At a recent meeting with a group of business leaders, I was asked to give an example of something I’ve learned in my athletic career which applies to any organization. There are countless references, but my first thought was, “Get the right people on the bus. Talent is important but character is superior.”
Who are the right people? Although a minimum level of talent is necessary to be competitive, character takes precedence. I’ve been on teams with superior talent who underachieved. I’ve been on teams with average (at best) talent who overachieved. Intangibles can be difficult to explain but easy to identify. I’ve had many exceptional teammates, but today I’ll highlight three whose character made them the right people for any bus:
Contagious Intensity: Chester Frazier (teammate at the University of Illinois → currently an assistant coach at Virginia Tech University) — Average teammates are thermometers; they read the temperature. They allow the environment to dictate their own energy and engagement. Great teammates are thermostats; they regulate the temperature. They impact the environment with the intensity they bring. Chester’s intensity was so high that it forced everyone else to level up. Have you ever gone head-to-head with someone who was fully engaged and brought all their energy to the task? They are impossible to compete with unless you also raise your game. Thank you, Chester, for elevating the entire team with your intensity. Regardless if it was a practice or game, you pushed the pace, and the rest of us had no choice but to follow suit.
Joy in the Fight: David Lighty (teammate in France → currently playing professionally in Europe) — Good teammates compete. Great teammates compete with a positive spirit that is infectious to the group. David and I were teammates for four seasons, and I’m not sure if he ever had a bad day. Optimistic. Vocal. Enthusiastic. Competitive. Every. Day. It didn’t matter what we were doing — preseason workout, shooting, weights, friendly match or championship game (we won three titles together) — this man was all there! He didn’t need anything from the outside to get him going; he simply enjoyed working on his craft and loved to compete. It’s no coincidence he’s the all-time winningest player in BigTen men’s basketball history. Thank you, David, for teaching me competitive joy through your daily example! Your enthusiasm in the grind made it fun to come to work every day.
Relish the Role: John Little (teammate in Germany → currently an assistant coach for G League Wisconsin Herd) — Good teammates know their role and play within it. Great teammates embrace and maximize it. John had a tough job — defending the opposing team’s point guard full court and turning him as many times as possible. It’s a challenge to pressure talented players the entire 94 feet. His efforts didn’t typically show in the box score, but his relentlessness exhausted the opposition over time. He reveled in his part because he understood the opportunity within it. John’s toughness in the unseen gave us the identity of a dogged and selfless team. He could’ve played 35 minutes and taken two shots, yet be more enthused than anyone about his role. Thank you, John, for being a humble warrior on the court!
Once you get to a certain level, everyone is talented. It’s true in college athletics and even more so in professional. It’s evident in any competitive industry. I’m convinced that the character of the individual members is what separates good teams from great ones. A team comprised of high character individuals will stay committed and become stronger through challenges…and the end result will be greater than the sum of its parts.
Explore Further: Who > What or Where
“Get the right people on the bus” is one of the principles in Jim Collins book “Good to Great.” Collins says, “First who, then what…Those who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus and the right people in the key seats before they figure out where to drive the bus.”
I also love this quote from John Maxwell: “A nightmare is a big dream with a bad team.”