There are all kinds of leaders in the world from every walk of life doing great things to make the world a better place. In early 2019 I came across a post by Matt Gerber about suicide, and after reading it, I instantly knew this was someone I wanted to interview, so I began to do my research on him and what he was doing. The first thing I discovered was his almost lifelong involvement in Rotary, but honestly, I didn't know what Rotary is, and if you are like me, you may not either.
"Rotary is a global network of 1.2 million neighbors, friends, leaders, and problem-solvers who see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change - across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves…From literacy and peace to water and health, we are always working to better our world, and we stay committed to the end." To learn more about Rotary, visit their website. https://www.rotary.org/en
From getting involved in Rotary at age 15, Matt has founded Rotary programs, served as founding Rotaract Club president in college, has been a mentor, guest speaker, keynote presenter, and served on committees. For more than 25 years, Rotary has been a consistent and significant part of Matt's life purpose, and he has served that purpose around the world, spending time in 70+ countries.
As sometimes happens when I reach out to someone to do an interview, even though they accept, for a variety of reasons, it may never come to fruition. When I never heard back from Matt, I figured it was not meant to be and moved on. When I received an email more than a year later, I was surprised, but I was even more interested in knowing what he had been doing.
When Matt Gerber wrote on his LinkedIn profile, "The world has changed fast…" I know he could have never imagined how much. I am grateful and consider myself privileged to have had Matt not only answer my questions about his service in Rotary and thought on leadership but also share the personal challenges he has faced.
Let's start with you desire to serve. Where did that come from?
As a small child, I was surrounded by service. Although my father worked three jobs to support our family, and my mother was raising four children, they both found time to give back to our small community. I also spent a great deal of time with my grandmother, who, despite being on a limited-income herself, often volunteered at the local foodbank: packing custom boxes of food and delivering them to the elderly and disabled individuals in the community who could not do their own shopping.
This desire to serve was later reinforced by receiving a scholarship from The Ford Family Foundation (TFFF), which encouraged education and service among youth from Oregon's poorest and most rural communities. During the four years I was at George Fox University, I realized what a gift TFFF had given me and what responsibility and desire I now had to live a life of service to others.
It is estimated based on surveys that between 25-30 percent of Americans volunteer. That seems low; why do you think that is?
It's great that you bring this up. I was reading an article about the importance of volunteering for our longevity and happiness. (See "Do Good, Live Longer: Volunteering May Add Years To Lifespan, Improves Overall Well-Being,")
I think there are few different factors at play. First, I don't think people realize how easy it is to volunteer. It could be as simple as a few hours on a Saturday afternoon to pack boxes of food for the local food bank. It might be deciding to take a day of your vacation to find an opportunity to give back to the local community. I like to do this when I travel overseas: I search online for local orphanages, reach out to ask what supplies they are most in need of, then fill a suitcase of donations to leave there. Without exception, these days visiting the orphanages, bringing needed supplies and playing with the kids, are always the most satisfying day of the vacation.
Second, I don't think people realize how personally fulfilling it is to volunteer. We usually think of the recipient of the good deed as being the beneficiary of volunteerism, but the person volunteering is likely to experience a euphoria that can only be felt when doing something selfless for someone else, and feeling intimately connected with the community. Our society is seeing a growing crisis of loneliness and mental health issues, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and can readily be addressed by the simple act of volunteering.
What if we taught volunteerism and social action in schools?
I have always approached my own life, and individuals on teams that I lead, through the acknowledgment that our lives are not neatly compartmentalized. Your mental health impacts your physical health, how you interact with others shows how you treat yourself, the most important headlines to read are not those which are shown on the news—but the messages we are constantly giving ourselves. I believe that regular acts of volunteerism and exposing children to diverse communities and people/cultures/ideas would be transformative for our society. Social action is a natural outcome of empathy and realizing that regardless of if an individual is on a higher or lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder, we are all part of the same community. By raising children to see adults around them prioritizing volunteerism and demonstrating a thoughtfulness about social justice, we start creating generations of adults for whom this mindset and activity is second nature.
As part of your involvement in Rotary and your service, you have lived and traveled all over the world, what has been the biggest cultural surprise for you?
I would have to say Pakistan. Last year I was helping an international I.T. company build and implement a CSR strategy across their global workforce. I received several stories of the employees in Islamabad, Pakistan, taking it upon themselves to plant trees, feed orphans, and educate slum children. I wanted to go see for myself. Although Pakistan is one of the poorest and most struggling countries in the world, I marveled at how caring citizens had organized themselves to help their communities. It became an example that I sought to replicate through the rest of the company. I would also have to say that out of some 75 countries I have visited, the Pakistanis were undoubtedly the more warm and welcoming I have ever experienced.
What is the biggest misconception you think the average American has about foreign countries and cultures?
Americans often mistake the poor economic conditions of other countries for lack of motivation to improve their lives. This is not the case. A single mother working 10 hour days, six days a week at a garment factory in Bangladesh is doing this to feed her family, and because there was probably no gainful employment in the village she is from. Their people are doing their best to survive with the resources they have. We often forget how fortunate in the United States we are to have paths to educate ourselves and improve our future.
The thing that initially intrigued me and made me want to interview you was the article you wrote on depression; Three Tips Save Life. You shared a personal experience in your struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide, how are you doing today?
I appreciate you asking. I consider myself fortunate to have gone through the dark times that I did. Without those moments, I would have never learned the resilience or developed the insight that I have today. When you "fake it" for so long, you realize that you can never judge other people by the face they are presenting. I often didn't have the option to slow down to understand or deal with the causes of my depression, so it just continued to build. With a lot of love and kindness from people who care about me, I emerged from the toughest chapter of my life, and can now offer empathy when I encounter others struggling.
The cause and effect of mental illness are different for everyone. Was there a trigger for you, or has it always been a part of who you are?
I have generally been a pretty happy and confident person for most of my life. However, I was very inexperienced in relationships when I settled down and got married. I didn't come out until my late 20s and married my third boyfriend. Not a great recipe to understand who you are, individually or what you bring to a relationship. I had to grow up very quickly in that relationship. Oddly, I grew up in a family that was more supportive of marriage equality than of divorce. When things got bad, I felt like I was stuck. It was only when I spent the night on the floor of a county crisis shelter; I realized that I had given away my power to be safe, happy, and fulfilled. This realization was the start of getting myself out of this dark tunnel, but it took nearly two years to make the changes I needed to be whole and healthy.
We have come so far in the understanding and treatment of mental illness, but as you point out, there is still an internal and external-stigma. How do we overcome that, and are we able to?
The hardest part about feeling sad or depressed is feeling isolated: you feel like you are the only person you know who has ever felt this down and lost. Our society looks down on people who don't seem to "have it all together," but the truth is, no one does. We are all just doing our best. No one is immune from feeling overwhelmed, feeling doubt about their future, or uncertainty about where the world is going. Our societies felt increasingly isolated—even before COVID-19—but now it is an even harder place to find connection and solace through genuine friendship. Those of us who have struggled with this have an opportunity to normalize the conversation and talking about how we found our way into—and out of—depression.
What role does physical health play, if any, in your well being?
Physical activity is fundamental to my mental health. When I first came to Dallas five years ago, it was to start and run a charity for veterans struggling with PTSD, suicide, and addiction, to find new careers as elite personal trainers. The community, health, and purpose that fitness can offer and help ease the hardest moments of life and build our resilience. I was already inspired by how fitness had transformed my personal confidence and self-image. I recently learned that in ancient Greece, philosophers would actually do their teaching in the gymnasiums. It was believed that the health of the body and health of the mind both needed to be developed in tandem. I think that our lives that are increasingly taking place in front of digital screens has the risk of overlooking the essential natural of physical health in promoting mental wellness.
In volunteering and responding to tragedies around the world, you see human suffering at its worst. How do you handle it?
Going back to your last question, I always practice a fitness routine when I travel. In 2018, I traveled to Palu, Indonesia, after a major earthquake and tsunami decimated the northwest corner of the island of Sulawesi. Towns flattened, thousands dead and missing, no functioning infrastructure—it was worse than any war zone I had ever seen. By having a little quiet time to myself in the morning before my day starts, I always try to find my internal equilibrium so I can give the most to others. Also, going back to your earlier question about mental health, I would love to highlight how giving back to others can help us out of the darkest moments of our lives. This helps us shift our perspective away from our own problems to the needs of others and puts our personal dramas in the context of being part of our shared human condition.
Under the worst circumstances, we often also see the best of people's humanity. What has been the most significant experience or thing you have seen?
I believe that most people, at their core, are hardwired to be compassionate. When we see a stranger in genuine distress, a child crying, or a distant country being decimated by natural disasters, our hearts break. I shared what it was like in Palu, Indonesia, after the earthquake and tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of people displaced, tens of thousands of people missing or dead, and more than 75,000 children in dire need of clear water and food… all of this was set against a backdrop of complete physical destruction. And yet, amidst the rubble and continued aftershocks, the local residents were not waiting on international aid to reach their remote community. After working their long and exhausting days in law enforcement, I met a group of police officers who organized their own search and rescue teams to go out on their own time. These officers ventured into the rugged terrains to find communities that had been cut off in the disaster. They were not waiting for the government or NGOs to come to the rescue; they were part of a community where neighbors take care of each other.
I believe we are all leaders regardless of our title, position, economic or social standing because we all influence others. What are your thoughts?
I definitely believe every person has the capacity to be a leader. However, I don't think everyone realizes their ability to—as you described perfectly—influence others. These actions or influences don't have to challenge long-held prejudices or start a highly visible endeavor. I think leadership can be demonstrated even if we are the only person around, and there is no one for us to influence. It all starts with how we show up in our own lives, how we show up in the lives of others, and how we show up to the greater community. When I am by myself, I want my thoughts, words, and actions to be the same in private as they would be if I had an audience. Some people would call this act of consistency to be a reflection of "character" and "integrity." Trying to live the fulness of my potential, and creating a space for others to find that for themselves, is the start of great leadership to me.
Tell me about Matt, the person, who are you, and how have you grown into the man you are?
I don't think I could explain this as well as I can show it. This 20-minute video, at www.MyRotaryJourney.org, looks back on some pivotal moment early in my life that directly shaped who I am and continue to be my north star for where I am heading.
I didn't see it on your bio, were you in the military; you have the look of a military person.
I get that a lot, actually. I come from a military family, my father served for 43 years, and I was raised with the armed forces being a very significant part of my life. As a young boy, I saw the military as just one of the many outlets my father had for leadership, service, and community.
Have you had a mentor, someone you admire or look up to?
I have had so many. I had a mentor at George Fox University, Dr. David Brandt, who was the school president. We would meet for breakfast every other week during my senior year and the following year to talk about life, leadership, and what it means to step into the world with courage and humility.
What brings you joy?
Story-listening and storytelling. I am captivated by the diversity of human experiences and the capacity of individuals to be resilient in the face of trauma and an increasingly complex and fast-paced world. When I travel, or even volunteering here in the U.S., I am constantly listening for people who want to tell their own story. It can be a life-changing act of generosity and love toward a stranger when you hold space for them, listen actively, and show them how much their sharing means to you. I feel it is a great responsibility to then re-tell those stories, especially bringing those narratives from developing countries back to Europe and North American audiences. I realize how blessed I am to meet these people and see their cultures, and I am always eager to share their stories.
Besides humanitarian aid, what other social issues or causes are important to you?
You are right; humanitarian aid is a big passion of mine, especially keeping families together who have lost everything in natural disasters and conflicts (check out www.ShelterBoxUSA.org). The bigger picture that I am interested in is the resilience of people and communities to overcome extraordinary challenges. Understanding what makes a person (or their nation) vulnerable or strong in the face of adversity is the first step in making the global community a place where more people can thrive. There is a mindset that seems to espouse the idea that there is only a limited about of wealth, success, and opportunity in the world—and some people are simply unlucky to have been born in a place where they cannot easily be part of that but I disagree. While there are built-in advantages and disadvantages to where we ended up in the lottery of humanity, I believe it is possible to create a system whereby people in every stratum of society can change their circumstances and write their own, new story.
What don't people know about you?
Two things. First, people see me at the gym, and they immediately think they know my story. They see my 6-ft-6, 245 lbs frame moving with focus from one exercise to the next, and they presume I am a gym rat who has probably dedicated his whole life to the working out. What they do not know, and cannot imagine, is the young man I once was: too skinny and self-conscious ever to take off my shirt in public or in front of anyone. They don't see the 10+ years of relentless diet and training or the catastrophic physical setbacks I had with Dengue Fever and Parsonage-Turner Syndrome. Truth be told, my workouts are an ongoing form of physical therapy.
The second thing that people don't know about me is I'm working on a top-secret project. The goal is to provide access to a university degree (associates, bachelor, or even higher) to one billion people who would not otherwise have it. In the same way, we experienced the tech bubble in the early 2000s, and the housing crisis in 2008, I believe COVID-19 is accelerating a dramatic reimagining of higher education—who has access to it, to what extent does it truly prepare an individual for life success, and how we add this value to people's lives without saddling them with student loans they will be paying off for decades. People mostly know me for my CSR work, humanitarian projects, and public speaking. But behind the scenes, I am pursuing my greatest passion: creating a space for individuals to reach their potential, who will then pay it forward to transform the lives of others in their families and communities. I know that isn't very specific, but I would love to share with you more about it in the future.
Can one person change the world?
I think it is unavoidable: we all have some net impact on the world, whether it is easily measurable or not. The real question is: are we living with clarity about who we are, and intentionality about how we share our gifts with the world? For me, the most fulfilling work I have ever been part of focuses on giving people the tools and courage to explore what they can uniquely offer the world continually.
We live in a world of plenty, often even excess, yet so many lack even the basics. How do we raise people up, level things if you will?
I think we are already seeing that shift now. The trifecta of crises—pandemic, economic instability, and social unrest—has forced people to slow down and think about what is truly important to them. For those who have embraced this moment, we have turned the autopilot off and started listening better to our lives. For some, this moment of insight will be fleeting, but for others, they see themselves and their place in the world with fresh eyes. Part of this will be an inevitable self-audit of what it is that we value and are working toward (some people have never really slowed down to answer that). I think in the years to follow, we will be able to look back on 2020 and see just how transformative this was for our society. Millennials had already embraced the idea that the wealth that matters is measured in experiences and flexibility of lifestyle (less workaholic than previous generations), rather than what a person owns or how much money they make. We are all questioning the assumptions about our lives and how we define success now. I think that introspection will afford us a more appreciative view of how fortunate our lives are.
Is there a leader you think gets what great leadership is all about?
When I think about who I look up to as a leader, citizen, visionary, husband, father, and human being—there is no question that Don MacPherson comes to mind first. He was the CEO of Modern Survey, which helped companies measure and amplify authentic and engaged workplaces. He sold that company a few years ago and started 12 Geniuses, where he interviews thought leaders and innovators across many sectors. Don takes these subject matter experts and draws out of the universal ideas about leadership that we can all apply to our lives.
Perhaps some of the most important words anyone has ever spoken to me were from Don. It was in that very bleak chapter of my life I shared at the start of this conversation when I was sitting across from Don and his partner Michelle, dear friends of mine from when I lived in Minneapolis. I had just opened up to Don and Michelle about the tumultuous chapter of my life when I struggled with suicidal thoughts. I was crying. Don leaned in as he spoke: "I'm glad you made it through those tough times. The world needs you, Matt." And that's just how Don is (and Michelle too). Whether he is coaching CEOs or mentoring inner-city youth, Don's empathy and insight communicate this to each person he meets, often when they need to hear it most: "The world needs you."
Where are you headed to next?
This summer, I started a dual-doctorate program in Switzerland. Once international travels resumes, I’ll visit some of the 130+ affiliated universities in 50+ countries as part of my research and teaching. In the meantime, I will continue consulting, Rotary, ShelterBox, and I have just been invited to join the team at Culture Global Labs.
Connect with Matt via social media:
Learn more about ShelterBox
Learn more about Global Culture Labs
In the United States, 6,000 to 7,000 new cases of Hodgkin Lymphoma are diagnosed each year.
At age 13, Sean Swarner was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and went through months of intensive treatment and beats it only to be diagnosed two years later with Askin's sarcoma. With a prognosis of fourteen days to live, and being in a medically-induced coma for a year, Sean is the only known person to have both types of Cancer and yet beats the odds.
A decade later, with only one functioning lung, Sean becomes the first cancer survivor to climb Mount Everest. But Everest was just the beginning, Sean also completed the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, HI, and on April 11, 2017, and completed a trek to the North Pole
I had the privilege to talk to Sean about his experience, books, and thoughts on leadership.
"Anything is possible, and there's always good in every bad situation," Swarner said. "Cancer is probably one of, if not the worst thing that's ever happened to me, but in the same breath, it's one of the best things that's ever happened to me. Life's all about perspective."
As we do this interview, we are in the midst of a pandemic not seen in modern times. What are your thoughts, how has this pandemic affected you personally?
My initial thoughts go to all the people affected directly by this virus. I've had friends on the "front line" as doctors and nurses who have told me they feel like they're going to war without any armor or ammo. I've also had friends who have had it and recovered, thankfully. I'm staying away from everyone except my wife because there's no telling what could happen to a guy with one lung. It's affected me personally because I'm a professional keynote speaker, and all of the conferences where I was booked to speak have canceled until the end of September. As of right now, I'm building an online program for cancer survivors as well as professionals and anyone else who wants to join. Here's a great video explaining how we're actually in control, not the virus:
Learn how you can control fear and anxiety from two-time terminal cancer survivor Sean Swarner. Learn three solid steps that will help you every day.
If you want to add more positivity to your life, go to www.StepUpAfterCancer.com to sign up for a free StepUP Sunday weekly message giving you everything you need to keep motivated, overcome fear and have a successful week!
That is a great video, thanks for sharing. You were athletic before your cancer diagnosis and continued to have that passion and drive, where did the idea to tie your athletic ability and sense of adventure to your cancer experience come from?
It came from when I was working toward my doctorate in psychology, and I was being pulled away from my personal core values. Long story short, I was working three jobs while taking classes and had an incident that changed my life. I realized I had drifted a long way from my roots in Willard, Ohio. I was being pulled in the wrong direction, and after re-evaluating my values, thinking about my cancer history, and deciding I needed something else, I wanted to give back and help. I kept coming up with bigger and bigger platforms to share my story of hope, and eventually landed on the highest one in the world… Everest.
Clearly you found your calling and could recognize it. Your first book is KEEP CLIMBING: HOW I BEAT CANCER AND REACHED THE TOP OF THE WORLD, what was the catalyst for writing it?
I don't think I have met anyone that has not been touched by Cancer in some way, that is very noble of you to do. You are putting out a series of books called 7 SUMMITS TO SUCCESS, what do the seven summits represent?
The idea came from the actual mountains and my expeditions… 7 continents, 7 highest summits. During my years of professional keynote speaking, I've been developing countless stories that have embedded lessons people can take and use in their daily lives. There was one presentation in particular where I was speaking in front of a room full of CEOs, Presidents, etc, and I was talking about climbing up to the summit of Mt. Everest. I was at 29,000 feet (nearly the altitude where jumbo jets level off and fly) trying to breathe with one lung and relating it back to "normal" life. Then it struck me… no one in the room has any idea what I'm talking about because they never experienced that before. People love the story, they love the adventure, but the takeaways are what matter. People will forget what you tell them, but they'll never forget how you make them feel. I decided that not only could I relate my adventures to everyday life by reflecting back to my cancers, my college experience, and other lower altitude adventures, but I could also make people feel incredibly empowered. The books are an extension of my presentation with a LOT more detail. There was a lesson I learned on every mountain, and those lessons are embedded within the book. Through micro-changes and challenges, people can accomplish anything. This is a guide in how to do that.
I love that and believe that there is so much to learn from the experience of others. That connection and ability to relate really can make a difference. Much of what you do requires working with a team, and you often put your life in the hands of that team, how do you choose those who help you achieve your goals?
Easy. We're all focused on one thing – enjoying the moment. No one has a crystal ball to see into the future and the present moment is all we have. Obviously it helps to prepare for the future, but truly enjoying what we have is key. Anyone who's negative need not apply, because attitude is contagious, and if you have an infection, I'd rather it be a positive one than a negative one. I surround myself with people who are focused on all the things we CAN do, and how we can get it done, as opposed to all the obstacles that could potentially get in our way.
Attitude makes all the difference. What has been the most challenging adventure for you; why?
Honestly, getting my story out to the world. People resonate with it, however, I was speaking with a Hollywood producer once who said it had everything for a feature film. The drama, the romance, the excitement, adventure… everything. To which I replied, "I'm sorry I didn't die to make it more exciting." He laughed but continued telling me that if I would have died, this would have been a better story. So I think the hardest adventure is fighting against the negativity of the world.
Wow, that is awful, but honestly, I am not surprised. It can be a challenge; I think our society focuses on the negative more than the positive. All you have to do is watch the news, and you see that. Has there been anyone that you looked up to as a leader or a mentor?
Of course. I couldn't have done what I have without proper guidance. Just like Cancer… it's not an individual disease. My entire family went through it. My brother, my mom, my dad. We were all pulled through a horrible experience. Imagine if you had a 16 year old son and you were told he had an expiration date of 14 days? How would you feel? I have a couple of people I look up to and bounce ideas off of. They're tremendously successful in all areas of life, and I'm fortunate to have their guidance.
You are so right when you say it is not an individual disease, and I have been in that position when a doctor tells you someone you love may only have days or a week to live.
Where do your motivation and inspiration come from?
That's easy… anyone going through a difficult time. Every single person who's ever been touched by Cancer. Everywhere I go (vacation, presentations, climbing, adventures, etc) I do my best to visit local hospitals and hear the stories of the patients and share mine with them. I think we inspire each other.
What advice or words of encouragement do you give to others who are facing a battle with Cancer?
Make every day count, never give up hope, always reach for the summit. Bad days are temporary and embrace the good days. Also, depending on their personal situation, lots of humor. Laughing helps a lot.
TRUE NORTH VIDEO
Sean Swarner is the first cancer survivor to summit Mt. Everest and conquer the highest peaks on each continent. Two years ago, he began his quest to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, which includes the North and South poles.
I believe we are all leaders because we influence others in one way or another having an impact on them whether we realize it or not. I would certainly say you are a leader, but what are your thoughts on that?
I honestly think one person can make a difference in the world. It's like the pebble in the lake analogy… toss a pebble in there and the ripples can spread across the entire lake. Our lives are so connected; we'll never know the full extent of those we impact.
That is a great analogy, and I believe that and have always said that you must make a conscious decision about what kind of leader you want to be. Looking back on your journey and knowing what you know now, what is one piece of advice you would have given yourself along the way?
Stay true to your personal core values. Those are the guiding compass to your true north. I've actually developed a Core Values Assessment if anyone's interested: email@example.com email me.
I know I am interested! No leader is perfect, but what do you think is the biggest mistake any leader can make?
The first thing that comes to mind is, thinking he/she knows everything/more than those being led. We all have the capacity to become better, and through feedback from others, we can focus on self-improvement. We'll never know everything, and we can always become better today than we were yesterday.
What is your next adventure?
Hopefully, I can get the corporate support and funding for a campaign to run 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days. it's all planned out; we are going to film it, we just need that support. Maybe after the virus is gone, this would be a tremendous way to unite the world?
I like to end my interviews with a quote, do you have a favorite?
I have a lot of favorites, actually. One that I share in my keynote talks: The human body can live roughly 30 days without food. The human condition can sustain itself for about 3 days without water. But no human can survive for more than 30 seconds without hope.
That is a great quote! Thank you so much for doing this interview with me.
Sean has a private online program available helping people transform a traumatic experience into an empowering life event. To get more info, email Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sean graduated from Willard High School in Willard, Ohio, in 1993, and Westminster College in 1997. Amazon recently posted a film about his recent expedition to the north pole. He established his own foundation (The Cancer Climber Association), which promotes cancer awareness and entirely funds a survivor's trip to Africa.
Sean was voted one of the top 8 most inspirational people in history and was the recipient of the Don't Ever Give Up Award presented by the Jimmy V Foundation and ESPN and was featured on ESPN in a 10-minute segment on his life story and struggle.
To learn more about Sean, visit: