Competitiveness is a highly valued trait in most circles because it’s often the fuel to success and achievement. Having been in the business world after university and having played sports ever since I was in elementary school, I’ve been around the aura of competitiveness nearly all my life. In those settings, I’ve heard many people, including myself, describe themselves as highly competitive.
The wildly popular Netflix series Ozark recently finished its five-year run as one of the most-watched, binged and acclaimed streaming series in history. With veteran actors Jason Bateman (Marty Byrd) and Laura Linney (Wendy Byrd) anchoring the cast, and the meteoric rise of Julie Garner (Ruth Langmore), talent was certainly one foundation to the show’s success.
In our personal lives, especially those of us who communicate using technology or social media regularly, we are accustomed to nomenclature such as “followers,” “viewers,” or those who “liked” or “shared” something we thought was valuable.
We all learn mostly from those who are in our lives such as our parents and family, close friends, religious leaders, teachers, mentors and coaches. Once in a while, we are blessed with the luxury of watching, listening and observing someone from afar that exponentially adds to the collective perspective and wisdom absorbed from those that have been part of our lives.
When two people with familiarity and professional chemistry build unbreakable trust, they form a bond that benefits their team, company or organization, especially at the most critical moment.
That was the case in last night’s stirring AFC Divisional Round playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills. The entire sporting world and beyond is describing the electrifying 42-26 Chiefs OT victory as one of the best football games ever. There was one spectacular play after another under pressure by both teams, no turnovers and just four penalties.
Any loss is difficult for the ultra-competitive Nick Saban, head coach of Alabama football, who many consider the best college football coach of all-time. But a loss in the national championship game is most painful for someone whose singular goal is winning the national championship.
For 15 years at Alabama, and at LSU and Michigan State before, he has led programs to sustained success including a remarkable seven national championships. Despite unparalleled success, he is never complacent, turning the page on the last championship to focus on the season ahead. That competitiveness is embedded in the culture of his program.
Once in a generation, maybe once in a lifetime, our lives intersect with that one-of-a-kind person. The one who inspires and challenges us, makes us look deep inside ourselves to find untapped potential we never knew existed and helps us go to places we never knew we could. If we’re lucky, it’s more than an intersection, but a journey that allows us to seek that person’s steady heart, mind and hand in good times and times of adversity throughout life.
The world has always had – and will always have - problems and challenges. Fortunately, the world has also always had optimistic, industrious, curious and relentless people who choose to focus on solutions instead of those problems and challenges.
Solutions for every walk of life. For example, our health (life expectancy has increased from about 50 to about 80 the past 150 years); our ability to connect physically (planes, trains and automobiles, etc.) or virtually (Facetime, Teams, Zoom, Duo, smartphones, etc.); or moral evolution (more opportunities for all people no matter their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).
The Kansas City Chiefs have a rare luxury in sports – a fan base that always cares, win or lose. Sure, attendance will decrease if the losses continue, but apathy will never set in. When adversity hits, Chiefs’ fans manifest their “caring” in a confluence of disappointment, anger, “suggestions” on social media and sports radio, and hope, lots of hope, for resurgence. And there has been plenty of all of that the last few weeks as the Chiefs, a Super Bowl Champion two years ago and the Super Bowl runner-up last year, are struggling at 3-4 and in danger of missing the playoffs if they don’t right the ship.
I wrote a post earlier this year called “Leaders Need No Crown,” to underscore that one doesn’t need to have a title or be the head of any group of people to be a leader. Flipping that into a positive, the post implied that people without titles like director, manager, coach, pastor, CEO, quarterback, professor, president, etc. can be just as valuable as leaders, if not more, if they exhibit certain character traits, inherent or learned, and turn them into desired actions.
In the fictional, five-season TV drama series Friday Night Lights (now of Netflix), which was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 2011, when Dillon (Texas) High School Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) went to visit his recently paralyzed all-American quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter), he found his former QB1 understandably wallowing in self-pity and self-doubt about what his future would be, not just in football, but in life, since he couldn’t move his legs or arms. The two had a brief, subdued interaction as the coach did most of the talking. However, as he turned to leave, Street said to his coach: “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”
I’ve always had passion for leadership. Leadership is essential to making the world better in an infinite number of ways. Some leaders are visionary and can see solutions before problems even exist. Some leaders have the ability to be a calming or inspirational presence even without being present. The best leaders have a common tenant – rather than for power, glory or ego, their motivation to lead is to serve others.
Weaved into the fabric of America is sacrificing for the common good to preserve and advance our collective freedom.
Americans united and sacrificed during World War I and World War II not only by going to war across the oceans as a soldier, medic, nurse or cook, but in so many others ways right here in the United States.
Last week the University of Missouri named Desiree Reed-Francois the first female athletic director in its history. That also made her the first female athletic director at any public university in the SEC. She is only the sixth female athletic director among the 65 universities of the Power 5 conferences in college athletics.
Reed-Francois said in her press conference that she hopes a day will come when no one has to point out those gender-centric rarities. While we are evolving, we are still a long way from that.
We’ve all been there. A high-stakes business presentation. A final exam. A championship game. A difficult conversation involving conflict. A theatrical performance. An agonizing life and death decision. A big speech.
The moment can be overwhelming. It’s often a heavy burden to carry because of its pivotal nature. Laced with unbelievable pressure, knowing what you do in the moment not only affects you; but possibly family and friends; maybe your business colleagues and company; your teammates; or maybe even people you’ve don’t know or will never meet.
It’s a common refrain: “I don’t know what to believe and what news to trust.” No wonder people feel that way with the proliferation of cable channels, streaming networks, podcasts, radio shows and social media during the past 15 years.
According to a Pew Research Center study from September 2020, 88% get their news from their smartphone, tablet or computer. Another 68% get at least part of their news from TV sources, 50% percent from radio and 32% from newspaper/magazines (print and digital).
It’s not far-fetched to say many only watch the networks that reinforce their beliefs and assumptions. And it’s even less of a leap to say that the most-watched cable news networks such as CNN, FOX and MSNBC certainly skew their presentation of “news” – sometimes under the guise of “entertainment” and sometimes bordering on “propaganda.” That’s not to say there aren’t outstanding, objective journalists at all three networks who are diligent and present facts. But as the evening wears on, the line becomes blurred between news, entertainment and pure opinion, often not based on facts.
For all of my life, I have loved nearly every type of music. I have a playlist called “Decades” with hundreds of songs I started populating in my car on Amazon Music on a long, solo round-trip. I asked Alexa to play the top songs of each year, and if I liked it, I simply said “Alexa, add to playlist ‘Decades,’” which includes my favorite songs ranging from the 18th Century through 2020. When I say “Alexa shuffle ‘Decades,’” someone with me may wonder if I’ve lost my organizational acumen as a variety of seemingly random genres including classical, rock, alternative, pop, rap and more sound off.
It’s conventional thinking to assume you should have a lot in common with someone to enable you to become friends or develop any kind of relationship. There’s no doubt that common interests can be the foundation for conversation that flows easier. The topics are familiar to both people and there are common points of references to ponder, laugh about or even debate.
However, differences I have with some of my family and friends add texture and value to my life. Differences offer an opportunity to learn from each other and expand our horizons. They lead to experiences we may never have considered whether they are as adventurous as skydiving or as cerebral as learning to play music.
I was in a strategic marketing class in Duke University’s Executive Education program, bursting with anticipation at the thought of the guest speaker about to step to the podium. I had recently watched him coach Duke to two straight national championships and attended the second one myself. He was already a national coaching icon, having elevated the Blue Devils to elite status. He wasn’t there to regale us with stories about the miracles his players consistently pulled off in high-pressure moments, although our class would have eaten it up.
The pandemic has tested everyone’s will and resolve. It has been a battle against the invisible, so much so that unless someone had experienced it or knew of someone who had fallen victim to it, some considered it imaginary. But it was indescribably real to so many who contracted the Covid virus. And the reality was experienced in spades by those who had to heal the afflicted.
Healthcare workers have been justifiably lauded as heroes during the past year-plus. They have shown incredible courage, determination and an ability to stare adversity in the face daily, and never back down. Some of them may have been inspired by the top medical or nursing officer at their hospital or clinic. But ultimately, they had to reach into their own hearts and souls to answer the bell. Even knowing the risks to themselves and their families, they still rose to help so many others they did not even know.
My fourth-grade music teacher required each of us to stand in front of the class and sing. Not as a group, so I could quietly let others who actually like to be heard carry the harmony. Solo. Impromptu. I don’t think it was intended to teach us music as much as it was to test our courage. I failed miserably on both counts.
Those who know me know that I’m an introvert and generally one of the quieter people in the room. But even as an introvert, I’m comfortable speaking in front of groups, making points and raising questions in meetings, making presentations and engaging with conviction as long as I am saying something meaningful rather than making small talk. In fourth grade, describing me as an introvert would have been a gross understatement. I was painfully shy and just getting me to TALK in a group was hard enough, but singing a spontaneous solo in front of my classmates? I froze. Mark me down for an “F” on the experiment.
It’s incredible how much clarity the Gray Area can provide. Too often, when we only see black and white, A or Z, progressive or conservative, rap or classical, football or soccer, us or them, on and on – we become insular, limited and finite. Those who wander into the Gray Area find ample space to think, believe, value and embrace opportunities, some never dreamed. Solutions to challenges that befuddle the muddied and gridlocked endpoints.
Some universally life altering. Like thinking the world is flat vs. orbiting Saturn. Or rubbing two sticks together vs. lighting up the world with the flick of a billion fingers. Or thinking age 35 is a life well-lived vs. beating polio, pneumonia and cancer on the way to celebrating the century mark.
About the Gray Area
The world is a better place when we work as a team, listening, understanding, thinking and then talking with each other about solutions to our challenges. Too often, we lose sight of that and become entrenched in what we already know or experienced, rather than consider what we haven't.
The Gray Area may highlight examples of solutions derived by saying "what about?" "why not?" or "think about." Sometimes, it will surface unconventional ideas for potential solutions.
Topics could include leadership, policy, sports, economics, music, culture and more.
It's a place for possibilities, not absolutes.
Please feel free to share your own thoughts about Gray Area posts on LInkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
I was born with critical thinking, trained to think objectively in journalism school at Mizzou, and to think about many perspectives at business school at Mizzou and Duke.