Category Archives: Sports

Roger Bannister – Making the Impossible Possible

There are certain names, achievements and events that just simply are.  Neil Armstrong,  first man to walk on the moon.  The Wright Brothers, the first to fly.  Roger Bannister, broke the 4 minute mile barrier.  In these stories of great achievement, of individuals doing what moments before seemed impossible, come great lessons.  Roger Bannister died Saturday.  Though he will forever be remembered for breaking the 4 minute barrier, it is the lessons he shared that I found myself reflecting on this weekend.

Once the impossible is made possible, it becomes common.  History is riddled with things once thought impossible.  Flight, going to the moon, running a sub 4 minute mile.  All examples of things that could never be done.  While they might not be entirely common, they are certainly not impossible, and short of the moon, not even news worthy.  If one believes something is impossible, it will never happen.  But if one accepts that something is possible, they are on the path to achievement.

Amazing achievement demands sacrifice.  So much goes into that simple sentence, but breaking the 4 minute mile barrier is a story of sacrifice and pain.  It hurts to run fast.  Any runner suffers, but running fast for any amount of distance really, really hurts.  The mental fortitude to endure such self-inflicted pain is the true strength of a runner.  Running at an elite, world-class level, is a monastic existence.  Roger Bannister sacrificed in all other aspects of his life to achieve his goal.  Things thought impossible are not made possible without unfathomable sacrifice.

Focus and Commitment.  It was the most amazing part of the entire Roger Bannister story…he was going to medical school when he broke the 4 minute barrier!  It was the era of “Amateur Athletics” – one could not profit from athletics; it was unseemly.  Roger Bannister was in medical school, would train over his lunch hour (an hour to change, run, cool down, shower and change – an hour), and then occasionally run at meets strictly for the competition and only when his academic schedule allowed.  There were no endorsements, no shoe contracts, no government programs or athletic assistance.  He had to cover his own costs, buy his own shoes, sharpen his own spikes, all of it.  He had to focus and commit to the goal, then do everything required to achieve his goal.

Nothing is ever done alone.  The track optimizes individual effort.  It is the runner, on the track, against the clock.  Yet in his efforts to break the 4 minute barrier, Roger Bannister had help.  He had a coach and trainer, he had teammates and mentors, and on that fateful day he had pacers.  There literally were men who went before him, breaking the wind, setting the stage for his final lap push to finish in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.  Nothing, even the most solitary of endeavors, is every done entirely alone.

Competition.  Having rivals.  Being pushed.  Having someone to chase, someone nipping at your heels.  It matters.  Roger Bannister was not the only person chasing the 4 minute mile.  The rivalry with American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy was en epic contest.  They all were running in the 4:02 range and were desperate to be the one who broke the barrier.  They each pushed the other, chipping away, gradually going just a bit faster, training a touch harder, honing their craft and demanding more from the others just by competing.  Just as it was a “space race” to the moon, so it was with Bannister, Santee and Landy, and so it is with each of us who compete.  Thank the competition, they make you better.

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb was the book that introduced me to the full story of the 4 Minute Mile.  Like most everyone, I knew Roger Bannister broke the barrier, but knowing what it took, how it was done, the rivalry with Landy and Santee, the worldwide quest to do it, the mental and physical barriers.  That book sets atop one of my book shelves for a reason.  It is that good and taught me so much.  Sir Roger Bannister made the impossible absolutely common.  Yet when asked, he holds his work in medical research as his greatest personal achievement.  That last part is what makes the loss of Roger Bannister so great and the lessons his quest illustrates all the more telling.  He was a regular, and by all accounts, a good guy, who repeatedly did amazing things.  He achieved because he believed, he sacrificed, was focused and committed, had and accepted help, and embraced the competition.

You know, all the things any of us can do.

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Commitment – Rockets, Tom, Olympics and Teddy

There is something almost reassuring in seeing those who put in the work, who took the chance, who totally commit, succeeding, or even failing.  Just this month, we have seen a rocket take a car into space, a privately owned, designed and produced rocket and car.  Seen an older athlete return to the top of his sport, beating folks half his age.  An entire stream of unknown athletes burst onto the world stage, taking gold in events that require the skill, daring, joy and reckless abandon of youth.  Oh, and witnessed the most accomplished quarterback in football yet again lead his team to the Super Bowl.  But what we also saw in these events was failure.  The main rocket missed its remote recovery point, the quarterback lost the Super Bowl, and scores of Olympians melt in the heat of the moment.

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in that gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

  • President Theodore Roosevelt

Watching Shaun White, Chloe Kim and Red Gerard fly, to witness a private company launch a massive rocket, a test launch, complete with a privately produced car as the payload, broadcast live, oh and recover perfectly their booster rockets – all amazing moments.  It was equally rewarding to see Tom Brady slow the hands of time, but lose a game.  Or to see all the success of SpaceX and the Falcon Heavylift not include the perfect recovery of the main rocket.  Witnessing Mikaela Shiffrin win gold in her first event, then be edged off the podium in her specialty, or Lindsay Vonn to settle for bronze in her first event.  All incredible achievements, but not perfection.  Yet they all, in sport or business, have encountered great success, great failure, but through it all, none have never wavered.  Elon, Tom, Lindsay, Shaun, Chloe, Red and Mikaela continue pressing forward.

It takes courage to fail.  It takes commitment to try.  But it takes faith to try again, and again, and again until the moment of truth.  Winning is great, but getting back into the game after the crash, after the loss, after the defeat or just coming up a bit short, well that is the domain of the champion

Again, it is Teddy Roosevelt who said it so much better:

“It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly;
who errs and comes short again and again;
who knows great enthusiasms,
the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly
so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

 

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NFL playoffs and Leadership…It Matters

The beauty of sports is it’s crystal clear definition of success. Games and matches are played, points are scored, finish lines crossed, a winner is determined. Moving into the heart of winter, there is no better illustrator than the NFL, the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl. It is without question the most American of sports institutions. The hype, the media, the corporate money, the halftime show, the commercials, the pre-game shows, and even post-game shows. It is an absolute spectacle. Yet it is all about determining a winner. A champion. While coaching and leadership matters in all sports, there is something about football that seems to magnify the impact of leadership.

Tom Coughlin was the head coach who built the Jaguars. He lead an expansion franchise from concept to the most successful expansion team in league history. The Jaguars of the mid to late 90’s were a perennial contender, culminating in two AFC Championship game appearances. They were a standard of what a franchise could be, and at the center of it all was an old fashioned, hard-nosed, detail oriented, disciplinarian. It was a no-nonsense organization, and the results were clearly visible on the field.

As the cliche goes in sports, the window closed. The players aged, injuries took their toll, salary caps and retirements all changed the team. The leadership message grew stale, and Tom Coughlin was fired after 8 years in Jacksonville. The next 15 years would not be fun for the Jaguars.

After a year away from football, Tom Coughlin was hired by the New York Giants in 2004. His demeanor, approach, attention to detail and style were exactly the same. He immediately set the tone for the Giants. “Colonel Coughlin” had arrived and it was all business. The first few years were a rough transition, but the next several seasons saw the Giants earning multiple playoff berths as well as two Super Bowl titles. But with time, the message and leadership style of Tom Coughlin grew stale, and by the end of the 2015 season he “retired” from the Giants. It was a graceful exit, but everyone knew the truth; it was time for all parties to part ways.

Sunday the Jaguars will play in the AFC Championship game. It will be their first since 1999. Tom Couglin will not be coaching, but it is clear his return to Jacksonville last year as an executive leader has set the tone. He changed the morale of the organization. He instilled a sense of pride, professionalism, and winning. The Jags have went from “worst to first”.

While leadership alone will not make a winner, a lack of leadership can certainly ensure failure. The Jaguars are a team and organization of hundreds. But the right leadership has set the tone, and that has made all the difference, at least for this season. Unfortunately, they face the Patriots. Within the confines of the NFL, the Patriots are the gold standard when it comes to leadership, organizational culture, and winning. At the center of the Patriots stands Bill Belichick, who outwardly appears to be the same sort of gruff, “old school”, “my way or the highway” type of leader as Tom Coughlin. However, Belichick has been at the helm for 18 years with the Patriots.

Clearly, leaders set the tone, but those leaders who make lasting change are not tone deaf. Leaders have to evolve, adapt, temper their message, alter their presentation, all while never losing their followers and above all, without sacrificing the core message.

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Kaepernick and the Cause Célèbre Curse

Colin Kaepernick, from a business perspective, is not worth the risk.  It has nothing to do with his political views, his kneeling, his public comments or personal beliefs, nor his athletic abilities or skills.  Rather it has everything to do with his being a cause célèbre.  The more support he generates, the more celebrities who publicly plead his case, the more organizations and movements that march, the more stories and media coverage, the less hirable he becomes.  This has nothing to do with athletic ability, nor does it have anything to do with politics or race.  Rather, it has everything to do with business.

The emotion and “noise” surrounding Kaepernick is currently being directed at the NFL, its commissioner, its teams and team ownership.  With 32 teams and a very public commissioner, in raw numbers, each team simply has to shoulder 3% of the heat.  However, the team that hires him would then take-on all the baggage he brings.  All the noise, the emotion, the attention, the vitriol, the passionate supporters, the messaging, the questions, the disruptions.  All of it, all the time.  Thus, Colin Kaepernick cannot be hired by any NFL team.

The only thing harder than hiring someone is firing someone.  While it sounds harsh, it is  reality.  While it might be tempting to hire Colin Kaepernick, especially as injuries mount over the course of an NFL season, and he is someone with a very rare skill set – NFL quarterbacks are not easily found – he simply brings too much baggage.  And if an organization decided to accept all that hiring him entailed, the idea of not playing him and potentially having to fire him – it is simply not viable.  It is a sad irony, the more people, and his fellow players, try to support and help Colin Kaepernick find work, the less hirable he becomes.

 

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Teams and the All Star

Kobe goes out in a shower of pop culture glory while the Warriors win their 73rd regular season game.  The NBA had quite the night earlier this week.  You have a one name super star and legendary player go out on a crazy scoring night while another team finishes the season with more wins than MJ’s Bulls.  It was the stuff of main stream news and cultural consciousness, as well as a great reminder for every leader – be careful who you have in your locker room.

The Golden State Warriors have been an incredible story, from winning the NBA title in 2015, to marching their way through this season to an unprecedented 73 regular season victories.  They have done it with aplomb, while their head coach was out for the first several months of the season, while being the reigning champions that every opponent gives their best game, and under the bright lights of relentless coverage and analysis.  They have met and exceed expectations as a team.  The players, the coaches, everyone involved have risen to the occasion.

Conversely, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have been an absolute mess, lingering at the bottom of the NBA for years.  Though in the twilight of his career, Kobe has never once relented in his focus on being the center of the Lakers.  The ball will go through him, to him, and will be shot by him…a lot.  He was the highest paid player on the team, demanded and ensured that he remained at the top of the industry pay scale, and remained at the forefront of the Lakers marketing and consciousness.  It was abundantly clear that what mattered to Kobe, was, well Kobe.  Granted, he scored 60 in his final game, but he took 50 shots.  Yes, you have to “take ’em to make ’em” but that is far from all-star percentages.

In the end, the Golden State Warriors are a team.  Sure, they have their own star players, especially Steph Curry, an incredible coach in Steve Kerr, and a great organization, but above all they are a team.  No one is more important than the whole.  The Lakers in the Kobe era, and especially so in the later phases of his career, have been about Kobe above all else.  Basketball, more than probably any other sport, demands a team have at least one or two star players.  There are only 5 guys on the floor – one or two make a huge difference.  However, it is still a team sport.  An all time great alone cannot make it happen; just ask LeBron.  In the end, teams win.

It is incredibly tempting to hire and retain the “best player”, to make exceptions for the “all star”, the top producer, that special person.  However, that special person cannot be placed ahead of the team, the greater goal, the common mission.  Steph Curry is a special player, an MVP, an All Star, but he is also a team player.  Kobe was an MVP and an All Star to the end, but never was he known as a team player.  Even Michael, a renowned competitor and a bear of a teammate, was always known to be a teammate.  Demanding,; sure.  But always a teammate.

Yes, Kobe and the Lakers were the story of the day.  The ratings, the press, the glitz, the stars, the pop culture darlings, it was all Kobe and the Lakers that night.  The Warriors setting the new season wins record was the “other NBA story”.  That was one day, well maybe two.  Next week, the Warriors start the first round of the playoffs, and Kobe starts his retirement, and the Lakers start to rebuild their franchise.

Building a team is hard.  Finding the best talent it tough.  Hiring and retaining great people is even harder.  But finding, hiring and retaining the right talent, well that is how a winning team is built.  When given the choice, taking the very good player and teammate trumps the great individual.  It only takes one bad hire, regardless of their talent, to ruin a team.  Put aside the glitz and glamor, and find that special person that has the skills and talent, as well as the selflessness and maturity to be a great teammate.  And if you find your MJ, well provide them the leadership to at least be a teammate.  And if you find a Steve Kerr…then keep on winning.

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Peyton and Being Likable

All it takes is a catchy jingle and you have a pop culture phenomena.  Well done Nationwide Insurance…”Nationwide is on your side” easily becomes “being likable makes all the difference”.  People like what they relate to, what makes them feel comfortable.  There is no question, Peyton Manning has hummed his way into the American consciousness as “a good guy”.  Of course it does not hurt that he is widely regarded as the face of his sport, one of the all-time greats, and is standing at the threshold of a storybook ending to his career.  Peyton winning Super Bowl 50 – it is the stuff of legend.

It has been called many things, with the current flavor being Emotional Intelligence or EQ.  Then there are the more traditional “cultural fit”, interpersonal skills, or empathy.  In its simplest form, being likable, a nice person, is one of the most valued traits in all of hiring.  Never, not once in all the years and the literally thousands of hiring conversations we have been privy to, has the phrase “you know, we do not like them; heck they are a real jerk, but we will hire them anyway” ever been used.  Not one time.  Countless times we have heard the inverse.  Being likable brings an enormous degree of benefit of the doubt, of a higher forgiveness factor, of being given a chance, or two, or three.  It is a classic idiom of sales, “people do business with people they like”.  Throughout his career, from college to the NFL, Peyton Manning has ensured he remains at the top of the likable list.

There is no greater illustrator of the “likability factor” than Tom Brady.  It was one of the stories of 2015, Deflategate.  The Patriots, their coaches and Tom Brady have a long history of pushing the edges, testing the lines, but also of grinding, studying, preparing, and of winning…a lot.  Tom Brady, despite all the wins, all the championships, the spotless record, the incredible story of afterthought to champion, of a relentless work ethic, of being the consummate leader and professional, remains unlikable.  He is not like everyone else, his life is not like ours, he is apparently aloof, cold and distant.  Tom and Peyton literally have the same job, live a life wildly removed from the vast majority of us, yet one is perceived completely differently based on “likability”.

An athlete, the face of their sport, considered by many to be the best of a generation, dominating the competition, setting new records, a marketers dream, giving back to the community and charities, the personification of the comeback, overcoming career ending medical challenges, returning to form and dominating.  It is a timeless story.  And when doubts and dispersion are cast, as always happens in our society, when the “too good to be true” flag is waived, being likable will save the day.

It is comically sad.   Peyton and HGH – 100% benefit of the doubt.  Disparage the source of the story, proclaim innocence, threaten lawsuits, be folksy, be hurt, be staunch yet wounded.  Peyton is righteous.  He is likable.  Looks like Peyton learned the lesson of Lance Armstrong…being nice will get you the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes that is all that matters in the court of public opinion.

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To Ensure Failure, Just Use Your Words

It is Pavlovian, hearing the old alma mater mentioned in the news still perks up the ears.  Unfortunately, like the news that typically comes from the State of Illinois, hearing the University of Illinois mentioned tends not to be followed by positive, uplifting stories.  Then add that this bit of news was broadcast during a sports segment, well one tends to “brace for impact – this will not be good”.  Sadly, what was shared was not just frustrating as an alumni, it was absolutely infuriating on a professional and personal level.

Leaders, regardless of role, scope or circumstance, have a responsibility to those they lead.  It is a professional and personal responsibility to help the organization and individuals meet and exceed their potential.  To do what is right for others, to inspire, to provide a vision, a plan and the resources to obtain that which they collectively wish to achieve.  Leadership is the core of politics, of business, of athletics, and of all things that require group effort.  And effective leaders must communicate.  They must speak as a leader.  Sadly, the quote that came from the University of Illinois Athletic Department and it’s Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk was a case study in failure:

“Obviously, it’s not ideal but for now, I don’t think it’ll put a dagger in the heart of the program,” Kowalczyk said.

Foremost, a leader must speak with confidence.  If the leader has no faith, no confidence in the decision and course of action, it is a given that no one else will.  To preface your statement with “it is not ideal but…” is synonymous with “this is going to be miserable but…”.  While acceptable when describing a lifeboat relative to the Titanic, it is not effective when speaking of a newly hired, or in this case contract extended, leader or coach.  Kowalczyk quite literally undermined the very foundation of trust, confidence and support Coach Cubit requires to have any chance of success in leading the football program.  When a leader denies their support to those they are responsible to lead, they have ensured the ultimate failure of the team.  All the financial resources, material, logistics and marketing cannot offset the damage done when moral support and confidence is denied to a subordinate.  Especially so in a public forum.

As if the first disclaimer was not damaging enough, to then set the bar just above “putting a dagger in the heart of the program” with the awe-inspiring caveat of “I don’t think” is worse than actually admitting defeat.  A leader must have the courage of their convictions.  A leader is not just there to deliver the positive message, they also must deliver the bad.  And when delivering bad, clarity and ownership are of critical importance.  Waffling and trying to “sugar coat” the bad news is worse than the actual bad news.  Kowalczyk set the standard for acceptable performance with his statement.  The only thing Coach Cubit, and by extension his players and staff, are expected to do is not “kill the program”.  For the staff and the players, there is absolutely no reason to do anything more than the minimum.  No one enjoys being a part of an organization who’s only goal is to do the minimum.  No one enjoys “working to lose”.

Lastly, Leadership 101 – know the names of your people…and use them.  It seems so trivial, so basic, so obvious, but taking the time to learn someone’s name  means you care.  A leader must care about those they lead.  If the leader does not care, if names are not important, then it is absolutely assured the subordinates notice, and that lack of personal caring will be reciprocated.  If your subordinates are simply an “it” to you, then you are nothing more than an “it” to them.

Much like the State of Illinois, the University of Illinois is going through a period of difficulty and challenge.  There is a leadership void in the university, with the “interim” title either in use or having been used over the last 12 months at the President, Chancellor, Athletic Director and Head Football Coach levels.  It is not a positive scenario for anyone, and is clearly a crucible in which strong leadership is required.  Administration and Management are not the same as Leadership.  While Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk might be a fine director, manager and administrator, he clearly could use some help on the leadership side, and especially so when it comes to speaking as a leader.

Not to be one to just throw stones, might a suggestion for Director Kowalczyk’s, or any leaders, statements take the format of stating clearly the situation, then state the vision, and lastly support those implementing the plan to attain that vision.  For example:

“It has been a trying season, yet through this period Coach Cubit has been a steady hand on the tiller, earning the respect of his players and the University.  We all are committed to moving forward and achieving success on the grid iron and in the classroom, and Coach Cubit is the man to lead this program and our student athletes.”

While not perfect, it is certainly better than “yea, it’s not what anyone wanted, but he will do for now…shoot, it really cannot get much worse”.

In the end, all the millions of dollars in revenue, all the alumni passions, all the administrator’s and coaches careers aside, it is about a group of students who joined a team.  They deserve better.

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