The most fearless leader ever: my big brother

me and todd.jpg

My big brother is brilliant.

Todd studied both math and music in college. He’s equally comfortable managing large-scale technology systems for an entire hospital network as he is performing with his cover band.

Growing up, he taught himself to play multiple instruments and often spent hours playing along with the radio. No kidding -- whatever came on the radio, he’d just play along on his trumpet, trombone, guitar, etc. The angels touched his vocal cords with a tenor voice that would make you weep, and I’ve watched him sight read Italian opera solos without even breaking a sweat.

Todd’s brain understands the physical components of just about anything. When we were kids, he taught me how to take apart and repair our bikes and skateboards. He recently designed and built a 150-square-foot gazebo in his backyard with no formal plans, just some rough sketches backed up with a few geometric calculations. Mechanical things resonate with him; he can disassemble anything, diagnose a problem, or reverse engineer the entire contraption. He once took apart the engine of a vintage MGB roadster, stashed the pieces in a closet, then rebuilt the car a few years later to cruise in a car show.

These days, for fun, he designs, builds, and paints bass guitars -- from just some blocks of wood and a few wires. (Yes, he plays them, too.)

He’s probably the only person I’ve ever met who uses both the left and right brain hemispheres at all times.

And he’s the most fearless leader I’ve ever seen.

Being his kid sister wasn’t always fun – half the time I worshiped him, awestruck at his talents and wondering if any of that DNA was in me somewhere. And the other half I craved my own spotlight, fed up with being introduced as “Todd’s Sister,” or even worse, “Little Mullins.”

On the rare times I confessed these feelings to him, he was never short on wisdom, which led to his unforgettable lesson about fear:

We were standing in the driveway and he was showing me some disassembled portion of his 1987 VW Cabriolet. Todd knew I hated viewing the guts of mechanical things; it freaked me out to know these random hunks of metal combined to form a machine! In my frustration, I vented, “I hate this! Mechanical things speak to you, and you understand their language. If I look at an engine, I don’t hear anything. And I’m too intimidated to look, anyway.”

In his typical, logical, quiet voice, he said, “Mechanical things don’t always speak to me. I’m just not afraid of them.”

Brilliant and fearless.

What are the mechanics of your culture? I’ve worked with many organizations whose corporate machines needed serious repairs, and leadership wasn’t lacking in understanding – they were just too scared to look under the hood.

Your corporate culture has many moving parts, and it doesn’t take much for the entire engine to stall. And yes, culture work is intimidating. But you can’t diagnose problems unless you start taking it apart, piece by piece, all the while listening to what your employees, customers and volunteers are saying. And you can’t hear the language of your culture from the corner office; you have to roll up your sleeves, dig deep and get your hands dirty.

Ignoring your culture because it’s a scary topic is one of the most selfish things a leader can do; it means you’re deliberately choosing an easy road that leads to a worthless legacy.

But if you’re still overwhelmed and terrified to start, here’s more brotherly wisdom for you:

When I was going through what I felt was an enormous career move, on the heels of a major hurricane and a disastrous romantic breakup, I was on the phone with Todd, having a meltdown.

“I feel like I’m about to jump off a cliff and I can’t see the bottom!” I wailed.

“Maybe you are,” he quietly answered. “But the cliff might only be six inches high.”

Jump, crusaders.

Act of Fearlessness: I’m the luckiest little sister on the planet. If you have a sibling, friend or partner in crime who teaches you to be fearless, call them and say thanks.