Sean Murray of RealTime Performance: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
17 min readSep 18, 2022


Be direct, honest and timely. I’ve always found that people respect when a leader delivers difficult news if they believe the message is authentic and they are hearing it directly from the leader. One of the most common mistakes young leaders make is they believe they can delay delivering difficult news, but in my experience, waiting never makes it easier and usually makes things worse.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Murray.

Sean Murray is the founder and president of RealTime Performance, a leadership training and organization development firm based in Seattle, Washington. He creates and delivers learning experiences for clients, including courses on Leadership, Decision Making, Business Acumen, Time Management, Well-Being, and Leading in the Age of AI. Sean is also the host of a weekly podcast called The Good Life, where he interviews authors and business professionals on leadership and how to get the most out of life. He writes regularly for his blog, RealTime Performance, and publishes a bi-weekly newsletter, “Murray on Leadership.” He co-authored the book, The 5A’s Framework: Getting More from Your Investment in Training.

Sean’s father Don Murray was a pioneer in leadership and organizational development who worked with the Men’s Volleyball 1984 Olympic gold-winning team. Sean’s interest in his father’s stories about the team (he even attended their matches as a 13-year-old at the 1984 Olympics) drove him to research the team’s road to success. He chronicled their struggles and triumphs in If Gold Is Our Destiny: How a Team of Mavericks Came Together for Olympic Glory, published by Rowman and Littlefield. Sean is the first author to provide an in-depth look at the team’s evolution from the early 1980s through the Olympics, and its groundbreaking team-building approach and lessons learned along the way.

Previously, Sean worked for GE Capital at the Center for Learning & Organizational Excellence. Sean began his career in sales and marketing for Quando, a Portland, Oregon-based start-up providing event information online. Sean received his MBA from the University of Oregon and a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Puget Sound.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

When I graduated from college, I wanted to travel a bit before I started my career, but I didn’t have any money and wasn’t sure how to pull it off. The Spring semester of my senior year, I was walking though the student union and a cruise ship company was recruiting students to be tour guides and bus drivers in Alaska for the summer. I signed on, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. They trained me how to drive a bus, taught me all about Alaska and its history, and a week after graduation they flew me to Alaska and I began giving tours. I learned so many great skills. First, to be a good tour guide you have to be a performer. I learned how to tell stories about Alaska and its incredible history and natural wonders, but I also had to be an entertainer and keep people laughing and engaged. I also learned how to deal with people and all their different personalities. Very quickly I was promoted from giving three-hour tours around the city of Fairbanks, to giving seven-day tours from Fairbanks to Skagway and back. These tours were 1,100 miles each way, and I was driving a group of 40 tourists across some of the most remote highways in the United States. There were long stretches that weren’t paved, and we could go hours without seeing another car. It was my introduction to leadership. I had to learn how to solve problems. No one was going to helicopter in and save me. I also learned I liked to present and teach. That insight eventually pointed me toward a career in leadership development and training. I still draw on some of my experiences in Alaska when I teach leadership today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

To help pay for college, I got a job during the summer painting traffic lines on the street. I was assigned to a two-man crew with a full-time city employee, and we worked nights, going from one intersection to the next. We painted the large white turn arrows you see in the turn-lane at busy intersections. And occasionally we would paint the word, “ONLY,” to signify it was a designated turn lane.

My job was to lay down the stencils while my partner spray-painted. The word “ONLY” was actually four different stencils, one for each letter, and I would lay them out in sequence while my partner painted each letter.

One day our boss called us in his office and asked us if we painted a certain intersection. We told him, yes, we had painted that intersection. Then he handed us a Polaroid, taken by a concerned citizen, of the intersection in question. In the turn lane, we could see a beautiful white arrow and next to it was the word, “NOLY.”

Well, that was a problem.

What happened was, for most of the intersections we worked, the “ONLY” was faded, but still visible. So, I often placed the stencils without even thinking. The letters are quite large, and when you’re working with these huge stencils, and you’re right on top of the word, it’s actually hard to read. It’s designed to be read by someone in a car 50 to 100 feet away.

A lot of elements contributed to the mistake. The intersection in question was newly paved, so there was no faded template for me to match. We were trying to move fast. And I had painted so many arrows and “ONLY’s” that I was on autopilot. I simply placed the stencils down in the wrong order.

There are some obvious lessons learned from this mistake, such as “go slow to get it right,” and “measure twice, cut once.” Also, you can’t see a mistake if you’re too close to the problem — you need a certain amount of perspective. But the greatest lesson I took away from it all was how my boss reacted. He could have yelled and berated us for being idiots who can’t spell, but he didn’t. After an initial lecture about the seriousness of the mistake, he shook his head with a smile and even started laughing. He could have fired me on the spot, but he handled it with grace and understanding. He asked us to fix it first thing that day and we did. And he said, “it better not happened again,” and it didn’t. Lesson learned.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I was 23 years old, and I had just landed my first professional job as a salesperson for a technology company. The only problem was I couldn’t sell. It was a start-up, so there was no money or time for training. On my second day, my boss handed me a list of five-hundred names and phone numbers and instructed me to cold call them. I picked up the phone and started dialing. I felt a palpable sense of fear and anxiety as I reached for the phone to make each call, and I experienced a wave of rejection the likes of which I had never before seen. I was demoralized.

My boss could see I was floundering and ready to quit. After a few days, he stopped by my desk. I was sure I was fired.

His first question caught me off-guard, “what do you think about sales?” he asked.

At that time, I had a very low opinion of salespeople. In my naive view of the world, “sales” was a dirty word. Sales was some sort of trick a used car salesperson played on gullible car buyers to induce them to overpay for a lemon. However, the only opening at the company was in sales, so I took the job thinking it couldn’t be that hard, and eventually I could work my way out of sales and into something better. I was beginning to regret that decision.

My boss was a former sales and marketing executive at Intel. He went on to explain how critical the sales function was to Intel’s success. He described the level of esteem and respect afforded the sales department because of the value it added to the organization. Now he had my attention.

Furthermore, he explained how mastering the art of sales would help me no matter where I went in my career. “Sales is not about pushing a product,” he said. “Sales is about listening, asking good questions and solving a problem for your customer. It’s about guiding, influencing and advising.”

Next, my boss switched gears and addressed my woeful sales skills. “I can see you’re struggling, and your results are below expectations, but I can also see you’ve got raw talent. With a little coaching and feedback, I think you’re going to be excellent at sales,” he told me.

I was skeptical at first, but I decided I had little to lose if I followed his lead.

To improve my skills, we role-played sales calls. He played the role of the customer, and I practiced winning the sale. He gave me suggestions and advice for how to overcome objections, how to make a connection, how to ask good questions, how to present a solution and how to ask for the sale.

I didn’t become the leading salesperson overnight, but that conversation started me on a journey of learning and improving that led me to eventually closing a major deal for the start-up that lead directly to a critical round of funding. And not a day goes by in my career that I don’t rely on my sales skills in some way.

In a short period of time my boss effectively repaired my self-esteem (“what you’re doing in sales is important”), provided motivation (“If you can get better at sales, it’s going to help you in your career) and instilled confidence (“I believe you can be successful”).

When I coach people today on a specific skill, I use the same steps:

Help people see how the skill is important for their career goals.

Provide feedback in light of high expectations.

Take the time to practice or critique the skill in a safe environment.

Great leaders are great teachers. They carve out time to have meaningful conversations with their people. They don’t avoid uncomfortable conversations. They have the confidence and maturity to provide feedback and help people grow. In today’s busy work environment, with texts, alerts, instant messages, email, meetings and all the demands on our time, I worry that these coaching conversations aren’t happening as often as they should.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

I believe purpose is extremely important. When we started, our purpose was to help leaders realize their full potential. We wanted to create online tools that would help all leaders get better at their craft.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion.

Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

In addition to running Realtime Performance, I’m also a part-owner in a pizza franchise in my neighborhood in Seattle called Zeeks Pizza. Zeeks was a client, and I was working with the founders and the executive team, helping them improve how they worked together as a team. We also did a lot of work around defining the values that are most important to the organization and serve as touchstones for the culture. I really fell in love with the Zeeks brand and culture. Zeeks strives to be the “gathering place in a community,” where people can come together, over a shared meal, to connect in the physical world. The world needs more places like Zeeks to counteract the trend where we all sit around and stare into our phones. I kept dropping hints to the Zeeks leadership team, saying, “we really need a Zeeks in my neighborhood.” So, they challenged me, “why don’t you open a franchise?” I didn’t know anything about pizza or running a franchise, but it was intriguing. I told them, if I could partner with someone who really knew how to run a Zeeks I would consider it. One of the founders of Zeeks, who was also a good friend, agreed to partner with me, and in 2019 we opened a Zeeks Pizza in my neighborhood. We hired a full-time professional general manager (GM) to run the store.

That first year my partner and I were mostly hands-off, letting the GM run the store. Everything was trending in the right direction until March 2020 when COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, everything about our future was uncertain. Our dine-in was shut-down. Initially it was only going to be a few weeks, but of course that extended for over a year. The business couldn’t afford a GM, and although we offered them a position in the kitchen, they elected to move on. So my partner and I had to step in and lead the store through the pandemic.

The rules around dining during the pandemic were constantly in flux. And the protocol for testing employees and handling positive cases was also changing from week to week. We had to keep the restaurant running, and we still had customers picking up and delivery. In fact, off-premise sales soared.

In times of high uncertainty and constant change, leaders need to get clear about what the goal is — the future state you’re trying to lead the organization towards. Then, you need tofocus on what you can control. During the early days of the pandemic, so much was out of our control. We didn’t know if the state was going to shut down the restaurant tomorrow. And there was always a chance an employee would test positive, and we would have to close for a week. And there were challenges in the supply chain. We struggled daily to get what we needed to make pizza and serve our customers. It’s easy to get frustrated and angry and throw your hands up and say, “I didn’t sign up for this,” or “I don’t know what to do?” As owners and leaders, we had 30 employees whose jobs depended on our ability to navigate through all this uncertainty.

We got very clear about our goal, which was survival. Our mantra become, “survive another week.” We focused on what we could control. We took all the tables and chairs out of the restaurant to make it safe for customers to socially distance as they came to pick up their pizza. We redefined roles and reassigned employees. Employees who were previously servers were now boxing and cutting pizza or working at the pick-up counter. We worked with our suppliers to get the ingredients we needed to make pizza. We were in the store every day, talking with employees, sharing the latest plan. We spent a lot of our time communicating. Although many of the restaurants around us closed completely for stretches, we never closed. We stayed open every single day during the pandemic.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I’m not sure I would characterize it as “giving up,” but we did consider some drastic measures like closing the restaurant for a long period. Many restaurants did go that route. I think when you are facing extreme situations, like my partner and I were facing with COVID, you have to consider all options.

What kept us going was the mission of the organization and the values. Ironically, it was the work that I originally did with the Zeeks Pizza leadership team before COVID, where we defined the values, that had such a big impact. We went back to our mission of being the “gathering place in the community.” Of course, the community couldn’t literally gather at our store during that time, but families were still connecting over the meals we were delivering. We were serving a real need in our community at that time. And the response was amazing. Neighbors were so appreciative that we remained open and continued to deliver meals. The customer goodwill we earned during COVID is still paying dividends today.

I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

I’m a writer and a reader. I recently published my first book, If Gold Is Our Destiny: How a Team of Mavericks Came Together for Olympic Glory. In the book, I tell the amazing story of the USA men’s volleyball team and their journey to winning the country’s first ever gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I wrote the story to teach leadership and how to build a winning culture. The team I write about was full of “all-stars.” They each had outstanding individual talents, but they weren’t playing as a team. The head coach, Doug Beal, was an amazing leader. He made a number of decisions, many of them controversial, that developed a culture of excellence and helped the players come together as a team. So, I really believe in the power of a book to teach and inspire.

Now, to get to your question, yes, I have been influenced by many books, but if I had to point to just one book, it would be Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. The book chronicles his personal story, growing up as a scrawny kid from Portland, Oregon who gets cut from his high school baseball team and then discovers he can run and falls in love with the sport of track and field. Of course, he goes on to found Nike and he’s now worth billions of dollars, but nothing came easy. There were set-backs and challenges, and there were personal trade-offs. In the book, Knight shares the emotional journey and is surprisingly open about his mistakes and fears along the way. What I learned from that book is that leadership is all about how you deal with the problems, obstacles and difficulties. And the way to be successful is to have a very clear understanding of your purpose, vision and values. In the early days, Nike made great shoes for track athletes. That’s what fueled Knight’s passion. He wanted to help his fellow track athletes improve and become the best runners they can be. And even today, the Nike mission statement is:

To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.

*If you have a body, you are an athlete.

So the original mission hasn’t changed, but it has broadened to include everyone in the world.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

It’s really hard to point to “the most important thing” about leadership. That reminds me of Howard Marks, who is a legendary investor and very well respected on Wall Street. When he would meet with clients, he would hear himself say, “the most important thing about investing is X.” And then, 10 minutes later he would say, “the most important thing about investing is Y” and so on. Eventually he gave up and wrote a book titled, The Most Important Thing which discusses no fewer than 18“most important things” in investing. I have always believed one could write a similar book about leadership, although it would be hard to keep the list to just 18.

That being said, during challenging times, it’s critical for leaders to get clear about mission, vision and values, and then focus on what you can control. If I could add one more thing it would be: communication. During uncertainty people need to hear from leadership.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

The very act of operating through difficult and challenging times has a way of bringing a team together. One way to inspire and motivate the team is to remind them that “we are all in this together as one team.” Sometimes, as a leader, we are asking others to sacrifice. We may be asking them to work longer hours or do a job they have never done before. Whatever the sacrifice is, it helps to remind people why the sacrifice is worth it and connect it to the organization’s purpose (mission) and values (what it stands for).

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Be direct, honest and timely. I’ve always found that people respect when a leader delivers difficult news if they believe the message is authentic and they are hearing it directly from the leader. One of the most common mistakes young leaders make is they believe they can delay delivering difficult news, but in my experience, waiting never makes it easier and usually makes things worse.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

One way is to make plans with a very short time horizon. You might find yourself saying, “this is the plan for next week,” or “this is the plan for tomorrow, but things might change.” You have to help people get comfortable with change. Just be transparent about the uncertainty but reinforce that you, as a leader, will consistently be on point, navigating through the changes.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

As my story about Howard Marks revealed, I don’t think there is a “number one,” but if I had to pick one it would be communication.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

The most common mistakes are the “flip side” of the principles that guide leaders through difficult times. They get disconnected from their mission and make decisions that are contrary to the purpose of the organization. Or they make a decision that makes sense in the short run but violates one of the organization’s cherished values. Another mistake is to stay locked up in your office staring at a computer, analyzing information, and trying to predict what’s going to happen next. Leaders need to be visible and constantly communicating during difficult times. There is a time to process information and reflect on what’s happening, but at some point in each day, you’ve got to get in front of your people and communicate the plan.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Be true to your mission, vision and values.
  2. Face reality. It’s important to deal with the world as it is, not as you want it to be.
  3. Stay in the moment and be willing to adjust and pivot as the situation demands.
  4. Focus on what you can control.
  5. Communicate the plan.

(Note: I think I shared stories on each of these in earlier passages. If not, let me know and I will elaborate.)

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, which is considered “Track Town USA.” Track and field is a big deal in Eugene, which is also home to the University of Oregon. One of my heroes growing up was the American distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who ran for the University of Oregon, but tragically died in a car accident at the age of 24. At one point, he held every American record from 1,500 to 10,000 meters.

He said:

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

For me, this quote is a huge motivator to put in the necessary work, and to give my best effort in the projects and endeavors that are most meaningful in my life. It is also a recognition that each of us have unique talents. Some believe these talents are a gift from God, or Nature or some higher power. If we want to live a flourishing life, we must cultivate these gifts and put our unique talents to work in a way that improves the world. To do anything less than that would be to diminish this incredible opportunity we have to make a difference in this world. What could be more motivating than that?

How can our readers further follow your work?

I write regularly about leadership and business at You can also find me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter (@seanpmurray111).

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!



Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator