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Leading with Character: Winning with Character

This past weekend was quite a doozie for football fans. I’m not one. Even so, I couldn’t miss the headlines on Monday analyzing the breathtaking game between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs. It became a contest between two leaders, the uber-talented quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. After an odd overtime spectacle that left one leader watching from the bench, the victory went narrowly to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Character Matters
The irony is, such a close and exciting game between two remarkably skilled teams ended up being settled by a coin toss. Huh? Although I don’t understand the ins and outs of football, I can see the direct correlation of leadership on the playing field with leadership in the workplace. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good you or your team are; it comes down to luck. Sometimes, you get left on the sidelines. You can’t control the outcome, but you have complete control over how you react. It comes down to character.

Act Like You’ve Been There Before
I revere my high school track coach, Ed Holshue. He showed us girls how to work hard and persevere. He didn’t cut us any slack. But he took care of us. When I was in high school back in the mid-1970’s, Title IX had recently been enacted. It required equal opportunity for girls and women in education. As a result, our girls track team had an assigned coach, not just a volunteer. But, we didn’t have much funding. Many of us girls were practicing and competing in cheap sneakers and dress socks. One day when we all showed up for practice, coach issued us each a pair of white athletic socks he had purchased with his own money.

Most of all, Coach Holshue taught us how to be athletes of character. Athletes are often told to be gracious when they lose, but how about when they win? Coach told us, “when you win, act like you’ve been there before.”

Character in Action
Nearly 40 years later, when I was assigned as superintendent at the US Coast Guard Academy, I took pride in watching CGA Bears sports teams at play. The Academy is a Division III school with just under 1,000 cadets, or students. It was always a challenge to field a full complement of men’s and women’s sports teams when competing against schools with up to 10,000 students. Sometimes we lost and it hurt, particularly when the opposing team whooped it up and “over-celebrated.” Despite our small size, we often won. And in those cases, I was proud that our cadets demonstrated dignity and compassion for the opposing team. When you win, act like you’ve been there before. That’s character in action.

Last Sunday, millions of viewers witnessed character in action. The Bills quarterback, Josh Allen, sat in stunned silence after the game so abruptly ended, seemingly without giving the Bills a fair shot at participating in the overtime. He seemed to accept the outcome with dignity. In a surprise post-game move, the victorious Chiefs quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, immediately ran down the field searching for his opponent. When he found Allen, Mahomes embraced him and offered words of consolation. What a heartwarming finish to such a fierce competition!

Leaders of character know how to lose with dignity and to win like they’ve been there before, at work and in life. People want to follow leaders who make them proud of who they are and what they do, whether things are going well, or they’re facing hard times.

Be the leader of character people choose to follow by acting with compassion, dignity, and humility when you’re on top.

Look in the mirror. In the office environment, when things go your way, do you hold yourself to that higher standard and “win like you’ve been there before?”

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

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