Many successful people have failed

Recently, my wife and I watched three separate music documentaries – the eight part series on Country Music, one on Motown and one on David Bowie. What I find interesting is how many artists had to fight failure to get a chance and gain eventual success. These failures reminded me of other similar stories I have been exposed to.

Garth Brooks, one of the biggest selling artists of any genre, was turned down by every studio in Nashville. The night of the most recent “no, thank you,” Brooks performed at a small venue and that same record producer was in the audience and saw something.

David Bowie made records and even albums, but they went nowhere for years. He never lost hope. After much experimentation, he came up with the idea about a man in space. “Ground control to Major Tom…” became the lyric that peeked our interest in “A Space Oddity.”

The Beatles intrigued a young record producer named George Martin, but he recognized the band needed to practice to learn how to play. Many people don’t know that a fifth Beatle named Stu Sutcliffe was very inexperienced. So, Martin sent them to Hamburg, Germany to play seven shows six nights a week. They had to learn new material.

The Supremes led by Diana Ross were called the “no-hit Supremes” for years as they could not break through. Eventually, Berry Gordy and his writers came up with the right song, “Baby, baby. Where did our love go…”

Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time. Yet, Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team before making the team the following  year. As Dean Smith, Jordan’s college coach would say defending his decision to start Jordan as a freshman, “I put him on the blue practice team and they won. I put him on the white practice team and they won. It did not take a genius to realize we had a better chance to win if he played.”

Steve Jobs was successful with the Apple, but failed to develop the next generation machine. Fortunately, while the team he led was failing, another Apple team plodded along and developed the Macintosh. Jobs took it over and it made history. We should also note, Jobs was later fired from his own company, but  returned to save them and launch the hand held I-series of devices.

Hewlett-Packard failed at its first business. It was a bowling alley scorekeeping system. Yet, they created an organization that allowed the development of new products and were hugely succesful with computers and printers.

Everyone fails at something or even more than a few things. The key is what do you do next. When life knocks you down, you have to get up, dust yourself off and move forward. Or, as Winston Churchill famously said, “When you are walking through hell, the key is to keep walking.”

Great leaders make everyone around them better

Thomas Friedman, the award winning author (“The World is Flat” and “That Used to be Us”), made an important observation in an interview with Charlie Rose. A great leader makes everyone around them better – think Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky or, if you are older, Bill Russell. Donald Trump makes everyone around him worse.

This is a powerful observation. Defending this immoral man requires his people to go to a bad place in their nature. They must lower themselves and lie like he does. General Kelly harmed his reputation by lying about a Congresswoman. Sarah Huckabee-Sanders is not worth listening to as she defends the indefensible with inconsistent and nonsensical statements.

Trump values loyalty over competence, so the tendency to become a sycophant is rewarded. While he does have some competent people, they are fewer in number and the depth of talent is not as much as needed. Many experienced people could have helped him, but they either did not pass the loyalty test or chose not to work with such a narcissistic man. His team is not deep and they are very distracted trying to keep Trump between the white lines, so they cannot focus on global trends, issues and strategy.

On the flip side, I think of great leaders like Paul O’Neill, who turned around Alcoa by opening communication channels which improved productivity and safety. I think about my former boss whose mantra was hire good people and have them go see our clients. He kept senior leadership off your back and empowered you to work with others to serve.

Let me close with a story about Bill Russell, the NBA Hall of Famer with the Boston Celtics. He did all the heavy lifting (rebounding, defense, passing, blocked shots) letting his teammates do most of the scoring. His Celtics won eleven championships, his college team won two NCAA championships and he was on a Gold Medal Olympic team.

Great leaders make everyone around them better.

Thank the passer – a legacy of Dean Smith

For those who follow basketball, the legendary basketball coach Dean Smith passed away this weekend. Smith coached the University of North Carolina Tar Heels for many years to great basketball success. He also coached the US Olympics basketball team to the Gold medal when we still used amateur players. A great many things are being said about Smith by his former players, fans and the media. They are all deserved. Last fall, his wife accepted the US Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

Smith did much to help young men grow into adults. He taught valuable lessons about basketball, but life as well. He also helped integrate the UNC team with its first African-American player, which is widely known. But, he also helped integrate the Town of Chapel Hill by eating in restaurants with African-Americans. He did not want fanfare over this, as he noted to author John Feinstein, who was told the story by someone else, “doing the right thing should not get publicity.”

Being a former basketball player, I also wanted to share a basketball and life lesson that Smith instilled in his players. This may sound trite at first, but please bear with me. Smith made his players who just scored a basket to acknowledge the person who passed him the ball as they ran back down the court. If you have played basketball, you know that the most fun thing to do is score. Yet, this is a team game, just like life. Someone else saw that you had a better chance to score and passed you the ball.

This sounds so simple, but at the end of the 1970s, the NBA had turned into a game of individual moves to score. This individualism promoted selfish play and the NBA was in trouble. In fact, TV ratings were so down, some of the Championship games were shown on tape delay at 11:30 pm. Think about that. It was not until Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the NBA in 1980, that the NBA started a come back. These two players were renowned for their passing ability and seeing a bigger court.

Smith knew this first hand, which is why he had his players acknowledge the passer. Just as in life, most success involves a team effort. Of course, there are stars, but Michael Jordan, who played for Smith, knew he needed a good team to win. So, as a former basketball player who took pride in passing, I admired this trait. It is a good one to take away from the court. I have made this point before about the best leaders – they tend to deflect credit to others. This is a great way to sum up Dean Smith, he deflected credit to others. But, they knew who passed them the ball and are pointing back at him.

Rest in peace Coach Smith.

I succeed because I’ve failed

A key lesson for all of us is we will fail at some point in our lives and we may fail more than once. The key to success is what do you do when you fail. I was struck by this quote from Michael Jordan’s whose basketball prowess and effort should be admired – “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots…I’ve lost almost 300 games…I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And, that is why I succeed.”

With all of his talent, Jordan worked harder than anyone to succeed. He also encouraged others to do the same, so he helped his teammates become better. People that know him say he was one of the more driven people they have ever met. Like many athletes, they are driven to avoid failure, to avoid losing. Jordan also worked at the less popular parts of the game – his defense. As my basketball coach said often, you can have an off night on offense, but you can never have an off night on defense. Defense wins games in almost any team sport.

In my senior year of high school, I was demoted from the first team to the second team. That hurt as there is pride involved with starting. So, I remembered my brother being a terrific sixth man. For those who do not follow basketball, the sixth man is usually the first person off the bench to spell the starters and gets about as much playing time as a starter. So, what did I do about it? I worked my fanny off in practice to be that one person the coach would call upon. I was a good defender, but I worked hard at being a better one covering our best big player in practice every day. I told myself I am going to prevent him from scoring in our team drills today. And, I would go do it.

Two things happened. We were better because he got better as I made him work harder for the ball. Bill Walton, one of the greatest college (and a great pro) players ever to play the game, used to say the best player he played against was his teammate, Swen Nater who made Walton better every day. Nater also became a pretty good pro player. The point to both Nater and my story is we both failed to start, but we did not let that bother us. We worked hard, got playing time and helped our teams win the best way we could. Although it is a different sport, I recall the great golfer Gary Player’s quote when answering a question about a “lucky shot.” Player said “I find the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

One of my sons did not do his best recently and he failed to achieve the success he wanted. He has since righted the ship and is doing what he is capable of doing, but when we were having a conversation about next steps, I told him a story from Coach K, the legendary Duke University coach. I shared with him when I had failed, but added this quote as it is pertinent. Early in Coach K’s tenure at Duke, their season ended with a drubbing from Virginia in the ACC tournament, something like 109-66. At the team party, a booster toasted “Here is to forgetting about this game.” Coach K quickly corrected him, “Here is to NEVER forgetting about this game.” I told my son never to forget this feeling as you need to do your best to avoid feeling this way in the future.

Failure is the best teacher. We should learn from it as it not fun. Life will knock you down, so dust yourself and get back up. But, remember why you got knocked down. The only thing you can control is you. So, make yourself better. There are two key lessons here. Winston Churchill is the greatest leader of the 20th century and the world owes him and his fellow Britains a great thank you for standing up against Hitler. His message was very clear – “Never, ever give up.” If he had, the US would be a very different place today. So, first and foremost, do not give up.

The other lesson is to learn from your mistakes. I have written a blog about my favorite business book – “Built to Last” – which looks at the common traits of highly successful companies. One of the traits is “good enough never is.” Many of these companies actually failed in their first efforts, but did not let that stop them. But, even when they had success, they never stopped improving. There is an old business change line that it is easier to change a company with a burning platform. It is harder to change one that has success. So, when you fail at something, learn from why you failed. Did you not study enough? Were you not prepared enough? But, also after you have success, do not forget to look for ways to improve. Do what it takes to not fail.

Let me close with one final piece of advice – don’t be afraid to fail. Jim Furyk, the great golfer with the unusual swing is noted to be as tough as nails as a competitor. One reason is he is not afraid to fail. He described a story as a very good basketball player on a good team. He wanted to take the last shot even when the other team knew he would. He told the coach the reason is he could handle the failure of missing better than his teammates. Jordan was like that as well.  So, don’t give up, learn from your mistakes and don’t be afraid to fail.

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PS – I have added a postscript to this as I want to reference a marvelous piece written this morning by Hugh Curtler at www.hughcurtler.wordpress.com on “Contrasting Heroes.” Please read the post and the wonderful comments. I admire Jordan and Tiger Woods greatly for their athletic achievements. They are very similar in talent, temperament and work ethic. Yet, they are also similar in another way as is pointed out in Hugh’s post and comments. Both have failed to use their notoriety to speak out for those who are disenfranchised in this world. I would love for them to remedy this failure and mirror their athletic achievements.

There are three people I mention in my comments to Hugh’s post who did not shirk their responsibilities. Jim Brown, the football great, and Bill Russell, the basketball great, both spoke out against racial inequity and abetted the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. But, a real hero is Harry Belafonte, the singer/ actor who used his notoriety to make a huge difference in the US, South Africa and around the world on helping those in need. There is an excellent documentary on HBO that shares the heroic life of Belafonte.