Leadership/Character - Opportunity

Toss the Trophies (from Bedrock Edu.)

NOTE: this article was originally published at BedrockEdu and has been reposted with permission

Wait. Don’t toss the trophy…

The title is a misnomer. Trophies are awesome. Goals are essential and when they are accomplished, they should be celebrated. In sports, it comes in the form of a trophy or a ring, in business it might be a bonus or promotion. Celebrate the milestone, you’ve earned it.

When the celebration is over, take time to frame the experience. That is, tell the story of what just happened. Work to understand the process that led to the outcome. Celebrate the process.

When I say “toss the trophies”, (I’ll sometimes use more colorful language than that), it is because too many of them are hollow. If they are accomplished through unethical processes, toss ‘em. If you have to shame and hurt other humans in their pursuit, toss ‘em. If you collect a wall of trophies to cover up a deep-seeded sense of inadequacy that stems from childhood… hold on to them for now, this is more common than you think, but it’s worth examining.

What we focus on and what we incentivize matters. The concept is essential when working with individuals, companies, teams of leaders and, as we recently discovered, powerlifters.

Leadership, Growth, and National Championships

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee recently published an article in their USOPC Coaching Magazine that outlines the full story of a Chicago-area team that made an unprecedented run through the COVID pandemic (thanks to our good friend, Christine Bolger, for giving us a chance to tell the story). Find that article HERE.

Here’s the short version:

The powerlifting team at New Trier High School was impacted by COVID restrictions just like everyone else. In March of 2020 they were planning a trip to Oklahoma City to compete in NASA High School Nationals when everything came to a halt. Our team had been traveling to Oklahoma City for seven years before we won our first championship in 2019. 2020 was the year to defend, to prove that it was not a fluke. When schools began to shut down, our entire organization was infused with a combination of nervous excitement, fear and uncertainty.

There was no way of knowing just how long we would be away from our team, so we did what any good leaders would do. We steadied our hand, evaluated the situation, and started putting together a plan.

Thankfully, our training has always been focused on one outcome above all: growth. We focus on getting a little bit better every day. It’s the mindset that underpins our actions. Not even one of the strangest times in history could derail our primary goal.

Importantly, “growth” was a goal we all shared. Even when people were far away from one another, they were together in their shared purpose. As the quarantine lumbered on and students began questioning why they had to train or whether they even wanted to, we reminded them of our purpose: to grow, to work toward the best version of ourselves. The pandemic could not strip us of that.

Leaders too often dangle the carrot of a championship, a starting position, or some other tangible outcome in front of people, hoping that they will continue striving toward it. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. But the pandemic was a great opportunity to reflect on a simple question: if we took the trophies away, would the experience still be meaningful?

Those who were walking a strict path toward an external goal were halted. Those who were walking a path toward growth could continue.

Read the full USOPC Magazine article to hear some of the more dramatic moments; spoiler alert: over the next two years, the team competed in six competitions at the state and national level, and they won them all.

In 2021, they completed their “three-peat” of the USA Weightlifting High School Throwdown Championship. They won the all-outdoor pandemic edition of the Illinois High School Powerlifting State Championship. And then, after a two-year hiatus, defended their position at the Natural Athlete Strength Association High School Nationals competition in Oklahoma City.

Our trophy case is full because our focus was not on the trophies. Funny how that works. By focusing on the process of improvement, the success took care of itself.

Leadership Lessons

When it comes to the Trevians’ streak, winning was not the lesson. The lessons did not exist in the barbell. The students cannot take their commemorative t-shirts into a job interview, and they cannot carry a trophy into a long-term relationship. The lessons which apply to the lives of those we lead had to be explicated.

In so many powerful experiences, words fail. But as leaders, we have to try. We asked our athletes, what did you do in this moment to set yourself apart? How would you classify those behaviors? we said. Call it grit, call it growth, call it something so that it can be taken forward into other walks of life. It is difficult to bring a feeling from one moment to the next, but naming the actions creates a skill. They can then decide where else in their life they might apply it.

The greatest demonstration of learning came in Oklahoma City in spring of 2022.

The meet was over and the meet hosts (NASA) were tallying the scores. We were not yet sure who had won. While the scores were being tallied, the NASA team began breaking down the equipment and loading their trucks. Almost everyone in that hotel ballroom stayed in their seats, eagerly awaiting the results. But not the Trevians.

Our kids were side by side with the NASA folks, helping them carry bars and plates and racks. They picked up litter. They kept contributing. They had not yet announced the scores but in that moment, it was clear that we had already won: this was a team of leaders. Our staff could not have been more proud.

The next time those athletes find themselves in a strange, unpredictable, scary situation, they will know something about themselves.

When the outcome is uncertain, they will have an opportunity to focus on growth. They can remind themselves to control the things which are under their control. They can take comfort in knowing that they have been in a similar situation before, and they came out on top. Their trophy will be a reminder of that.

Leadership provides direction. That much is true. But the truest form of leadership empowers people with the skills to pursue their own direction even in the absence of the leader. True leadership creates leaders. We have a lot of those at New Trier.

Transferring the Lesson

In order to take this lesson into another area of life, try this quick reflection.

First, identify the domain (business, relationship, etc.) in which you would like to apply the lesson, and what your version of a trophy would look like (a promotion, an engagement).

  • What behaviors are needed to achieve that outcome?
  • What skill are needed to enlist those behaviors?
  • What mindsets must be infused into the process and operations to make this a success?

Once you have these in place, how can you make those behaviors, skills, and mindsets the priority within your operation?

If you do this the ‘right’ way, then hang on to those trophies which are hard-earned and well-deserved. Be sure you can tell the story of how they arrived and what they mean to you.

If you can’t do that, toss ‘em.

References and Further Reading

Aarts, H. (2007). Health and goal-directed behavior: The nonconscious regulation and motivation of goals and their pursuit. Health Psychology Review March 2007, 1(1), 53-82.

Dweck, C. (2009). Mindsets: Developing Talent through a Growth Mindset. Olympic Coaching Magazine, 21(1), 4-7.

Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.’ Education Week, 35(5), 20-24.

Fujita, K., and Trope, Y. (2014). Structured Versus Unstructured Regulation: On Procedural Mindsets and the Mechanisms of Priming Effects. Social Cognition, 32.

Ordóñez, L.D., Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.D. & Bazerman, M.H. (2009). Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting. Academy of Management Perspectives.

Schweitzer, M. E., Ordóñez, L., & Douma, B. (2004). Goal Setting as a Motivator of Unethical Behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 47(3), 422-432.

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