“A loss is never a failure until you make an excuse.” – Michael Jordan, as quoted by American Sports Journalist Don Yaeger
This week I had the chance to listen to and speak with someone my husband recognized immediately—sports journalist, best-selling author and business coach Don Yaeger.
Yaeger is a journalist and history graduate from Texas whose writing career allowed him to cover investigative topics including the 1988 Presidential Campaign and even a 7-week Afghanistan assignment alongside the Mujahadeen. But it was at Sports Illustrated, beginning in 1996, that Yaeger’s journalistic career took hold in earnest as he covered stories such as the use of steroids in baseball and the horrific efforts of Saddam Hussein’s son to shape the Iraqi Olympic Committee. He gained national recognition for the award-winning story he co-authored with William Nack about child molestation in youth sports.
He also won an on-the-spot shoot off against Michael Jordan (ask him about it sometime. He will gladly fill in the details.) Yaeger retired from Sports Illustrated in 2008 but continues to freelance for the magazine now and again. Meanwhile, he’s written books. Of the 200 or so writers who’ve ever reached the New York Times Best-Seller List, Yaeger has done so 8 times. I was able to meet Yaeger this week when he presented at the regional Mountain West Chapter of the National Speakers Association. He spoke about what it takes to write and promote a best-selling book, but I was even more interested in what he had to say about the championship traits of true leaders.
You see, it’s one of Yaeger’s books that didn’t reach the NYT Best-Seller List that I was interested in most. Greatness: The 16 Characteristics of True Champions distills the best thinking Yaeger has discovered from his interview subjects over the 25 years of his journalism career. He was inspired in the project by his many conversations with John Wooden, the legendary head coach of UCLA who led that team to 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year period, and who is arguably the best sports coach of all times. Coach Wooden (who passed away in 2010), like Yaeger, was fascinated by greatness. Compelled by his many hours of dialogue with Wooden while co-authoring the book that chronicled the coach’s life, John Wooden: A Game Plan For Life, he embarked on a companion project.
Yaeger analyzed the information from his many subjects and years of interviews into a list of the 16 consistent traits he observed in every champion subject (traits that also define great business leaders, he is quick to observe). Proudly, he compiled them onto a single piece, printed thousands, and presented Coach Wooden with the result.
“What do you think?” The revered coach looked at the culmination and said simply, “This point, Contagious Enthusiasm, belongs at the top. It is point number four.” And so it is. Yaeger re-printed his thousands of pieces and immortalized the set of traits he now shares with CEOs in presentations and training as a blueprint for achieving uncommon success. With Yaeger’s permission I would also like to share it with you.
The 16 Consistent Characteristics of Greatness
Regardless of the setting or circumstance, and whether the challenge is in sports, life or business, the core characteristics of all great champions are the same, Yaeger maintains. They way they think, the way they prepare, how they work and how they live has produced a set of characteristics we can strive to attain as follows:
How They Think
1. It’s Always Personal. Great champions hate to lose even more than they love to win. (This was one of the standout characteristics people have observed in Josh James, the Utah executive who grew his company Omniture to success against all odds to achieve a $1.8 billion acquisition by Adobe. Now he’s back in the game with DOMO, a company Forbes acknowledged as one of America’s Most Promising in 2012.)
2. They Rub Elbows with the Best. Great champions understand the power of association. While they are generally willing to help others at all levels, they are highly conscious that their own greatness is in many respects a summation of the top five individuals they associate with.
3. They Believe in a Higher Power. Champions emerge from a wide variety of faiths, but nearly universally they carry an internal believe in a higher spiritual power.
4. They Have Contagious Enthusiasm. This is the characteristic Coach John Wooden reinforced as fundamental to every champion. Champions are not only positive thinkers, they are enthusiastic, and their enthusiasm rubs off.
How They Prepare
5. They Hope for the Best, but They Prepare For All Outcomes. Great sports heroes and great CEOs prepare for all possibilities before they step onto the field.
6. They Always Prepare, Even Off-Season. What’s the “off season?” There is essentially no time that a great sports champion or a great business leader isn’t working in some way towards the next victory or game. Great leaders never rest on their past achievements for long. The goal is always ahead and they are always thinking of and planning for the next big victory.
7. They Visualize Victory. To a person, great achievers see their victory and experience the result in their mind before the game begins. Wheelchair athlete Curt Brinkman, who set a world record in the Boston Marathon by a margin of more than 30 minutes recalled the evening before his historic win. He knew his competitors were as strong and as smart as he was, but he also realized in that moment that the victory would go to the person who wanted it most, and that person was him. He’d internalized the experience in his mind before he’d ever reached the starting line. CEOs who’ve launched great product innovations—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs—have also recalled the experiences of visualizing their victories well in advance of the facts.
8. They Have a Strong Inner Fire. Great champions use adversity as fuel. While they gain inspiration from outsiders, they fully expect to provide their own greatest motivations and strengths from within.
How They Work
9. They Have Ice in their Veins. I would define this trait as the ability to act and react with careful consideration. (Carine Clark, who I wrote about last week as someone who has served equally well as CMO of one of the world’s largest software organizations, Symantec, and as the CEO of an emerging startup, embodies this trait.) True champions are thoughtful risk takers who don’t fear the possibility of making a mistake. They deliberately act as opposed to react and they own the results of their decisions in every case. While some sports champions and CEOs are famous for their flaring tempers, the very best champions are able to make key decisions while holding their emotions in check.
10. They Adjust on the Fly. A new competitor with a market approach you hadn’t anticipated, or a sudden global crisis? A debilitating injury? Great leaders know how to adjust their game plan quickly when the unexpected occurs.
11. They are the Ultimate Teammates. The greatest champions are willing to take whatever role is necessary for the team to achieve an ultimate win.
12. They are Motivated By More Than Money. This is an interesting phenomenon. If it isn’t the money that motivates the greatest sports heroes most—and research shows it isn’t the money that motivates the best CEOs—why do the multi-million dollar contracts and CEO packages need to exist? As it turns out, these are market driven issues more than motivating factors for the greatest achievers in business and sports.
How They Live
13. They Embody the Principle of “Do Unto Others.” Yaeger is quick to recount Walter Payton’s favorite quote, a statement that is central to many other of the champions he’s interviewed as well: “You cannot live a perfect day without doing something for someone who cannot repay.” This is a core principle to success in business and life.
14. They are Heroes When No One Is Watching. Great champions are comfortable with “the man in the mirror.” They live their lives with integrity at all time. Likewise, many CEO and sports greats have achieved their great losses when they were lacking a moral compass or yielded to the temptation to push their integrity principles aside.
15. They are Excellent Role Models When Everyone Is Watching. Great champions know that the world is watching and they embrace the opportunity to serve as role models for others.
16. They Know That Records (Including Their Own) Are Made To Be Broken. The greatest champions know that their legacy is far beyond the achievements they made in the boardroom or on the field. They are well-rounded individuals who value family and community. They don’t get caught up in the “image of their greatness” and mistake it as the definition of their actual worth. Great leaders are grateful for the opportunities they’ve been given. In most cases they are humble and active in their efforts to teach and empower the next generations of champion achievers as well.
Most of us will never become sports heroes. However, every entrepreneur carries the opportunity to create a heroic business and to lead their organization, or their division or even their own career function with the same characteristics that have defined the world’s top sports champions and renowned CEOs.
I welcome your thoughts on the ways these points have contributed to your own best achievements. For those who would like to connect with Don Yaeger directly I can verify that he is a really likeable guy (an engaging speaker as well). You can reach him at www.donyaeger.com.
30 Under 30: Sports
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