February 20, 2018

Moments that Transcend Winning

We regularly hear laments about our win-at-all-cost culture. And in fact, a blind spot for many successful executives is an excessive need to compete and win at everything they do, a morale-sapping trait that can lead to a coach being called to help them exorcise it.

This post isn’t a “what’s the world is coming to?” lament because it is not true that "winning is the only thing"…not all the time, at least. This post is a reminder that those moments that transcend winning often create more lasting impressions.

I was living in Tucson about 15 years ago and went to a neighbor’s house for a dinner party. There were a number of people there I hadn’t met before. One was an ex-professional baseball player named Eddie. He wasn’t a star player…more of a journeyman…playing a number of different positions on a number of different teams, including the White Sox, Indians, Yankees and the, at that time, Washington Senators.

I had never had the chance to have an extended exchange with a professional athlete. I wasn’t sure what to ask that wouldn’t seem silly so I just said, “I would love to hear your favorite story of your time in the Majors.” “That’s easy,” he said.

It was the late 1960s. Eddie was playing for the NY Yankees and the Washington Senators were in town. Ted Williams was managing the Senators at that time.

For those who aren’t American sports fans, Ted Williams is widely regarded as the greatest hitter of all time and by many as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. There is no argument over the fact that he is the last player to bat .400 for an entire season, a feat so difficult that even in the era of performance enhancing drugs, the mark has stood for almost 75 years.

Eddie was sitting in the locker room before the game and someone told him Ted Williams wanted to see him. He went to the Senators locker room, and Ted said, “I want you to know that I am going to be trading for you next year,” and asked Eddie what he thought about that. Eddie was delighted and they spent some time discussing how Ted saw him fitting in with the Senators.

As Eddie stood to head back, Ted said to him, “By the way, we keep getting you out on sliders (a kind of pitch in baseball). You’re pulling your front shoulder out too fast. If you keep your shoulder in and down and take the pitch to the opposite field, it won’t be so easy to get you out.”

In the game that night, in his first at bat with two runners on, Eddie was, as usual, getting a steady dose of sliders. He did what Williams told him…kept his shoulder in and down…and ripped a slider into the opposite field gap, scoring both runners and sliding safely into third with a triple.

As he dusted himself off, he looked over at the Senators dugout and Williams was standing on the top step…applauding! Williams’ pitcher looked on in absolute dismay trying to figure out why his manager was cheering a player from the other team who had just knocked in two runs and was 90 feet from home.

For Williams, in that moment, the skill, the art of hitting, and helping someone with it was more important than the score.

I think this is an amazing story. But what is even more amazing about it to me is that an ex-Major leaguer’s favorite story was not about his exploits…his game winning catch or his upper deck home run…or the adoration of the fans. Sure it’s a success story, but it is really a story about moments when teaching something one cares about and developing someone are more important than anything else.

Do you have anything like that? Perhaps it is something you just can’t stop reading about, studying, sharing with others. Maybe you offer internal seminars or brown-bags to help those around you. Is it so important to you that you would teach it to the competition? OK, maybe you don’t travel to their headquarters to share it, but perhaps you write articles in trade journals or you speak about it at conferences or talk at length to people who reach out to you.

If you do, know this: something besides knowledge comes through in those personal exchanges. Not only a love for the thing itself, but also a demonstration that for a moment at least, teaching and helping and caring are more important than who wins or who gets credit.

There is something else here worth noting: what you teach and the way you teach it can have such a profound impact on the other person, so much so, it may one day be their favorite story about their career.

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