Motivational speaker Les Brown (born 1945) made his name encouraging others to overcome any odds that might stand in their way.
Les Brown has a dream, and he is living it. In 1986, broke and sleeping on the cold linoleum floor of his office, he began to pursue a career as a motivational speaker. By the early 1990s, he was one of the highest paid speakers in the nation. His company, Les Brown Unlimited, Inc., earned millions of dollars a year from his speaking tours and the sale of motivational tapes and materials. Brown's audience is wide: from Fortune 500 companies to automobile workers to prison inmates to special-education classes to ordinary individuals. His mission is to "get a message out that will help people become uncomfortable with their mediocrity," he explained to a reporter for Ebony magazine. "A lot of people are content with their discontent. I want to be a catalyst to enable them to see themselves having more and achieving more."
Brown's message works because "he kindles the warmth, humor, and well being in a society that's seen the gradual disintegration of families and mounting technology and alienation in industry," Maureen McDonald wrote in the Detroiter. Brown knows the function of the able individual in a worn community: he delivers not only nurturing words but money as well, donating 20 percent of his business revenues to fund drug prevention programs. His message also works, and for a stronger reason, because he is not an outsider, an academic who offers a theoretical prescription. "I can't lecture on something unless I am living it," Brown wrote in his 1992 bestseller Live Your Dreams. He connects with other people's lives-their misfortunes and missed opportunities-because he has been through it all and triumphed.
Leslie Calvin Brown and his twin brother, Wesley, were born on February 17, 1945, on the floor of an abandoned building in Liberty City, a low-income section of Miami, Florida. Their birth mother, married at the time to a soldier stationed overseas, had become pregnant by another man and went to Miami secretly to give birth to her sons. Three weeks later, she gave them away. At six weeks of age, both boys were adopted by Mamie Brown, a 38-year-old unmarried cafeteria cook and domestic. The importance of her entrance into his life, Brown concludes, was immeasurable. "Everything I am and everything I have I owe to my mother," he told Rachel L. Jones of the Detroit Free Press. "Her strength and character are my greatest inspiration, always have been and always will be."
The confidence that Brown's adoptive mother had in him, the belief that he was capable of greatness, was not shared by his teachers. As a child he found excitement in typical boyhood misadventures. He liked to have fun, and he liked attention. Overactive and mischievous, Brown was a poor student because he was unable to concentrate, especially in reading. His restlessness and inattentiveness, coupled with his teachers' insufficient insight into his true capabilities, resulted in his being labeled "educably mentally retarded" in the fifth grade. It was a label he found hard to remove, in large part because he did not try. "They said I was slow so I held to that pace," he recounted in his book.
Teacher Encouraged Him
A major lesson Brown imparts early in Live Your Dreams is that "there comes a time when you have to drop your burdens in order to fight for yourself and your dreams." It was another significant figure in Brown's early life who awakened his listless consciousness and brought about this awareness: LeRoy Washington, a speech and drama instructor at Booker T. Washington High School in Miami. While in high school, Brown "used to fantasize being onstage speaking to thousands of people," he related to Jones, "and I used to write on pieces of paper, 'I am the world's greatest orator."'
But it wasn't until he encountered Washington that he truly learned of the sound and power of eloquent speech to stir and motivate. Brown related in his book that when he once told Washington in class that he couldn't perform a task because he was educably mentally retarded, the instructor responded, "Do Not Ever Say That Again! Some-one's opinion of you does Not have to become Your reality." Those words provided Brown's liberation from his debilitating label. "The limitations you have, and the negative things that you internalize are given to you by the world," he wrote of his realization. "The things that empower you-the possibilities-come from within."
Employed after high school as a city sanitation worker, but determined to achieve what he desired-perhaps for the first time in his life-Brown pursued a career in radio broadcasting. He had been enthralled throughout his life with the almost music-like patter of disc jockeys, so he repeatedly bothered the owner of a local radio station about a position until the owner relented. Having no experience, Brown was hired to perform odd jobs. Firmly intent on becoming a deejay, he learned all he could about the workings of a radio station. One day, when a disc jockey became drunk on the air and Brown was the only other person at the station, he filled in at the microphone. Impressed, the owner of the station promoted Brown to part-time and then full-time disc jockey.
In the late 1960s, Brown moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he had a top-rated radio program, and was eventually given added duties as broadcast manager. Here his world widened. He became more socially conscious and more of an activist, urging his listeners to political action. Part of the motivation behind this fervor came from Mike Williams, the station's news director and an activist who would eventually oversee Brown's motivational speaking tours and programs. "I thought he was a master communicator," Williams told Cheryl Lavin of the Chicago Tribune. "I knew it was a gift. I saw him as an international figure. I saw him in very large situations, moving audiences." But the owners of the radio station thought Brown was becoming too controversial of a figure. He was fired.
Became Ohio Legislator
Urged on by Williams, Brown ran for the Ohio State Legislature, winning the seat of the 29th House District. In his first year, he passed more legislation than any other freshman representative in Ohio legislative history. In his third term, he served as chair of the Human Resources Committee. But he had to leave the state house in 1981 in order to care for his ailing mother in Florida. While in Miami, continuing his focus on social issues, Brown developed a youth career training program and held community meetings, speaking out on social injustice.
Again, controversies arose around him. The Dade County state's attorney general investigated his handling of the youth program. After a year, during which time Brown openly invited any inquiry, the case was dropped: no improprieties were found. The motivating factor behind the criticisms, Brown believed, was jealousy. "A lot of people felt threatened and offended because I came on very strong," he told Jones, "and I had an instant following they couldn't get." This effect was not lost on Brown. Encouraged again by Williams and by a chance encounter with motivational millionaire Zig Ziglar, who was earning $10,000 for one-hour talks, Brown decided to become a motivational speaker.
"Life takes on meaning when you become motivated, set goals, and charge after them in an unstoppable manner," Brown wrote in Live Your Dreams. It is a maxim he learned well. When he entered the motivational speaking arena in the mid-1980s, he had virtually nothing, having moved to Detroit with his clothes and just one tape of his motivational speeches. He rented an office that he shared with an attorney. He worked hard and always seemed to be the first one there in the morning and the last one there at night. Indeed, he never left the office, having to sleep on the cold floor because he could not afford an apartment. But he welcomed this ascetic lifestyle. "I didn't even want a blanket or a pallet on the floor," he explained to Jones. "I wanted it to be hard and cold so it would motivate me to keep striving. I didn't want to get soft."
Became "The Motivator"
Brown read books on public speaking and studied the habits of established speakers. He first spoke to grade school students, then high school students. Clubs and organizations followed. Less than four years later, in 1989, he received the National Speakers Association's highest award-the Council of Peers Award of Excellence-becoming the first African American to receive such an honor. He was known in professional circles as "The Motivator."
"Victories can become obstacles to your development if you unconsciously pause too long to savor them," Brown wrote in his book. "Too many people interpret success as sainthood. Success does not make you a great person; how you deal with it decides that. You must not allow your victories to become ends unto themselves." His goal was not just to win awards, but to inspire people to pursue their own goals.
In 1990, Brown reached for a wider audience by recording the first in a series of motivational speech presentations for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS-TV). He conducted motivational training sessions not only for executives of corporations such as American Telephone and Telegraph, General Electric, and Procter & Gamble, but also for prison inmates and-remembering his own back-ground-for special education students in high schools. "We all have a responsibility to give something back," he told a reporter for Upscale. "I am who I am because of the relationships I have developed, because of the people who have enriched my life."
Brown details his life and the relationships that have helped shape it in his book Live Your Dreams. Much more than a simple autobiography, the book, which is divided into ten chapters followed by written exercises in a built-in workbook, focuses on areas of personal deficiency-such as fear, inattentiveness, and laziness-as well as on areas of personal value, such as self-knowledge, courage, and dreams. Brown makes vague, personal faults understandable and ambitious virtues attainable by elaborating on them through personal or historical narratives that are almost parable-like. He moves easily between the ordinary and the extraordinary to emphasize his point. For instance, a discussion about a boy who was scared of a bulldog that constantly chased him until he realized the dog lacked teeth might be followed on the next page by a discussion of how basketball superstar Michael Jordan handles the pressures of being a public persona.
To prove a maxim, Brown links the worldly with the mundane. In Live Your Dreams, he retells the stories of Terry Anderson, the Associated Press correspondent held hostage for seven years by Shiite Muslims, and that of an anonymous young boy who had to fight a neighborhood bully on a school bus. For further reinforcement, Brown sprinkles quotes throughout from historical figures such as former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, American nature writer Henry David Thoreau, and German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and from personal figures such as teacher LeRoy Washington and his own mother, Mamie.
The book's idealistic tone is tempered by an acceptance of life's realities. "You will be cruising along, knocking them dead, in full synchronization-and then you'll hit the speed bumps," Brown wrote. "You miss a bus. Your paycheck bounces. Your car won't start. That's life. Maybe it is set up that way so that we learn and grow." Brown knows this firsthand and that is his point: he has faced life's obstacles and has been inspired to overcome them in quest of his own dreams, so he tries to inspire those whose dreams are similarly thwarted by life's misadventures.
"I am intrigued by the concept of selling people on their own greatness with the same fervor that Madison Avenue sells them on the wondrous attributes of Nike athletic shoes, Chevy trucks, and Calvin Klein jeans," Brown wrote in Live Your Dreams. "What if our young people heard encouragement to dream and strive as many times a day as they are exhorted to drink Dr. Pepper or to go to the land of Mickey Mouse?" Brown got his chance to answer this question and share his philosophies with his widest audience ever when his own television talk show, the Les Brown Show, debuted in the fall of 1993. It was short-lived, despite receiving good ratings. The program, which was Brown's most ambitious project to date, was syndicated by King World, the same company that distributes the popular Oprah program. "I think people are ready to be entertained and inspired and I want to make them feel good about themselves," he explained to Jefferson Graham of USA Today. "I want to use TV in a way in which it's never been used before-to empower people."
Books Became Best-Sellers
On August 29, 1995, Brown married Gladys Knight, the famous soul singer, in a private ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada. They both had been married previously and between them had ten children and seven gradnchildren. The next year, Brown released his next book, It's Not Over Until You Win!: How to Become the Person You Always Wanted to Be-No Matter What the Obstacle, which covered a wide array of topics ranging from his marriage to the quality of television. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, "This volume successfully translates Brown's natural charisma from the podium to the page." His two books together sold more than half a million copies.
After the cancellation of his television show, Brown briefly went to work for radio station WRKS in New York then, in October of 1996, was hired on as morning host at WBLS, also in New York. However, in May of 1997 he announced that he would be leaving his job to spend more time on his speaking career and to undergo treatments for prostate cancer. He and Knight announced the next month that they were divorcing due to irreconcilable differences, though he claimed the two would remain friendly.
Into 1998, Brown's empire remained strong; he was reaping about $4.5 million per year from speaking engagements and television appearances. His Detroit-based firm continued to serve high-profile clients such as Chrysler, 3M, and Xerox Corporation. "Downsizing trends and the changing global market require people to reinvent themselves and think like entrepreneurs," Brown stated in Black Enterprise. In addition, Brown was branching out to train future public speakers, concentrating on promoting the field to more minorities.
Further Reading on Les Brown
Black Enterprise, April 1998, p. 83.
Booklist, November 15, 1996, p. 546.
Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1991; April 13, 1992.
Detroiter, September 1991.
Detroit Free Press, November 5, 1992.
Ebony, October 1990.
EM, May 1992.
Essence, March 1993.
Herald-News (Joliet, IL), May 13, 1990.
Jet, November 27, 1995, p. 58; May 12, 1997, p. 35; June 23, 1997, p. 35.
Publishers Weekly, November 11, 1996, p. 65.
Upscale, August/September 1992.
USA Today, January 25, 1993.