For the Love of the Game

Blog Post Transformational Leadership

“There is no passion to be found playing small-in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” –Nelson Mandela

Passion and Purpose

As a sports fan, I have often considered the connection between exceptional performance of athletes in pivotal moments and its relevance to leadership effectiveness. Clearly, I am not the only one to ponder this topic, with numerous books and a long trail of speaking engagements that provoke sports-to-business relevance providing ample evidence. It must be the high concentration in the last couple of months of extraordinary performances in the Australian Open, Super Bowl, and the 2018 Olympics that has caught my attention. Victorious athletes appear to share two common attributes that stand out in their choice of words and tone when speaking about their accomplishments: passion and purpose. It is clear they recognize the interdependence of passion and purpose, and the impossibility of conquest with the absence of either. They appear to rely on the supposition that high passion plus a strong sense of purpose outplays fear of failure. How else can they pull off their prodigious victories, with the specter of defeat staring them in the face?

Where Does Passion Come From?

A look at the Latin derivation of the word ‘passion’ would inform you that the Latin root ‘pati’ means ‘to suffer’. When I think of suffering, what comes to mind is pain, fear, or other discomforts that impose on what makes me feel good about myself, my circumstances, or others. Does that mean great athletes and great leaders must endure suffering to excel? Yes. As most would agree, passion comes from within and is not a byproduct of what occurs externally to us. It is an honest conversation we have with ourselves that brings to the front and center the question of why we do what we do. A compelling response, according to neuroscientists, activates the ventral striatum part of the brain in combination with the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala, providing the energy necessary to change how we see things and overcome suffering on our path to accomplishing our goal. Said simply, if what we are after-our purpose-is big enough and worth achieving to us, we will conquer the discomforts sure to confront us.

What’s Your Purpose?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, purpose is defined as ‘The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists’. Human beings need a sense of purpose to survive, even if survival is the only purpose. For athletes, it would seem pretty straight forward-win the event, or championship, or acclaimed status in the sport. From day one in an athlete’s career, the purpose is clearly defined. For others, it can be a moving target. Effective leaders galvanize a workforce around an organizational purpose because they recognize that people need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. They need to find meaning in their work that connects what is important to the business to why it is important to them. Underneath it all, most people want to make a difference.

Playing Big

I often think of the wisdom of Nietzsche, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” It is so easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the ‘how’, to the point that the ‘why’ becomes obfuscated. Before long, a stretch goal becomes watered down to a pedestrian objective, to avoid suffering the consequences of emotional discomfort or failure associated with working toward a big, bold possibility. There may be purpose, but where is the passion? We can all play big, because it is a choice. It starts from within, when we challenge ourselves to be better and identify the ‘why’.

Ask any champion athlete or highly effective leader about their passion and purpose, and you are sure to hear a response that comes to them as naturally as if you asked them to spell their name. They love the game, and they play to win.

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