Monday, February 2, 2009

Would George Washington approve of the Super Bowl?

I don’t know about you but I was on the edge of my seat, enjoying my once-a-year treat of ribs, and rooting for the Cardinals while my husband cheered for the Steelers. I was on my feet screaming when Larry Fitzgerald dashed down the field leaving would-be tacklers in his wake. Then I sat stupefied, while my husband whooped as Santonio Holmes sailed through the air, caught the pass, and crashed out of bounds in a jumble with his tacklers. Anxious minutes, seeming like hours, ticked by. Were his toes on the turf of the end zone? Finally, the answer I didn’t want to hear. But it was a great game with lots of drama, some of the commercials were pure delights, and Springsteen is still The Boss.

But I wasn’t that happy at the end of that exciting game and it had nothing to do with who won or lost. (To tell the truth, I didn’t really care.) No, what alarmed me was the number of fouls and the general over-the-top rage and anger that some players displayed. Bad sportsmanship has become such a part of so many sports today that it goes by barely noticed by the bobble heads yammering about the plays and quoting obscure statistics.

But it shouldn’t. Of course, the players are emotional and of course, no one likes to make a mistake, feel a play was poorly called or lose the game. We are humans after all and react in some pretty predictable ways. But feelings, no matter how strong, positive or negative, do NOT have to be acted on; do not have to be translated into action. In fact, the grand-standing dances and gyrations some players insist on have become their ‘trademarks,’ simply fueling the notion that there’s no need to keep a lid on the id.

George Washington exemplified the ability to keep raging emotions in check. He is reported to have had a legendary temper but few people ever saw him let it rip. What was his secret? It started when he was a very young man; younger and less well educated than the professional football players on the field yesterday. He decided to mold his character himself; to set out self-consciously to become a person who was in his words, ‘restrained in tongue and pen.’

He did not simply bite his tongue or go home and throw beer cans at the TV in frustration. He worked to turn himself into a man of high character and self-discipline. Most of the time, he succeeded. This did not turn him into an up-tight party pooper. Not at all. He notes in his diaries his many social events. He loved to dance and drink tea with the ladies. He was a superb athlete and thought to be one of the best horsemen of his day.

But he would have been appalled at the displays of bad sportsmanship at the Super Bowl and most modern sporting events. He knew that it was possible to respond appropriately to adversity and not simply react in the heat of the moment. He faced disasters of greater magnitude than a game and most of the time emerged to demonstrate his strong character.

One of the CEOs I interviewed for my new book told me, “The higher you go, the less you can do. You don’t have a right to scream at people. You don’t have a right to behave badly.” Washington and the best contemporary leaders understand that. Legendary coach John Wooden, often paced the sideline during an exciting game but there were no histrionics, no screaming, no drama. He often carried a roll-up program in one hand and his expression was calm whether his team was winning or losing. One of the few reported times that he lost his equanimity was when he thought the players were not giving the best they were capable of.

Every leader can all learn from Washington and Wooden. We can willingly sacrifice the victory dance if it means leaving the tantrums behind. Now on to Super Bowl XLIV!

(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, author
Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding FathersCheck out the special offers:

No comments: