Otto left this life two years ago, but his influence in my life is still constant and potent. I decided to write down the five most important lesson Otto taught me. Here are the 11 gems all competing for a spot in my top five.
- Never drink without a “clink.”
Otto loved to party, and until the last decade of his life, he liked to drink. He would never drink alone, however. He always said, “Never drink without a ‘clink’ (a toast and a tap of your friend’s glass).
The lesson here is to have fun and be with people—and for Otto, these things were synonymous.
- Always know who is beside you on the plane.
Otto loved to travel, and I can’t remember a single flight he ever took that he did not come back with a handful of business cards and slips of paper with people’s names, addresses (and birthdays) on them. Signed books would then be mailed, calls would be made and personal notes sent. He always made sure he met the people around him.
The lesson here is that life happens when you plug into the world–and the people–around you.
- Remember people’s birthdays.
Otto kept a palm-sized red address book in his front shirt pocket in which he kept the names, phone numbers and birthdays of the people in his life to whom he felt attached, and these people always got a personal call from him on their birthdays. Two years before he died, Otto told me that there were only two days out of the year on which no one in his orbit had a birthday; his book was full. But the other 363 days of the year found him making his birthday calls. One day had gotten up to 15 people with that birthday.
The lesson here is that if people are special to you, make sure they know it—remember them.
- Give trust readily.
Otto founded OKA and turned it into the premier Type training company in the world, yet when it came time for him to retire, he and I drew up the buy/sell agreement on three Post-It notes. “You take care of me, and the business is yours.” That was as complex as he wanted to make it. Throughout his life, he trusted deeply and readily.
The lesson here is that trusting people by default—in the end—wins more than it costs.
- Have grace—you’re already saved.
Otto was a practicing Lutheran minister for twenty years, and as a Lutheran and a true-believer, he felt deeply that God’s grace was always with us and unconditional. Forgiveness, love and support were not contingent on good or correct behavior—they were assured.
The lesson here is relax; you are already invited.
- Do what you are good at, and be good at what you do.
As OKA grew in scope and incorporated new tools and training designs (beyond Type and the MBTI), Otto was clear that he was not personally interested in taking on these tools. While at first I saw this as limiting and limited, I came to realize that Otto was completely committed to being the best at what he did, but this commitment to excellence was only possible when the areas of focus are chosen wisely and tightly.
The lesson is to find a focus and become really good–maybe even great.
- Take the work, but not yourself, seriously.
Otto was a skilled and sensitive facilitator. He mediated long-entrenched conflicts, counseled people to insights and dramatic breakthroughs, wrote best-selling books and engaged in research projects and longitudinal studies that deepened the field’s understanding of the MBTI’s connection to health, resilience, and college retention. While doing so, he showed up at client sites in shorts and crazy hats. He told dirty jokes and was most often concerned with getting you to laugh.
The lesson here is to take the work seriously, but not yourself.
- Be funny.
Within the last month, two separate people have remembered Otto to me, saying, “He was so funny.” People say this all the time. They don’t always remember what he said, but they do remember that he made them laugh.
The lesson here is that people will remember they laughed long after they forget what was funny. If you want to make an impact and to be remembered, be funny.
- Be honest—even when it hurts.
I was co-training with Otto, and in our five-day class was a participant who was taking up a significant amount of the group’s air-time. Asking many questions to which she already knew the answer, the participant seemed driven to display how much she already knew (or thought she knew) to the rest of the class. On a break, this tedious participant—seeking affirmation, support and praise—approached Otto and said, “I hope you don’t find all my questions irritating.” To which, Otto replied, “Do I find your questions irritating; do I find the fact that you are asking so many of them irritating, or do I find you irritating?” Otto was always quite direct in his feedback, asserting, “We teach self-awareness–we don’t help anyone if we don’t give honest feedback.”
The lesson here is that self-awareness can’t really happen without honest feedback. If I’m committed to your growth, I must tell you the truth—even when it is hard.
Otto loved the open agenda—pulling people together and collectively building an agenda on the spot–in the moment. He loved the experiential Type exercise, in which he would put people of similar preferences together and give them an assignment. Most of the time, Type being so powerful, the exercises unfolded as planned, but many times I saw bizarre data emerge, and Otto was always in the moment, trusting the process and the wisdom of both him and the group to learn from whatever came about.
The lesson here is to listen as much as you speak, to perceive as much as you judge–to plug in, listen, and trust the process.
- Never stop wondering and growing.
Even though he knew and wrote more about Type and the Myers-Briggs than anyone I ever knew, Otto did not know his Type. He validated ENFJ, but in reality, he did not know if his true preference was J or P. His behavior vacillated between the two, and from his first taking of the MBTI in 1968 to the final discussion I had with him in 2013, Otto continued to discuss, consider and re-consider his own hard-wired Type.
The lesson here is to stay curious, interested and open. Self-awareness is not a destination—it is a never-ending journey.
Otto, you’re not around, but you never leave me. Some of your wisdom I have integrated, and some I still just aspire to, but your life and insights continue to impact me and the many thousands you touched.