A craving developed deep inside my humanity as a fledgling teen; a potent yearning to distinguish myself.  My quest was not compelled towards extraordinary pursuits, but

MLK & RFK

rather evocative meaningful endeavors.  I was touched with a cognizance of my personal possession of an inner forte.    It was the era of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and emerging adults were challenged to be of consequence.  I was a typical boy, from a middling family, going to a normal school, living an ordinary “Wonder Years” life.  Then one

day as I altered my bicycle’s homeward route, my attention lurched to a spectacle which drew me in and tugged at my depth.  Quickly I jumped off, allowing my most prized possession to crash to the concrete, and with both hands clutched in the chain link fence I stared through the grid to witness an amazing exhibition.  There they were, “The Boys of Fall” – the High School Football Team engulfed in their practice session.  Mesmerized, I gazed as they executed drills with intense precision while smashing, grunting and roaring into each other.  They would take rise from heaps of calamity with yelps of exhilaration, high-fives, and a grander loftier persona…bursting with Pride!

The next season, after an effective plea with my mother, I “tried out” to join the game which I had become fascinated with.  “Hell Week” began, and swiftly eradicated the need for any explanation of the torturous designation. Practice was simply designed to “beat the hell out of you” physically, emotionally, and mentally.  The only football I encountered was the one I slept with.  Hell Week was an assault on your character and being.  It was exactly what I was searching for … a test of my mettle.  Following weeks of unforgiving regimentation, I was finally handed a football uniform.  Excitedly, I donned the apparatus while awkwardly comprehending how to regain mobility.  Not knowing what to expect, I was ready for my first “suited up” practice.  My Father took me aside, “Son there will come a point where the coaches will ask you to choose an opponent to go “head-to-head” against.  Be sure to choose the biggest and toughest boy on the team.”

As usual, practice began with us running and performing drills to the point of exhaustion.  The coaches then separated us into two lines and I watched my Father’s prediction unfold.  As players from one line began to choose equal or lessor players from the other lineup, I searched out my foe.  There he was, casually standing off to the side unchallenged, one of the team’s veteran brutes Hector Burrell.  We lined up against each other with the sole purpose of knocking down and running the other over into the ground.  My breath erratically shortened and my heart pounded barely allowing me to pick up Coach’s count off – “ready, set, one, two, three”.  In an instant I was flat on my back looking up at Hector’s silhouette surrounded by blue sky and painfully acquainted with the expression of “flattened by a freight train”.  After another hour of picking myself up off of the ground the grueling tribulation ended.  I limped, as straight-up as I could, to my Father standing at the edge of the field.  He looked at me and said, “Son, you did alright.  Anyone can win the easy battles.  It is more difficult ones that will make you stronger.”  I made the starting team, began winning my share of those “head to head” battles, made friends with Hector and we won the Championship that year.  I had set forth on my path to distinction!

Throughout those determinative years, the fierce competition of football provided framework for self-understanding, teamwork and leadership.  As a high school student, I became passionately engaged in coaching Youth Football soon becoming a Head Coach responsible for directing a coaching staff and leading the team.  These years were packed

Pop Warner - Father of Youth Football

with great coaching mentors who were smart, insightful, tough and inspiring.   These generous men not only enhanced my love of the game, but they demonstrated and taught me the skills necessary to out-think, out-play, and out-win your opponent.  Countless hours were spent with the chalkboards of strategy and tactics, but much more than the “brain work” they taught me how to build and lead a Championship Team.

In today’s multicultural, politically correct, oversensitive, and testosterone-free workplace, we are guarded as to the appropriate use of the sports analogy.  But if you will indulge me, I would like to share some of those life changing lessons about victory, passion, the battle, and the game which I learned over 20 years and continue to put to use every day as a Coach.

You Have To Be Tough

Business is an extremely tough game.  Companies put everything possible into a quintessential battle of strength and cunning against each other.  The game is scored and there are winners and losers – it is a zero-sum game.  Your team expects you to be a Tough Leader capable of competing and conquering the opposition.  They want discipline, structure, hard work, preparation, direction, recognition, purpose and success.  If you are able to provide these essential elements, they will follow you into the most difficult of challenges over and over again.  Business is full of disappointments and shortfalls.  You get knocked down.  You and your team need to be tough enough to get up, grab adversity by the throat, and strangle it until victory pops out.  Business is a severe game played by serious people who want to succeed at the peril of others.  Playing requires grit, perseverance, commitment, determination, and an unwillingness to fail.

Demand Unreasonable Excellence

Every member of your team has self-limiting barriers of what he can achieve firmly entrenched in his mind.  They believe they know when they are giving their best, working their hardest, thinking their brightest.  In reality, they are always capable of much more.  When they feel they have given 100%, they are nowhere near their potential.  As a Leader it is your job to push, cajole, drag, and inspire each player past their self-imposed limits.  The phrase “giving 110%” comes from knowing that everyone has more to give.  Be unreasonable and demand perfection until your team is unquestionably the best in the business.

Build a Great Team

Coaches must draft and select a great team if they are to win.  Building an A-Team is one of the most important responsibilities of a Leader.  You cannot consistently

Team Building

systematically win with a mediocre team.  Once you determine how you are going to win the game, you need to find the best person for each position on the team by matching up

your strategies and players to insure they possess the proper skills to execute your game plan.  The saying, “You are only as strong as your weakest link,” continues to be a reality for Leaders.  Your competition is always striving to improve.  You must diligently stay ahead of them by constantly rebuilding and strengthening your team.

Competition Makes You Stronger

Even if you have selected great talent, established flawless execution, and conditioned your players to be tough, they still are not ready to win.  To bring out the greatness of your players and truly determine their capabilities you must make them compete.  Every plan sounds like a winner until you take it from the Conference Room and put it into action.  Competition hones the skills of a player.  Only competition and adversity can truly reveal an individual’s character.  Players need to compete internally, against the pool of available players, and against your industry rivals.  Winners relish taking on tough competition.

Win as a Team or Lose

Once you have challenged a player on his individual capabilities and know they have “what it takes”, it is time to begin team building.  Coaches build teams by drilling into player’s heads that regardless of their personal abilities and achievements they are stronger as part of a team.  Without teamwork they are doomed to fail against an opposing force of gifted players.  They will only realize the “payoff” of their talents and efforts by joining forces with their teammates, who are successful in their own right.  Once players embrace the “need of others” for their own success they only require a common goal to rally towards.  And that goal is simply, “Winning”.  At the core level, Leaders must instill the necessity of personal sacrifice and extreme effort for a player to compete at the top of their game.  Teams flourish when players comprehend this effort is only rewarded with a “Win” when it is united with other individual’s superb performance.  The Coach’s mantra is, “Without the Team, Individuals Fail.”

Winning Matters

Why does “winning” work as a reward system?  Any person who has exerted to put themselves “on the line” 110% and is victorious touches something inside their core which tells them they have done well.  Whether reinforced with money or glory the result is the same.  People love winning and are drawn to winners. It is appreciated, revered, sought after and longed for.  “Trying your best” does not get you there.  “Second Place” comes close but leaves an empty hollow feeling.  I believe you can take the meekest, most humble person in the world and still see the smile that comes to their face when they have won.  It is a universal reinforcing statement confirming we are of value.  Winning, even for an instant, proliferates more winning – It creates the remarkable phenomenon of Momentum.  Winning is good!

Celebrate Victory

We have all witnessed the Thrill of Victory as seen in a championship locker room.  The inspiration, acknowledgement, and joy for a battle well fought ending in the successful winning of a Championship.  There is nothing like it.  The celebration represents the culmination of a job well done as well as establishes a thirst for future success in the dream of returning to the celebration next time.  Leaders encourage their teams to celebrate.  Although celebrations are often public events there is a very private bonding which exchanges among the actual team members who endured the struggle together when no one was watching.  This bond solidifies and strengthens a team going forward.

Even more personal is the feeling a Champion carries within, after the crowd and praise disperses and he walks off alone. I have not found anyone to describe this endurable feeling of self-worth and personal glory better than the ultimate coach, Vince Lombardi.

Vince Lombardi

I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause

and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious. Vince Lombardi

Those early days of coaching football provided me with a Leadership Foundation which has carried me forward throughout my career.  I would not exchange the lessons learned and experiences gained on those patches of chalked grass for any MBA Program.  Leaders lead people in challenging pursuits by building powerful teams who outperform their own expectations and create winning outcomes.  Street Smart Leaders choose and win the “hard battles” which distinguish them and their teams far beyond the competition.  Throughout my career I have progressed through many business card titles, each one slightly prouder than the last, but the one which has made all of the difference is the first one I ever earned…Coach.

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