Sport is a competitive game - ferociously, brutally competitive. Wild emotional rides with amazing highs and devastating lows. The elite receive obscene money and accolades - enough to make some feel bullet-proof at a time in their lives when they are most prone to social risk-taking and misdirection. Combine this with a generation who've been spoon-fed on instant messaging, social media narcissism, and instant gratification. Who in their right mind would be a professional coach?
For players and coaches alike; it's performance based job security - just like sales. For sports administrators, they need to drive sponsorship, advertising and broadcast rights which all depend on winning and managing the brand. But there is huge latent risk waiting to strike within every athlete. Many clubs have suffered the consequences of their male athletes succumbing to the most base instincts after combining drugs or alcohol with enough testosterone coursing through veins to rival Lance at his peak. Football teams participating in end of season bonding trips that result in alcohol induced fights, sexual misconduct and general destructiveness. As well as misdemeanours in the athlete's own time, away from the control of club management, all damage the team's brand.
I'm a huge fan of cycling and read all of Lance Armstrong's books, and most of those written about him. He took me on an amazing journey over the years as I followed his career but it ended with disappointment. He embodied the psychology of self-destruction with a 'winning at all costs' ethos. His bullying was couched as strong leadership. His cheating was portrayed as 'optimising performance within the rules'. His lies were a façade hiding a cancer that had returned to eat away at his soul. From hero to pariah - history will not be kind to the Armstrong Legacy despite all the good he has also done in the world.
Here's the thing about success - you only really know if you were truly successful after the passage of time. I contrast Lance with Tyler Hamilton, another fallen elite cyclist yet he is authentic, transparent and I remain a huge fan. He was unrivalled in his ability to suffer, and he was all about the team. I rate his book, The Secret Race, as one of the best ever sports biographies - it's an amazing compelling read.
There are literally dozens of sporting stories I could recount and analogies I could make concerning positive or negative team culture. Every team player, every manager, every coach, every club administrator, and every team owner; talks about their culture. But whatis 'culture' and why does it matter?
Culture is everything. It's the glue that holds a team together amidst losing runs, scandal and tough times. Good culture keeps players grounded and protects them against self-destructive arrogance, selfishness and avarice when on a winning streak. Sometimes true leadership and great team culture happens when a player says: 'Give me the ball, I'll make the shot'. Other times it when a player says: 'The best position for me to play in right now is on the bench.'
What is culture? It's the behaviour of people, plain and simple. You only see the real person under pressure - on and off the field, track, court, or arena. Culture is not a poster on the wall articulating vision, mission and values. Instead it's the values lived by every player in the team, on and off the field. Here is my article on culture and how to create the right one in any organization.
The world is awash with sporting metaphors for business and sales. I enjoy reading them too - stories about inspirational determination, overcoming adversity, great comebacks, and a 'never say die' attitude. It all pumps you up to help deal with failure or rejection. It's the subject of great books and movies. But most of these stories don't define the culture of a team. Here is the most incredible example of an entire industry's culture, let alone a team, that I've come across. I think it's the most powerful sporting story globally in 2014 - the death of Phillip Hughes.
For my readers in America, cricket is Australia's national sport and huge in India, South Africa and England. Phillip Hughes was the youngest cricketer in history to score centuries in both innings of a Test match (each team bats twice in the five-day format), and he later became the first Australian batsman in the history of one-day international cricket to score a century on debut. On November 27, 2014, he was batting for South Australia and in contention for a call-up to the Australia test team. He was struck on the neck by a fast bouncing delivery and collapsed. He was rushed to hospital where, sadly, he died.
Adversity, tragedy, extreme pressure - it's where we see the real culture behind the carefully managed façade. Everything that unfolded was heart wrenching yet truly inspiring. It showed what the players, leaders, administrators, fans, commentators and media were made of in the world of cricket.
Cricketers from around the world stopped to acknowledge the tragedy. Matches were abandoned in Australia and the first test match between Australia and India was deferred. Teams and crowds around the world made tributes. Australia's captain, Michael Clarke, showed impeccable leadership and class. He loved Phillip Hughes like a brother and supported the family as well as the team. The administration of cricket focussed on the welfare of players and the Hughes family. Players, boards and associations from all over the world came together as one to share in the loss. The media didn't over-sensationalize or invade the space of grieving players or family - everyone worked together on both sides of the fence. Spontaneously, cricket bats and caps were left leaning everywhere in tribute.
Source: The Australian Newspaper
The grieving process was fostered and supported by cricket's administration but they especially focused on helping the bowler who had delivered the fatal ball. It was just an accident and not his fault - they made sure he knew it and so did the rest of the community. There was no attempt to leverage the public's grief for the benefit of the game. There was no consideration given to the financial ramifications of abandoning a test match that would have been watched by millions. Television stations did not threaten lawsuits.
Cricket is a family game and they campaign for violence against women and raise money for breast cancer. Wives, kids and girlfriends (WAGs) go away with the team. Cricket administrators understand that a happy and balanced person makes the best possible team-member, on and off the field. Values matter because we bring all of who we are to everything we do.
The next test match went ahead and was hugely emotional. Australia won the toss and chose to bat. The captain, Michael Clarke, was injured and taken to hospital, retired hurt at 60 runs with a bad back injury. Everyone assumed he would not return in the match. The next day when an Australian wicket fell, Michael Clarke walked out to resume his innings with pain-killing injections. He scored a century and looked to the sky to acknowledge his fallen mate. So did Steve Smith who ran to Phillip Hughes' player number painted on the field and looked to the heavens as he raised his bat (pictured in the main photo on this LinkedIn post). Smith would later replace Clarke as Captain who's career is in serious doubt due to ongoing back and hamstring injuries.
Phillip Hughes died doing what he loved and Cricket Australia amended the scorecard from his final match to be '63 not out' instead of '63 retired hurt'. Cricket's standing has risen in a world where other sport is often compromised by commercialism. Michael Clarke's captaincy will become legend whether he returns or not. This is an example of the very best of culture in sport and leadership; where public and private, personal and professional coalesce seamlessly.
As a leader in sport, business, politics or a not-for-profit, don't allow yourself to think you can compartmentalize your life or project a persona that is not real. It is a mistake to think that love and sex are different, that church and work have no connection, that ethics and morality are subjective and situational. Never seek to manufacture an image different to who you really are. Anthony Howard taught me that there is no such thing as authentic leadership... just authentic people in leadership positions.
I wrote earlier in this article that you only really know if you were truly successful when you look back through the passage of time. Although results matter, and our actions and behaviors define us; it's who we become that determines the real value of everything we pursue. People will forget your achievements but they'll always remember how you made them feel. Phillip Hughes made his teammates feel great. He was positive, down to earth, had a wonderful sense of humor, a strong work ethic, and he was committed to becoming a better cricketer and a better person. He was the real deal and achieved so very much in his 26 years - he will be forever '63 not out'.
Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at www.TonyHughes.com.au or his sales methodology website at http://www.rsvpselling.com/.
Main image photo Courtesy by: Cricket Australia
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