance. Because I live as I do others can see that it’s OK to accept themselves without any trappings. Without anything else, you have worth. If there’s one thing I could leave behind it’s that others feel a sense of worth.
And I live my life as if that’s the truth I’m being today. It’s either happening in this moment or it’s not – it’s not some future goal. It’s in the fabric of every day. I ask myself questions like “How can I be more of who I really am?” and “How can I see the value in the worst of me, without anything else attached to it?” If I’m living that answer, then I’m inspired and I have so much more energy and passion.
This isn’t what I set out to do. I studied the mind body connection in school. But passion comes from a sincere interest in something or somebody, so passion increases the more you expose yourself to other people and their stories and what they’ve done in their life.
I was interviewing the President of UMBC and he talked about students who are stuck. He encourages them to listen to more stories. To expose yourself and let yourself feel what other people are feeling, especially when it doesn’t feel good. When you can do that, you get to feel emotion – energy in motion – and that’s what passion is all about. Having emotion. What causes emotion? You’ve got to be moved, you have to FEEL things.
There’s this group that I belonged to and paid upwards of $5K. The day before the biggest career opportunity of my life I got an email from the Chief Dude kicking me out of the group saying I was worthless, no good and I had nothing valuable to offer. I sat there on the stairs and I wailed. You can’t control that kind of heavy amount of negative emotion. I couldn’t control that this person said this to me and about me, but what I could control was whether I let that emotion get stuck in me or let it move through me. I walked into my meeting the next day and I said a little prayer. “Let this emotion serve me in support of this client today.” And while “I’m worthless” popped into my head several times, I wondered about whether the people in the room had ever felt the same way. It allowed me to connect with them over and over again. Sharing the connection allowed it to pass through me, instead of getting stuck in me forever.
Q: You’re obviously a highly motivated mover and shaker. How do you find balance? What brings you joy?
MB: I think that balance is a moving target and you never get there. You might feel it for a minute and then it’s gone – the minute you think you have it, there it goes. In that context, I think knowing yourself is at the foundation of balance. A lot of people talk to others about how they find balance, but even though they’ve done all the steps, they’re still not in balance. That’s because it might work for someone else and not you. The foundation is having a sense of yourself, and that’s always evolving, so balance is, too.
I was on a panel and one lady said she finds balance by sleeping in 3-hour bursts. She has small naps all day long. I would be in a NUTHOUSE if that’s what I was doing every day.
For me, balance exists in the constant connection with nature. I really struggle with it. I notice where I feel out of whack and I work on that, but then something else goes. But I look at life in terms of buckets – this is my number one priority for this year and everything else takes a backseat. Time with my partner is critical.
A lot of things bring me joy – having my friends around me, being around people that I love and who love me, being present with them. It brings me so much joy when somebody shares a breakthrough they had because of something I said. Sometimes it’s fleeting, but it’s there. I feel so much joy when I watch somebody step in to their greatness, when they give up all of their excuses and start the journey of looking inside and taking steps towards their greatness. When I see people who are at odds that face each other and see that they have more in common, I feel so much joy. I feel joy when I’m in nature…except that 8.2 mile hike last weekend. That was painful. The first half was straight down and the second half was straight up. I almost killed my partner.
I also find joy in the moments where I see that who I am authentically is fully appreciated and loved by others. A few months ago we were in the gym and the instructor was giving me a hard time because I don’t have much of a filter – she said something like, “I just wish you’d get your broken filter fixed.” And my friend replied, “I just love her broken filter!” That kind of full acceptance brings me so much joy.
It was my birthday on May 24th so I had this idea that four of us would do a special birthday dinner and I got the idea to go get some picture frames. When I got to the craft store, there was a really beautiful, but sort of expensive frame, so I found three cheap ones and out of me comes this idea to paint them brown for grounding and put a word that embodies each friend in yellow on them. One word that I would use to describe what each of them taught me. On the back I used orange paint to put more special words. There was so much sheer joy when they opened their presents.
Gratitude and giving bring me joy.
Q: Have you ever been stuck and how do you get unstuck?
MB: There is a misconception about people who are so passionate, like Oprah Winfrey. They must never get stuck, no way. When I started my business I focused on generational differences and I got bored, but I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know what to do or how to find myself again or how I lost myself to begin with. It felt like I was going to die, literally. I even considered becoming a bagger at Trader Joes, or a construction worker. It’s painful to feel so lost. But, as Zig Ziglar wrote, “It’s when you’re in the valley you’re growing the crops you’ll eat on the mountaintop.”
I was stuck and I would go around telling people that I was stuck and scared and I would ask people to tell me what makes me great, because I couldn’t see it. Somehow I was in the worst place I’d ever been. I’d gone nine months with hardly any sleep, but I started to implement this one small habit. I listen to a motivational speech every morning for about ten minutes, before I even got out of bed. I re-implemented an old habit: reading affirmations in front of the mirror. Every morning, I’d stand there and say these words, even though I thought the words were goofy. I didn’t know if it would work, but I knew what I was doing wasn’t working, so it couldn’t hurt. So then I put my affirmations to music and I’d listen to it. With these affirmations as a starting point every morning, my life started to change. I could see things that I didn’t see before. I started to move away from need-to-know and towards being OK with curiosity.
I have a passion for food, like I want to know who the farmer was who grew it, how it was harvested, what it was fed. I want to know where my food comes from. I used to tell myself, “No, I don’t have time for that.” I was too busy thinking that I had to figure out where I was going and what I should be doing. I even started writing a book on “focus,” but I couldn’t seem to focus on it. Ha!
So one day I said, “Screw that, I’m going to spend my entire damn day learning about this food.” I opened up to curiosity. The more I studied farming and let myself get curious, the better I felt. There wasn’t an ego attached to it. It was pure curiosity, with no financial motive.
Curiosity continues to give me so many things to talk about. If you’re stuck in your life, turn UP the curiosity. Say “Yes,” even if you have no idea where it will lead you. If it interests you, explore it. Don’t worry about the career path or track. There was a lady at the DMV who was telling me that she was willing to be complacent about her job, but the reality was that she wasn’t complacent. She really wanted to change the world, but didn’t know how. So I suggested for one hour each day that she focus on something that truly interested her or that she might be interested in. See what catches your eye. Study yourself, say, “Huh, isn’t that interesting?” I think curiosity is at the center of joy.