By anyone’s standards (even his own), Cisco CEO John Chambers has a great and enviable life.
He’s fabulously wealthy (paid $US21 million last year alone), flies around in his own private jet meeting with presidents and kings bringing tech to rich nations and impoverished countries alike.
But sometimes, he remembers being a young child whose teachers thought he wasn’t smart and wouldn’t go to college.
Chambers has dyslexia, a learning disability, and, years ago, he accidentally became a public spokesperson for it.
And he learned to overcome it and go to college. He has multiple degrees (a juris doctorate, bachelor’s, and an MBA).
But talking about dyslexia, even today, is still extremely painful, he told Business Insider.
BI: When you were younger did having dyslexia affect your self esteem?
John Chambers: Oh absolutely. In third and fourth grade, my teachers thought I may not go to college. I had two parents who were doctors and my mum was valedictorian in multiple classes. My parents always told me, “you’re smart” and that’s nice from love, but that’s not what you see.
If I hadn’t had a teacher, Mrs. Anderson, who helped me get through that time period — my parents found her.
This was before dyslexia or learning disabilities were understood. I had no role models.
BI: What made you start talking about it publicly?
JC: I accidentally disclosed it one time, during Taking Our Children to work, and I realised how many people in the room were dyslexic, not just kids, but parents, too. That’s why I became a spokesperson for it.
When one of your counterparts [another journalist] called me up and asked me to write an article about it, I at first said, no. Because even right now, when I talk about dyslexia, my hands sweat.
It makes uncomfortable because if you give me directions or I call the person the wrong name, or get their numbers mixed up — I can memorize numbers really well — but once I file it wrong, I’ll make the same wrong turn every time.
I don’t make fun of people. I call people by what they want to be called. What does your best friend call you? What does your spouse call you? It helps you emotionally connect to people.
BI: I’ve heard people say it can help a leader think outside the box. Is that true?
It would surprise you how many government and business leaders with dyslexia. Some people view it as a weakness and maybe it is. What dyslexia forces you to do, you don’t go A, B, C, D, E … to Z.
I can go A, B … Z with speed.
Because of my weakness I’ve learned other ways to accomplish the same goal with faster speed. So in maths, I can do equations faster by eliminating the wrong answers quicker than I can get the right answer.
It’s easy for me to see how a business proposition is going to play out, or who our next-generation competitors are, from taking this data point from this customer and another data point from another customer … and jump to Z. So it’s definitely an advantage.
It’s one of the reasons I talk to young people with dyslexia pretty regularly. You have to have role models.