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Robin Sharma: From bored lawyer to rock star leadership guru

While suburban Toronto is home for Robin Sharma, he takes his empowering message all over the world—even to Las Vegas.

Aaron Cobb/for Report on Business magazine

If you've been to Bally's casino in Las Vegas first thing on a Sunday morning, you know it's a disconcerting place. Rows of slot machines ding euphoniously. A smattering of diehard players slump in their seats. This is what Vegas is like at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. Weltschmerz hangs in the air.

But it's also a place of extremes. One minute you're walking through deflated-casino world and the next you've arrived at Bally's ballroom, a cavernous space that has an entirely different energy altogether. It's like church today, and the holy spirit is in the air. More than 1,000 people are in attendance at a five-day summit of self-improvement called Amplified Leadership. This morning, on day two, they're here to see 51-year-old Robin Sharma from Toronto, one of the most famous leadership gurus in the world.

What I'm not prepared for is the noise. It reverberates from the speaker system, settling like a vibration in my head. It's the sound of euphoria. The crowd—most of them network marketers, people who sell a variety of products directly to consumers—whoots and pumps fists in the air. "Yes, yes!" they yell, like fiery amens hurled to the ceiling.

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Warming up the room ahead of Sharma is a motivational speaker who tosses one-liners like orbs from a tennis-ball machine. She's from The Secret school of thought, which is about as American an ethos as you can get. It says that if you merely visualize your hopes and dreams—anything from wanting a parking space to open up in front of your building to wanting to land your dream job, or husband, or wife—then ye shall receive.

"Design your own destiny!" she says.

"Stir your soul!"

"Let your clarity meet your conviction!"

Yes, yes, YES.

Everyone around me is filling up notebooks with these aphorisms. Many are live-tweeting with aerobic hashtags.

#crankitup

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#accelerateme

#leadersgofirst

#rockyourlife

Here at Amplified Leadership, strangers hug strangers. They form shoulder-massage chains. They storm the stage to the beats of Uptown Funk. "Crank It Up" is stamped like a cattle brand on the logo for Amplified Leadership, which itself shows the needle on a sound meter tilting past the red zone.

I find it a little hard to fit Robin Sharma into the action here. Having spoken to him at length a few weeks prior, I know he is not The Secret type. Sharma believes that in this life, you will reap what you sow, and sowing demands a lot of work.

Still, when his intro film begins to play on the big screen, I get it. The music is urgent and string-heavy, like you'd hear in a Batman movie. We see footage of thousands of people packing an auditorium. We see a shot of autograph-seekers swarming Sharma, a tiny head in a mass of outstretched arms, books and Sharpies.

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"An icon of leadership," says a title card.

"More than 15 million people are following his work," says another.

"10 million books sold."

The music soars.

We see Robin Sharma with Jack Welch, with Richard Branson, with Desmond Tutu! A voice intones that Sharma's clients include Nike, GE, Starbucks and Coca-Cola. We see Sharma himself appear on screen to ask the questions everyone is ready to answer: "How many people want to be legendary in their work? How many people want to be iconic?"

Yes! Yes!

When Sharma appears, dressed in his usual black, the crowd is uncontainable.

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Robin Sharma—the architect of this sizzle reel, and a two-hour-plus seminar that follows—is part of a business that has come a long way from its Dale Carnegie roots. Leadership training like the kind he provides has become an estimated $2.6-billion (U.S.) industry in North America. More broadly, spending by U.S. companies on all corporate training—leadership or otherwise, internal and external, in person or online—has bounded upward by double digits in recent years, reaching $130 billion (U.S.) worldwide. The number-one area where companies are spending training money is on their management.

Which is where Sharma comes in. His fame in the field is considerable. He's written 15 books. They've sold 10 million copies, distributed over 62 countries and 75 languages. Of note to millennials, he is booming on social media. Of interest to those higher up the food chain, he does keynotes and coaching in a wild list of locations: L.A., Bucharest, Johannesburg, Monaco…

Onstage, Sharma is compact, lean, muscular. With the physique of a long-distance runner, he moves around athletically, accelerating his rhythms during the buildup of fact and argument, stopping for effect when he lands a big finish. His mellifluous voice is less sports coach than late-night radio host.

He is an effective storyteller, packing his presentations with case studies, literary references, scientific data and useful advice, along with audience-friendly lessons gleaned from iconic people like Mahatma Gandhi or Jay-Z. That content makes him a breed apart from many motivational speakers; the bulk of that crowd seems content to merely crank up heart rates with preacher-like platitudes. Sharma is more erudite than he is evangelical.

This morning, as he often does in his seminars, Sharma recites a passage attributed to the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. When he reads it, his lips are close to the microphone, but his voice is quiet. He pauses after every line.

Spring has passed.
Summer has gone.
Winter is here…
and the song I meant to sing remains unsung.
For I have spent my days stringing
and unstringing my instrument.

The verse, about unfulfilled destiny and the passage of time, supports Sharma's thesis that the singular thing that keeps us from being "iconic" (a status he values a lot) is that we don't spend enough time perfecting our métier. It's a premise espoused by many authors and speakers, but Sharma hits on a few juicy nerves with his central idea that we are all born with immense talent but that societal codes limit us. We keep our potential small, in other words. His counsel is to pinpoint what exactly it is we are meant to do in life—and then pursue it. In the process, he says, we have to acknowledge that human nature impedes our success—in particular, our attraction to negativity, to rest on our laurels, to make excuses and, the big one, the tendency to distract ourselves. "Science shows us that we are distracted on an average of 2.1 hours a day," he says, revving up for a rhetorical sprint. "When you watch Net-flix, when you check your texts, when you chit-chat at the office, when you complain—for that temporary period of time, you feel a tremendous sense of unburdening."

Then he gears down to a whisper, close-talking on the mic, pausing after each few words.

"But all you are doing…

is medicating yourself…

from a pain that's deep within."

Yes. Pain. A thing few businesspeople are asked to address.

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In Sharma's view, pain—personal anguish—comes from not fulfilling one's potential for greatness. We try to stifle our true and essential selves, compartmentalizing who we are for the benefit of the social order around us. To combat this, Sharma has rather radical goals. For starters, he defies the laws of the corporate jungle. He believes in "leading without a title," which means you shouldn't care about your position in the pecking order; you should care about your performance. He wants people in power to practise being decent and curious human beings. He thinks it's the responsibility of business to make the world a more equitable place. He believes you should put your personal lives ahead of logging hours at the office. He tells me he has no love for multitasking: "As Confucius said, he who chases two rabbits catches neither."

His clients say the formula works. "About 18 years ago, Robin started to identify what I needed to do to balance my life," says Bruce Bowser, the president and CEO of AMJ Campbell Van Lines. "I realized that working 80 hours a week wasn't the key to high performance. I poured more into my family. I started eating well and exercising." And it all made the company better. Since that time, Bowser has grown AMJ Campbell Van Lines into the largest moving company in the country.

"Robin looks at life in more than one or two dimensions," Bowser explains. "He understands business. He has a spiritual dimension. He's healthy. He's fit. And he ties these pieces together in a humble way. He's not the kind of corporate coach that a lot of us have come across—the frankly nauseating type."

I first meet Robin Sharma a few weeks before his Vegas appearance at his office, a renovated rowhouse on Scollard Street in Toronto's ritzy Yorkville neighbourhood. There is no sign on the door of Sharma Leadership International Inc., where he and a group of five employees preside over operations. The rest of the team is remote. Graphic designers are in Serbia. His project manager is in Newfoundland. His CEO is based in New York. It's all very efficiently outsourced.

We don't stay inside long. It's a beautiful spring day, so Sharma takes me on a "walking meeting," which he says is something one of his heroes, Steve Jobs, used to do. Striding confidently through the fresh air in Yorkville, dressed in his habitual black, he picks up Starbucks. I can barely keep up. When he says things like "I was mountain biking in the woods the other day and listened to an incredible book called Mastery by Robert Greene," his regimen strikes my underachieving self as something to aspire to.

Another of his favourite books is Man's Search for Meaning, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's influential memoir about how he survived the Holocaust. In this book, Frankl introduces the principles of logotherapy, a psychotherapeutic method that asserts that the most powerful motivating force for human beings is finding meaning in life. This is a foundational philosophy for Sharma.

He's clearly not a light reader. He was born to a family of education-minded South Asian parents in Uganda, several years before the deranged president Idi Amin expelled South Asians from the country. Sharma's family left ahead of that purge in 1965, on Sharma's first birthday—first to Winnipeg and then to the town of Port Hawkesbury in Cape Breton. Sharma's father, Shiv, a physician, and mother, Shashi, a teacher, had another boy, Sanjay, who is now an ophthalmologist in Kingston, Ontario. The boys were raised to value the tenets of a variety of religions. The Sharmas were essentially pantheists.

Robin excelled in high school and went on to Dalhousie University, where, opting for a left-brain/right-brain combo, he studied biology with a minor in romantic poetry. He completed a law degree at Dal, became a lawyer and launched a successful career as a litigator, working at Fasken Martineau on Bay Street and at the Department of Justice in Ottawa. He married (and later divorced) and had two children, Colby, now 21, and Bianca, now 19.

Sharma's experience with the law had a profound influence on his work ethic. "Law school is about rigour and painstaking study," he says. "When you work late into the night studying a case, you look for patterns and refine the use of language to craft your argument. That spoke to the creative part of me."

All the same, he didn't love the adversarial aspect of the law. Eventually, he says, he was "struggling." "I'd wake up in the morning, and look at the person in the mirror who was successful on the outside but not fulfilled on the inside." Because he was raised in a bookish household and his father had instilled in him a particular appreciation for biographies, Sharma channelled his dissatisfaction into reading—or, as he puts it, "studying lives well lived."

"There was something deep in me that was moved by reading about Mandela, about Edison," he recalls. "And I discovered that these were ordinary people. The world puts them on a pedestal and says they are cut from a different cloth. But science, through empirical evidence, shows us that's not true."

Sharma is fond of referencing psychologist Anders Ericsson, who developed the idea of "deliberate practice." It's commonly known as the 10,000-hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell: Being great is not about natural talent but more about investing a decade working at a very specialized craft, and making the most of your connections and associations. "Genius is less about genetics than about practice," Sharma tells the crowd in Vegas.

In 1994, Sharma began cohering his budding world view into a book. He had few ambitions as an author at first. "I would produce it in a three-ring binder, or some such, that I might sell for whatever," he says. But then he told his father about the idea; he replied that anything worth doing had to be a genuine effort. "My dad never missed the opportunity to use experience as a teaching point."

Sharma decided that this first writing effort should be a self-improvement manual based on lessons gleaned from "peak performers." He called it Megaliving!: 30 Days to a Perfect Life—The Ultimate Action Plan for Total Mastery of Your Mind, Body and Character. After taking a course in self-publishing, Sharma took Megaliving! to a copy shop to print an initial 3,000 copies. But he made a rookie mistake. The type was too small. When he gave a copy to David Chilton, author of The Wealthy Barber, Chilton said, "Maybe you should pack it with a magnifying glass." Those 3,000 copies gathered dust in Sharma's apartment. He printed another, more legible set, and managed to persuade buyers at Chapters to take on orders. Megaliving! is not a great book by any standard, but it sold decently on the strength of Sharma's hustle. More important, it paved the way for Sharma's breakthrough second book.

In 1997, Sharma self-published The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari: A Spiritual Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams and Reaching Your Destiny. It's the story of Julian Mantle, a successful trial lawyer, who re-evaluates his life after he suffers a heart attack. Echoes of Sharma's life are evident, as Mantle treks through the Himalayas on a path of personal awakening. After an appearance at a bookstore, Sharma caught the eye of HarperCollins Canada then-president Ed Carson, who bought the rights for a mere $7,500. With his new publisher, Sharma sold 10,000 copies of Monk—enough to get him to jump off the diving board and leave the law. "I said, 'This is my shot. Every moment I'm sitting in this law office, it's a moment I'm away from my dream.'"

In the years since, the Monk franchise has added Leadership Wisdom from the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, Family Wisdom from the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, Daily Inspiration from the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, and Who Will Cry When You Die?: Life Lessons from the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.

Everything that Sharma is and does today can be traced back to the series' basic message: Shirk your ego, follow your aspiration, and model your actions on those people whom you most admire. For Sharma, that's foremost his father, Shiv, who, at 77, still practises medicine. When Sharma was a teenager, Shiv stuck the Tagore verse about stringing and unstringing one's instrument on the family refrigerator.

****************************

Sharma lives in the suburbs north of Toronto, and commutes to work when he is not in the state he calls "deep creative." That's his term for the two days a week he spends unplugged from contact with his team. During "deep creative," which happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he writes. One of the books he's working on now is titled The 5 A.M. Club, based on a method he practises and teaches to his clients.

"It's a 20/20 formula," he explains. "The idea is to wake up at 5 a.m. every day and spend the first 20 minutes in intense exercise—fuel the endorphins and neurochemicals and jump-start your metabolism. You spend the next 20 minutes on strategic planning and the final 20 on learning something new."

In June, Sharma took the message to Los Angeles for an appearance at a gathering held by Toms, a company that donates a pair of shoes to someone in the Third World for every pair it sells in the West. "Great having @robinsharma speak at our @toms global brand conference," said Blake Mycoskie, the company's founder and CEO, in an Instagram post. "Started my 20/20/20 this morning!"

The learning piece of 20/20/20, Sharma says, is the game-changer. "Education is inoculation against disruption." That's a viral Sharmaism. He's had more than 2.3 million Facebook likes for such content, which he puts forth as "daily kick-starts" packaged into slickly designed quote cards.

Here's one about his aversion to time-wasting: "An addiction to distraction is the death of creative production."

Many have an ethical bent: "You can be dedicated to fitting in. Or you can become devoted to changing the world. But you can't do both."

And: "Success without decency is a hollow victory."

When we go back to his office after our walking meeting, Sharma Skypes with his New York-based CEO, Robert Camper Bull, whose job it is to disseminate Sharma's creative output, consisting of blog posts, one-liner quotes, and videos, to as many eyeballs internationally as possible. Camper, as he is called, appears to be working in a home office.

They start with the online and social-media numbers.

"We gained 34,000 new YouTube subscribers this week," Camper says. "You're 60 to 70% higher than all of our target competition." Later, when I ask Sharma who this competition would be, he says that he doesn't really believe in the notion. "To me, focusing on competition is a waste of key assets like energy and drive. I simply consider others in my arena as peers. And many have become friends." He provides a list of names that ranges from motivational speaker to executive to scholar: "Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, Jack Welch, Tony Robbins, Ken Blanchard and John Maxwell."

Compared to these men, Sharma's reach is respectable. On their Skype call, what excites Camper more than anything seems to be the eyeballs Sharma is getting online. "Your best post of the week had 1.4 million Facebook likes.…That's circular viralocity right there!"

"Circular viralocity" sounds like a parody of Silicon Valley jargon. But it's a real thing, a term for a do-it-yourself Internet marketing technique. You build your own media channel with your own content, which you make available in a consistent fashion, every few days or so. You build up an audience that is expecting this content and repurpose it every which way—a blog post is compacted into a quote card on Twitter, for instance. You make content that will be easily passed around. Circular viralocity, or "social stacking," as Camper calls it, is Sharma's focus for the immediate future. "It's about building scale," Sharma says. "I can go to an event and speak to 2,000 people and I will stay for two hours afterwards and shake every hand. That's great. But all the travelling and presentations keep me away from shooting videos or writing posts that will influence a million people."

Each quarter for the past decade, Sharma has done an extensive speaking tour, sometimes ticking off another city on his itinerary every two days. His message: "How to build an organization that wins its markets and a leadership—versus victimhood—culture of high performance." In the recent past, he took the message to Dallas for the top suppliers of Hewlett-Packard. He spoke to 5,000 Microsoft employees at their headquarters in Seattle, at a series of events for Carlos Slim's Telcel across Mexico, to rising leaders at GE, to Nike's executives in Israel, at FedEx's annual conference in Canada, and to Starbucks' Canadian leaders at their retreat in Vancouver.

Now, though, he's slowing down on speaking so as to grow the online business, to write and to concentrate on the marquee event that is at the top of the priority list, his own Titan Summit.

Sharma says the monetizing piece of his social-media drive will come once there's a mass of fanatical followers. He does not pay for YouTube or Facebook advertising. He's building an organic base on social media. A lot of his peers didn't make that right-angle turn when Sharma started to build that audience by marketing a series of online courses in 2008. "I've tried to see what's coming and to make sure we're relevant. To me"—believe this or not—"impact is more important than income."

And for income, there are other streams. People paid a lot for the Vegas conference, between roughly $1,000 to almost $3,000 (U.S.) for a five-day ticket. Sharma's fee for an event like this is $35,000. After speaking onstage for a few hours, he will also hang back to shake hands with a long lineup of fans who invariably come to see him. Typically, he'll also attend a VIP reception.

Sharma is polite but firm when I ask him how much he takes in. "I fully understand the need for numbers," he says. But he doesn't want to go there. "I was raised to keep finances private." He will say that the retail price for a seat at The Titan Summit, which he holds each December in Toronto for 200 or so ticketholders, is $25,000. He also provides private coaching to "a small group of game-changers" in his IconX program for $100,000 per year. The group meets in Toronto, Rome and South Africa.

In Vegas, Sharma told his audience that to be a strong leader, you must have three things: inspiration, influence and impact.

It's the first part of the trio that Sharma circles back to again and again. When he's meeting with Camper, they spend a good chunk of time deconstructing the most inspiring piece of rhetoric in modern history, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. They play a recording of it together. They talk about its effective transitions from the "we" to the "I," from the collective to the personal.

From: "No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and right-eousness like a mighty stream."

To: "I have a dream today."

For decades, scholars have studied the power of this profoundly well-delivered address. Sharma and Camper are having a go, too, because in a few days, they will shoot an inspirational video featuring Sharma that they'll post online. So, why not learn from the best?

Explaining the approach, Sharma is, as ever, a study in earnestness. "People want to see others doing good," he says. "They want to see more humanity. They want to see more dignity."

I can't detect a cynical atom in this man. That said, I'm not sure what kind of currency that gives him in our culture. What do we value more, cynicism or earnestness?

Unlike me, Robin Sharma is un-equivocal. "Cynicism blocks exceptionalism." That's a Sharmaism you can take to the bank.

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