Tears from Bordeaux: Leadership Lessons from a Failure to Win Gold
HOW COULD I be spending 10 days in Bordeaux, the premium wine district in France, yet feel unhappy? I had no work to do, was surrounded by beautiful scenery, and found amazing French cuisine around every corner. Yet, there I was, feeling sorry for myself.
Was I somehow looking at circumstances the wrong way?
Sure, I was honored to be representing Canada at the Senior World Water Ski Championships. But when I didn’t ski as well as expected, I suddenly lost my equilibrium. Friends and family tried to cheer me up, but a pat on the back from well-meaning supporters didn’t help much, especially when my expectations were linked to either a gold, silver, or bronze medal.
Most would expect a rational, logical response to this situation from a 67-year-old who had for many years been CEO of a major construction and real estate enterprise. Yet I was letting my emotions take over. I didn’t throw my ski or swear a blue streak, but I found it hard to enjoy the beauty and bounty around me.
Where did these feelings of despair come from? Shouldn’t I be able to lift myself out of the pit I’d fallen into? Couldn’t I replace the feelings of discouragement with different thoughts so I could I be happy in France in spite of how I had skied?
Could cultivating more emotional intelligence have helped? I believe so. Surprisingly, when we become more curious, more patient, and more humble, we can cope with challenges and disappointments much more effectively as leaders — and competitive athletes. Permit me to explain:
In essence, curiosity is a hunger to know more and have a greater understanding. It’s a drive to discover and to expand our horizons. Instead of focusing on what I hadn’t accomplished, I would have been wise to remain curious. I could have asked myself, “What can I learn from this? How can I get better?” Had I done this, I could have remained grounded and grateful rather than so self-focused and critical of my performance.
Many executives, early in their careers, possess unbridled curiosity. But as time goes on and they achieve greater success, they allow their curiosity to fall to the wayside and therefore constrict their potential to learn. This is true in both business and in sports. As the great former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “A leader who is through learning is through.”
I arrived in France full of optimism, believing I had a good chance of finishing on the podium in my division. Although belief in our own abilities is important, confidence is overrated. What’s more, relying on ourselves puts a lot of weight squarely on our own shoulders. This burden can weigh us down and prevent us from performing at our best.
In contrast, humility helps us to achieve more than we ever thought possible. Rather than trying to cultivate confidence, we should focus on cultivating humility. Instead of believing or trusting in ourselves, we’d be wise to trust in our training.
As most athletes will admit, confidence is hard to conjure up and to sustain. However, putting our faith in the process can be liberating. Doing so takes the pressure off our performance and puts it where it belongs — on the process. With this approach, we can do the hard work required to hone our craft, and then when it’s time to perform we can be more relaxed and trust that we’ve put in the work required to excel. Former New York Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez famously quipped that he was paid as a baseball player “to get hits.” However, instead of trying to get hits, he focused on trying to get four good “at-bats” each game. If he could do that, he said, “the hits would always come.”
Humility begins with introspection and an honest appraisal of oneself. Just like looking in the mirror, humility gives us an accurate picture of ourselves.
Warren Buffet recently noted, “The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”
After my disappointing result in France, I felt like quitting as a competitive skier. Thankfully, my wife talked some sense into me, encouraging me to remember how far I’d come. She re-focused my attention on preparing for the next World Championships in two years.
Patience comes from the Latin word “Pati,” which means to suffer. Therefore, patience can be understood as a willingness to suffer (or tolerate) delay without getting all bent out of shape. Raphael Nadal, the legendary tennis star with more Grand Slam victories than any male tennis player in history, emphasizes that in order to win, he needs to be “willing to suffer.” We can all learn from his example.
Yet, in a culture geared to rapid or instantaneous responses to almost everything, we’re not accustomed to being patient. In our world, waiting is rarely required, and that’s made us unwilling to exercise patience. Rather than accepting that many circumstances are beyond our control, we plan our days and our lives around the mistaken expectation that traffic always runs smoothly, parking spots are always available, and flights are always on time. It would be nice if those expectations were met, but the reality is usually very different. We’ll continue to be frustrated and impatient unless we come to accept that life doesn’t always unfold as we hoped or planned.
To retain or recover our emotional bearings when things don’t go as planned, cultivating our emotional intelligence and working to become more curious, more humble, and more patient will improve our attitude.
These tips will help leaders and athletes alike to develop these soft skills.
- Ask lots of open-ended questions
- Listen eagerly to other’s perspectives
- Spend time with people who are more gifted than you
- Ask yourself, at the end of each day, if you’ve learned something new
- Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses
- Be open to new ideas
- Willingly receive input from others
- Take time to collect information before acting
- Set realistic goals
- Celebrate incremental accomplishments
- Remember that life is difficult
- Breathe deeply
My trip to Bordeaux was a major disappointment. But it wasn’t just because I didn’t win a medal. It was disappointing because I’d been looking at life the wrong way. Instead of being grateful for the opportunity and enjoying the experience, I’d been caught up in the quest to win. In hindsight, I missed out on what could have been a great vacation.
The next time, in addition to taking my ski equipment, I plan to also bring along curiosity, humility, and patience. Not only do I think they’ll be good traveling companions, they might also help me to perform better.
David C. Bentall is the founder of Next Step Advisors and has been advising family enterprises for over 25 years. He also has a deep understanding of the succession process, acquired as a third-generation executive in his family’s real estate and construction businesses. Additionally, he is a gifted author, coach, speaker, and facilitator. His latest book, Dear Younger Me: Wisdom for Family Enterprise Successors, explores the character traits critical for navigating the interpersonal demands of a family business enterprise. Learn more at NextStepAdvisors.ca.
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