Sports Lessons for the Business World


An excerpt from The Dynamic Path, by James M. Citrin, on using the secrets of champions to succeed in business and life

The following is an excerpt from The Dynamic Path by James M. Citrin (Rodale Books, 2007).

"Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair." —Nelson Mandela

I have been an athlete virtually all of my 48 years. Starting as an age-group swimmer at eight years-old, performing as a three-sport varsity athlete in both high school and college, and competing as a triathlete, marathoner, golfer, tennis player as an adult, even as the oldest member of the Vassar College Alumni Soccer Team, I have always been passionate about sports and fitness. I have also experienced and observed powerful lessons from sports and its relation to performance—both mental and physical—and success in business.

As a senior partner at Spencer Stuart, my professional life is dedicated to helping leading organizations around the world build their senior leadership teams. To this end, over the past 14 years I have had the privilege of interviewing and evaluating many of the world's most accomplished business leaders. I have also long been a dedicated student of leadership and success, having interviewed more than 3,000 executives and contributed five books to the canon of published works on this subject. One study enabled me to analyze the professional experiences of more than 1 million executives to distill the patterns of extraordinary careers.

About three years ago, a light bulb went off in my mind that an in-depth investigation of the world's most inspiring sports champions might reveal powerful lessons for business leadership and professional success. I became consumed with the idea of learning about the backgrounds, training regimens, mental disciplines, and competition experiences of the world's greatest athletes to see what could be applied to help unleash the performance potential that resides in each of us. I was certain that there were subtle but powerful linkages between the world's top athletes and the greatest leaders in business. As a corollary, I hoped that I might discover something about athletic performance that would allow me to maximize my individual potential and unleash my inner—albeit deeply buried—Olympian.

We live in a sports-crazed, youth-obsessed, and celebrity-oriented world. With 24/7 media exposure magnified by sophisticated marketing, it is no surprise that some of today's heroes are the sports champions whose physical splendor, profound dedication, and icy mental toughness are held up to inspire. And in many cases, inspire they do. Go on, "Be a Tiger." "Put your Lance face on." There is a lot to learn from the great sports leaders, and I've spent hundreds of hours meeting with, speaking to, and watching many of the world's best. I've also read thousands of pages of books and articles on their lives and I've studied some of the most important academic research on peak performance, sports training, the mind-body connection, and the attainment of excellence. I've also analyzed the lives and careers of many of the greatest sports champions from the past 50 years. With all of this input poured into a metaphorical centrifuge, I was able to isolate the key elements of achievement and stitch together a framework for living and a path to greatness for virtually anyone. The expedition to greatness is not static; it demands change and adaptation, learning and learning some more, letting go of the skills and actions that led to accomplishment at one level and developing new ones. It requires learning how to lead and inspire others and directing your efforts to a deeply meaningful cause.

It is The Dynamic Path.

What Is The Dynamic Path?

The Dynamic Path is a journey to greatness, from individual to champion and from leader to legacy builder. The inherent force throughout the process is dynamism, a positive energy that drives change, vigor, and progress. There are three way-points:

1. Thriving as an Individual. The first stage of The Dynamic Path begins when you thrive as an individual. Through natural talent, dedication, hard work, and mental toughness you can grow to achieve excellence in your chosen field. To become a top performer in any discipline, you need to have a base of natural talent and then sharpen your skills through highly directed practice over an extended period of time. To progress from strong performer to champion, the breakthrough ingredient is mental toughness. Mental toughness allows you to thrive when it counts most, allowing you to remain cool, calm, and collected during the ups and downs of a game, race, match, or business situation. It is this skill that allows you to act in an instinctive and automatic way at the most important moments and turning points of a competition or other high-stakes circumstances. The most surprising finding in the process of researching and writing The Dynamic Path was to learn that through directed practice, repetition, and experience, mental toughness is a learnable skill, not inherently different than building up your aerobic capacity through running or your presentation skills through training and rehearsal. Hall of Fame basketball player, U.S. senator, and Presidential candidate Bill Bradley, for example, developed his ability to make the clutch shots through consistent deliberate practice over many years. After each and every practice, he would stay and shoot for hours in the gym, not allowing himself to leave until he hit 25 shots in a row from five different points around the key. Sometimes he'd get to 23 or 24, miss, and have to go back to zero.

2. Becoming a Leader. At some point, for people in sports, physical ability will ebb and athletic talents will fade. Similarly, in business there comes a point when you have achieved all you can as an individual contributor. This is a "dynamic moment"—a critical career and life turning point. Some ignore the telltale signals of hitting a plateau and try to hang on to what they've got relying on the skills that got them to that point. This is a recipe for disappointment at best, disaster at worst. The reason is that in order to grow you have to change. And you either grow or slide into steady or precipitous decline; there is no staying in place in this life. The athlete who avoids the dismal fate of becoming a fallen champion does so by making a conscious decision to confront the moment and learning how to change from focusing on self towards concentrating on the success of others. That invokes a virtuous cycle in which people soon come to see that you are dedicated to making those around you successful, and they in turn find the motivation to work with or for you. When this happens, success will accrue to you as a natural result—guaranteed. It is one thing to be a star individual contributor in sports, business, or life. It is quite another, ultimately more satisfying and sustaining, to extend beyond oneself to work with and through others. This is how a champion continues to grow as a person and transforms into a leader. Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach is a case in point. While his teammates were playing charity golf outings and the like in the off season, Staubach spent 10 years learning the real estate business to lay the groundwork for a career after football. After launching The Staubach Co., which has become one of the leading commercial real estate companies in the U.S., he built the company on the basis of values of empowerment, mutual respect, opportunity, and the other enduring values of leadership.

3. Building a Legacy. Whether on an historic scale like battling to cure cancer, a large scale like helping inner-city youth find a way out, or on a smaller scale like becoming a mentor, the more you isolate something genuinely meaningful to you that is worth fighting for, the more that your people-, moral- and spiritual-leadership will propel you toward building an enduring legacy. Like the quest for spiritual understanding, people worldwide have a deep-seated urge to be meaningful contributors to the world. When you decide to focus your attention on a particular calling that will make a discernible positive impact on the world, you have moved into the realm of building a legacy. If your cause is worthy and there is a credible reason for selecting it, then you will inspire others to follow along and make a sustaining and positive impact. Tony Hawk, the most successful skateboard champion in history, was determined, for example, to take the good fortune afforded to him by his sport and turn it back for the benefit of others. He established the Tony Hawk Foundation to fund and provide state-of-the-art design for local communities (largely in inner cities) to build skate parks. His foundation has helped build 275 such parks affording safe places for tens of thousands of America's youth to be outside, get exercise, and have positive social interactions with others.

The Key Lesson

Whether you are a CEO, an Olympic athlete, or simply an ambitious "normal" person, The Dynamic Path is a way to live your life if you want to achieve your greatest potential. By following the path you may well achieve aspirations beyond your most ambitious expectations. The Dynamic Path guides you as to how to set goals and move from one stage to another in your life, continually growing and developing as a person. You may be relieved to know that you don't need to be Lance Armstrong, Bill Bradley, or Mia Hamm to be a star and build a legacy. All you need is the motivation, energy, and a little bit of creativity to have a positive and enduring impact on those around you, or even the world at large. With knowledge, commitment, and concentration, you will be able to make substantive progress closing the gap between your actual performance and your ultimate potential. In addition, similar to the enduring champions and great leaders, you always have the opportunity to get outside of yourself and focus on the success of others, which will enhance the success in multiple areas of your life.

While all this sounds nice, it is an empirical fact that to become a true champion requires one to make sacrifices, which can only be sustained by a burning inner desire that needs to be fueled every day. Not everyone wants to assume the responsibilities of leadership or to focus on the success of others around them. And while many people want something that will outlive them and provide a modicum of evidence of a life meaningfully lived, not everyone has the drive or passion to create a bequest of significance.

But for those who aspire to do all of these things, The Dynamic Path is the way.


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