What having a stutter taught me about becoming a leader

  • Michael Thompson is a career strategist who works with business professionals and entrepreneurs to open more doors and receive greater satisfaction from their work.
  • In childhood, Thompson struggled with a severe speech impediment. Despite working hard to improve his communication, in adulthood he still encountered clients and colleagues who weren't willing to embrace him as a leader.
  • Through his experience having a stutter, Thompson says he learned that leadership is more about sounding great all the time. It's equally important to be a good listener, and show people that you care about their input.
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"I love you Mike, and I respect what you've done. But I can't be on your team."

I looked at the man standing in front of me, baffled, "What the hell are you talking about? No one knows your deals better than me. You're joking?"

"I'm sorry," the man replied, with his eyes glued to the floor. "I can't have you talking to my clients. I got kids, man. You understand, right?"

Like a lot of people who grow up with a severe speech impediment, I got picked on and I got called names: "Stupid," "R-t–d," "Nerd." It didn't help that I really struggled to say words that begin with the letter "M" and my name is Michael.

As a kid, these comments destroyed me. But the older I got, as a survival mechanism, I became better at masking my feelings. At times, I even laughed along with people when they made fun of me. Each time it happened, however, even if they said they were just playing around, their words hurt.

None of the jokes, jabs, and laughs behind my back, however, compared to the pain I felt that day when a 37-year-old man whom I respected, trusted and would have gone to the end of the earth to fight for, told me he wouldn't work with me because of my stutter.

I'd just turned 25 and instead of celebrating my promotion to sales manager, I got in my car, drove across the street to Panera Bread, and, after bawling my eyes out, I sat there for a good hour thinking about what the hell I was doing.

Once again, I'd been whacked in the face with the hard reality that just because I'd learned how to effectively build rapport with people, it didn't mean everyone was ready to embrace me as a leader.

Seventeen years have passed since that day I made the decision to return to work instead of pulling out of Panera's parking lot and going home. During this time, my work in various leadership positions has taken me all over the globe. Today as a communication and career coach, I make my living helping other people build their confidence and develop their own leadership qualities.

If I've learned anything through these experiences, it's that leaders come in many varieties, and not one variety is best.

Some take the initiative, they set their goal and then motivate people to join them. Others sit back and watch what may happen, or, in many cases, they try to determine where their people want to go, and then they set out to help them get there.

Personally, I fall into the latter category. I'm more comfortable and most effective when leading from behind, rather than being out in front.

Despite cursing my stutter for a good part of my life, it's clear to me now that it has been my greatest teacher.

Stuttering taught me just how powerful being vulnerable can be in leadership positions

When I first stepped into leadership roles, I thought for sure that my stutter would be my downfall, and being humiliated that day only solidified that belief. After picking myself up, however, both my team and the president of the company sat me down and told me it was my biggest strength as my stutter humanized me, and made me both relatable and approachable.

When we hear the word "vulnerable," we think of words like "insecurity" and "weak." But in reality, being vulnerable is having the courage to be yourself. Although I didn't always see it that way, the fact that I choose to show up every day  —  no matter the adversities I faced  —  served as a reminder to those around me of the importance of opening yourself up to the world. 

Also, setting the precedent early on that I needed the support of the people on my team just as much as they needed mine created an environment where people were comfortable talking about their own challenges, and asking for help without feeling judged.

Stuttering taught me what really matters in communication

Despite being shy and not saying much all the way up through college, I had a deep desire to build connections with people. Since I wasn't the smoothest talker, in order to create these bonds I focused on the qualities of myself that I could better control like bringing my full presence into each conversation, listening, and working to continually grow my empathy muscle.

When I began working in sales and leadership positions I quickly realized that the combination of these skills had become my superpower. I knew all too well what it felt like not to be seen. This drive to ensure other people did not experience those feelings played a big role in establishing a safe environment where people felt like they could speak freely — because they knew they would be heard, and I had their best interest at heart.

Effective communication is not solely about oratory skills. It's about giving people our full presence, and taking the time to understand them. This starts and stops with our ability to effectively listen and empathize with people to better understand their wants, needs, challenges, and fears. After all, problems cannot be solved if they are not properly identified.

Stuttering taught me the importance of giving people room to lead themselves

On the first day of my sales job, the corporate trainer split us into small groups and we were tasked with critiquing each other on the phone. While we were walking out of the conference room, however, the man whose team I had been assigned to told me he could see my nerves a mile away and he asked me if I was okay.

"I stutter, and I took this job to gain confidence," were the only words I managed to get out before he flagged down the trainer and said I'd be working with him. 

When we got to my desk, instead of sitting down with me, he handed me a pile of old leads and told me to take as much time as I needed to get comfortable, and that his door was open if I had any questions. 

Out of all the leadership lessons I've learned over the years, that simple gesture reigns supreme. It serves as a reminder that each individual is different, and at times the best thing you can do as a leader is to let people know you are there for them and set them free to find their own way. 

Stuttering taught me that kindness breeds confidence 

My whole reason for being is to help people find and embrace the strengths they have within themselves, so they can get what they want out of life. This may sound cheesy. But I cannot begin to put into words the appreciation I have for the people who have not only seen something in me but invested their time, money, and resources to bring it out of me. 

I was a scared kid when I started my career. But through their encouragement, guidance, and trust, they helped me grow into a person both professionally and personally that I never thought I was capable of becoming. And to me, that is what a leader is — someone who works with people to create an environment that allows them to thrive. 

Michael Thompson is a career strategist who works with business professionals and entrepreneurs to open more doors and receive greater satisfaction from their work. His work regarding all things communication and career advice has been featured in Business Insider, Fast Company, Apple News, The Ladders, and Forbes. He currently resides in the Catalan countryside with his wife and their two cool little boys and writes to meet people, so feel free to reach out to connect here.

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