The Reality Contagion

For many, sports are a dress rehearsal for life.

Think back to your youth ... all by yourself on a field, on a tennis court or in a gymnasium. For me, it was a dirt driveway with a net-less, rusty basketball hoop bolted to the side of the garage. As a boy, I practiced basketball over and over on that driveway — many times I would play a game with myself — winding down an imaginary clock in my head ... five, four ... this is going to be the last shot, our team is down by one point, the arena is packed with breathless spectators on the edge of their seats — the season-ending championship game. I would fake to the left, then drive right, dribbling the ball behind my back ... three, two ... leaping high off the ground ... one ... the ball decidedly leaves my hands ... the buzzer sounds ... it arcs toward the basket, then ... swish ... the winning shot!! The crowd erupts. The team has just won the championship.

For most, dreaming about the future is more aspirational than reliving the past. For others, dwelling in the past obfuscates tomorrow. The art of life — and indeed leadership — is to fleetingly savor the past, realistically anticipate the future and continuously navigate the present. To do so, one must accurately assess the reality of today.

Like spectators in childhood basketball dreams, people today are on the edge of their seats — as if we are collectively waiting for another Lehman Brothers-esque moment. Uncertainty is currently wearing the mask of reality, creating fear, anxiety and the most devastating of unintended consequences: paralysis. In the midst of such turmoil, the classic reaction is to play it safe or do nothing. But paralysis never wins a championship, only an occasional game.

Athletics and leadership are like bread and butter: the ability to transform the agony of defeat into the thrill of victory; to find that bright spot in the sky, enabling dreams to become beliefs and in turn become reality; to recognize the only real failure is failing to fail.

One of the most distinguished and inspiring leaders Korn/Ferry has known wasn’t in the boardroom. He was on the sidelines of a football field — in fact, he was a high school football coach — albeit America’s most winning football coach ever, with more victories than anyone else at the high school, college or professional level. Earlier this year, 85-year-old John McKissick completed his 60th season as head football coach at Summerville High School in South Carolina, with a career record of almost 600 wins. To McKissick, each of those victories belongs to the players. Victory, however, isn’t achieved without failure — as the coach, McKissick overtly takes responsibility for the 143 career losses. Or, as he puts it: players win games; coaches lose them.

My favorite McKissick story, which I profiled in the book “No Fear of Failure,” demonstrates the essence of leadership — navigating the present reality while never losing sight of the horizon. At the time we met with McKissick at a high school in South Carolina, he had accumulated 576 wins. On his right hand, McKissick wears a large ring with the number 500 set in diamonds against a green background. It was a gift from a former player in honor of his 500th victory, which put him in the record books and set off a flurry of national media attention in the United States. Every time McKissick goes uptown, the former player keeps telling him, “I want to give you one that says 600.” In classic McKissick fashion, the coach expressionlessly replied, “All I want is one that says 577 — just one more game.”

Learning from defeat and pursuing one victory at a time is how McKissick has achieved success — along with consistency, discipline and a strong work ethic. “I’ve always tried to do it one at a time,” he added. “It’s a hard job to keep the kids from thinking down the line. Same in life or anything else: you’ve got to take care of what is happening now.”

Today, however, many leaders are not taking care of what is happening now. They are simply reacting to it. We are paralyzed by today, myopically focused on the uncertainty of the present rather than the reality of today. This summer, I attended the Queen’s Club tennis tournament in London, the precursor to Wimbledon. David Nalbandian, an Argentine professional and former world No. 3, was leading Marin Cilic by a set on a peaceful Sunday afternoon. The match seemed to be completely in Nalbandian’s hands when suddenly, after missing a lunging forehand, Nalbandian kicked an on-court advertising board, which was several inches directly in front of the line judge’s chair. The board violently flew off its hinges and struck the judge on the shin causing blood to pour from a nasty gash. The match was over — Nalbandian was immediately disqualified. Temper tantrum? Possibly. Intentional? No. The truth was Nalbandian was so intensely focused on the moment that he probably didn’t notice the line judge even inches away. Likewise, businesses and leaders today need to occasionally zoom back to 38,000 feet to scan the entire airspace. Whether it is athletics or leadership, like most things in life, balance is required.

Around the globe and across industries, the CEOs I’ve spoken with have consistent observations: they are fighting for growth and relevancy while conserving cash and cutting costs; they are asking employees to do more with less but are increasingly concerned about keeping employees engaged, motivated and relevant. It is as if everyone is operating from the same playbook. The levers of growth are simply not as obvious now with the absence of the Western conspicuous consumer.

Leaders today need to be substantially more forward leaning. I, for one, am getting tired of the word “uncertainty.” It is time to close that chapter of the book — the only certainty will be uncertainty — for some time. Great coaches don’t adopt, they adapt and adjust. Leaders must as well. Similarly, winning teams are those that have the most engaged and innovative talent rowing in unison toward a common purpose. Yes, the strategy and playbook are important, but 90 percent of strategy is execution and 90 percent of execution is the team.

And so, we have dedicated this issue to sports, which permeates our culture, literally and metaphorically. Sport is where we find some of our heroes and inspiration as well as leadership lessons. Sports are also big business. They influence the shoes we wear and the clothes we buy. If we can’t run, jump, throw and slam dunk like the stars, at least we can dress like them — and there are two articles about that in this issue. One about the tremendous success achieved by Under Armour, which makes fitness clothes; the other is about the two athletes who started Sheex, a start-up that makes a new type of bedsheet.

For many, sports are life’s first invitation to competition, self-discipline, leadership and, most important, failure. They are also the ultimate arena in which performance, not pedigree, is the ultimate equalizer. Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya couldn’t afford to go to secondary school and had to work on a farm, but tried to keep up his running until an injury nearly ended his career. Today, Mutai is one of the top marathon runners in the world, having posted the best time ever in the Boston Marathon. And sports remind us of the dangers of hubris and the inconceivable vulnerability of the mighty.

It is Darwinian and a fact of life that the bigger the pond, the less relevant each fish. Those who are the stars of their college teams suddenly discover a new constellation of competitors at the professional level. The last pick in the American football N.F.L. draft earns the dubious distinction of being “Mr. Irrelevant.” But truly it is a matter of perspective, which can so easily be lost. And, as sports so cruelly shows, where you start doesn’t necessarily indicate where you finish — an important lesson for all leaders. One person who keenly understands this perspective is Andrew Luck (the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s N.F.L. draft), featured in this issue of Briefings. Luck decided to stay at Stanford University and graduate rather than play professionally a year earlier. His first professional season is not yet finished, and he is already a role model.

Also in this issue, there is a look at NASCAR, which began in the hills of the South and has grown into the largest spectator sport in the United States. But like all businesses, this sport has challenges — reaching a more diverse community of enthusiasts, and globalization. But, it is responding with a plan.

There are many other interesting articles in this issue, including ones about why we like sports; what it’s like to own a team; what it’s like to run ESPN, the global sports media network; and others.

From the Daytona 500 to the Fortune 500, winning teams continuously confront reality. They know that they are only as good as their last performance. In a decade of readjustment, what got us here won’t take us there. It’s time to disrupt the contagion of uncertainty and put our traditional thinking out of business. Worst case, failure will be a rehearsal for success.

I hope you enjoy the issue. 

Authors

  • Gary Burnison

    Chief Executive Officer

    Bio >