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Moving to great

Eric Boles

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Boles, a former NFL player and the president of Game Changers, Inc., discusses how unlocking potential requires competing with yourself, not just the competition. By avoiding complacency and not being afraid of failure, rejection or the unknown, he says, we can run through fear and maximize our success. Presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting.

This is called Moving to Great. That’s the title. It’s called Moving to Great. Not contemplating great, not planning on great, it’s actually moving to great. I already know, I’ve been told and made aware that I am speaking to the best. And what’s known in terms of the mindset of the best is that the best always want to get better. Their goal is always to get better. So I’m asking for permission, before I really get going, that I can challenge you, that I can provide for you some information and allow you to be at your best. The reason I have to ask your permission is, you see, I have a towel in my hand and I can really get sweaty. I can really get excited.

But I want to make sure you don’t confuse my passion for anger. I’m not angry; I’m just extremely passionate. I do sweat a lot. My mother says it’s because I’m special, but you know how moms are.

We’re jumping into moving to great. It is true that the best always want to get better. One of the challenges that comes with constantly performing at your best is that, many times, there are things that are outside of your control. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time on those things that are outside of your control, such as changes in regulation or such as all the dynamics that were in place a year ago that allowed you to be effective and that have now shifted this year. There are all kinds of dynamics that impact us. That will not be where my focus will be. My focus will be entirely on you. OK? Can we do that?

So let’s jump right into it. When we talk about moving to great, what are we talking about releasing? What are we talking about delivering? What we’re talking about delivering is delivering our best. A great new status within us. But that greatness has to be challenged to come out. Have you have ever been told you have a lot of potential. Have you ever gotten tired of being told that? I heard it the first time in athletics—my background is athletics, so I played a little American football. I’m sorry for some of you who do not care for it or understand it, but I played American football. I had a coach who told me one time, “18,” he never called me by my name. He said, “Number 18, you have a lot of potential.” And it was so good to hear because you’ve got to understand, it was the first time this coach ever said something nice to me. And I said, “Thanks, Coach.” He said, “Don’t thank me. It just means you haven’t done anything yet.”

That is not how we define potential in the way I’m going to explain it. Potential is dormant ability. It’s unused success. It’s everything you can be, but have not yet become; and it’s everything you can do, but have not yet done. Potential has no retirement plan. Whatever you’ve accomplished so far, no matter how great it is, is no longer potential. Every time you use more of your potential, you discover that there’s more potential to reach. This is why I know for a fact I’m speaking to the best. Because the best always want to get better. You’re not measuring your success based on who you’re playing against. You’re measuring your success based on what you have done with what’s already in your hands, if that makes some sense.

Now, to make it practical, if I came to you right now, and I have an acorn in my hand, and I asked you the simple question, What do I have in my hand? many of you would say, “You have an acorn in your hand.” Great observation. A few of you might be a little more enlightened and would say, “Actually, you do have an acorn in your hand, but inside of that acorn is an oak tree.” That is also true. But someone else might be even more enlightened and would say, “Yes, you do have an acorn in your hand, but inside the acorn is an oak tree. But inside that oak tree are thousands of acorns.” So based on how you view that acorn will dictate how you value that acorn. Because, actually, what you have in one acorn is a forest of oak trees.

The reason I bring that up and relate it to you is that when you think about that customer, think about that client, think about those opportunities. Think about what’s already in your hands. What are you doing with it? What separates the best from the mediocre, the great from the average, is that many times at the average level, the mediocre are always thinking all the things I still need for me to be at my best. So it’s always, What else do I need to grasp? What else do I need to have? If I were only to have that, if I would have this, if you would change that for me. Where the best think, What is already in my possession and how do I maximize that? Not only is that true for the individual performer, but it is also true for every leader. That’s what great coaches think about and how great leaders function.

So the goal is how to then bring out the potential of everything that’s already in your hands. One thing I want you to consider and think about is that potential, if we all have it, like my coach made a joke about me. But we all have potential. The question is, how do we unleash it? Potential must be given responsibility to be released. It must be challenged. Every one of you right now, think about it. What things actually brought the greatness out of you? Were they easy moments? Were there easy times? Were there things that just worked out perfectly for you? No, it was typically things you had to overcome. Many times, you discovered what you were capable of based on the pressure that was being applied. This is why I always like to correlate potential with muscle in the body.

It must be challenged. It must be given resistance to be released. I want to make sure that the challenge you apply to your potential is not just external challenges, but internal ones. Let’s not wait until external circumstances demand us to get better. Why don’t we decide to get better? Let’s make a decision to get better. And that’s what I want to go through with you.

The last thing I want to talk about when it comes to potential is that it’s very important from a mindset to start measuring yourself, not how well I am doing against my competition, but more importantly, how well I am doing against my best. This is what separates the average from the mediocre.

Now, I will tell you right now, my best sport growing up was basketball. I believe I’m a better basketball player than I am an American football player. So one particular day, after I am no longer playing professional football, I was playing basketball at our local gym in our neighborhood. And I came home and told my wife. (My wife’s name is Cindy. I married way up like many of you have.) I said to her, “Honey, I was on fire today. I couldn’t miss. It was amazing how well I did. I knew I should have played professional basketball instead of professional football. I could have played in the National Basketball Association, guaranteed contract. They play indoors. They don’t get hurt. I mean, it’s wonderful.” And my wife asked me a couple of questions, just simple ones.

The first question she asked was, “Who were you playing against?” It took me back, and I said, “I don’t get your question.” She said, “Just curious. Tell me who you were playing against.” I said, “I was playing against my friend, Karl. Honey, I was on fire. You’re changing the subject.” She said, “No, let me keep going. How tall is Karl?” I said, “He’s about five foot nine, but I’m six foot four. Well honey, he’s really, really strong.” She said, “OK.” And then she asked me the next question. “How old is Karl?” Now you’ve got to keep in mind, I was about 29 at the time. “He was about 46, Honey. But he’s in great shape.” And then she finished those questions and walked off. I’m like, what just happened?

I get the story, and I get the moral, and it’s the same point I want to make for many of you. For many of you high performers, your numbers are fantastic. People recognize you as being one of the best. But the question isn’t how good you are against your competition. And the reason you don’t want that to be the question is that there’s a chance your competition isn’t that good. This is not a diminishing issue; this is just something to keep in mind. You can still be first and still be underperforming in comparison to what your potential is.

The great coach John Wooden said it best. He said that we are all underperformers to various degrees because no one is maximizing all their potential. You show me a leader, you show me a coach, you show me a parent that the standard is releasing more of your potential versus just being first, and you will find the performances by a whole team, a whole group, an entire family go up. Because the standard isn’t just being a little bit better than who you’re going against; the standard is how much of our potential we are actually releasing.

Before I go any further, I want you to keep this in mind. I want you to imagine that all the success you’ve already accomplished still fits inside that image of an acorn. And that oak tree is what you have left that’s still there.

So what gets in the way of us unleashing this potential? That’s where I want to spend the rest of my time. Four simple things in their mindset. I am not giving you anything from a technical standpoint. I want to give you things that are all around your mindset. How you think. So with that being said, what can get in our way? Four things.

One is a mindset. I’m OK the way we are. Another definition for this is complacency. Now some of you aren’t familiar with American football, but you’ll get this principle. The favorite sport’s team you cheer for, whatever it is, they get a lead. They take risks. They take chances. They do everything necessary to get ahead in the particular match or game that they’re in. And now it’s getting close to the end of the game, and what do they begin playing? In American football, we call it “prevent defense.” They start playing not to lose instead of staying aggressive to win. They start trying to protect instead of continuously going for it. They sit back, and they allow the one rule, which is really from it. They start allowing good to get in the way of great. They start allowing a good performance to get in the way of a great performance. A good result to get in the way of a great result. We’re already ahead more than we ever anticipated, so what we’re going to start doing is to play it safe. And this is a mindset, and it’s a dangerous mindset because it keeps you from going forward. There is no status quo. Either you’re getting better or you’re going the other direction. As my mentor would tell me, “Eric, you’re either green and growing or you’re ripe and rotting, and it has nothing to do with age.”

One of the things I did ask him was, “Well, isn’t it OK to coast sometimes? I mean, it should be OK to coast, right?” And his answer to me was, “Of course it’s OK to coast, but keep this in mind. In order to coast you must be going downhill.” You show me a good marriage, that’s awesome. But do not allow a good marriage to get in the way of a great one or a good year to get in the way of a great year. Actually build on top of it.

There’s a quote by a gentleman named Eric Hoffer, and I think it’s important for us to grasp. Eric Hoffer says, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” That means it’s dangerous in this day and age that we’re living in to be a know-it-all. It’s much better to be a learned-it-all, someone who remains curious. Leaders are learned, which is great. But the good thing about being a leader who’s a learner is that learners are typically earners. And so if we want to continue on that process, we need to make sure they keep going.

But the mindset is everything. I’m OK just the way I am, but I can get better. I’m a great leader. It’s just the idiots I’ve got to work with. I’m a great husband. It’s just my wife; she doesn’t realize how good she has it, right? We can go down the list on how it’s not on us; it’s on them. And that attitude is dangerous.

These next three, though, are the main focus: fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of rejection.

The first one deals with fear of the unknown. It’s been said that people choose unhappiness over uncertainty. They would rather be unhappy and certain about it than take a risk and go through the process of uncertainty to get what they really want. Now, why is this important to leaders? That’s when you have to lead. That’s the way we have to do it, but we have to practice it ourselves. So when you sit there and think about the fear of the unknown, the fear of uncertainty, another term, and the fear of the future, if I don’t know what the future looks like, if it’s uncertain, I will fight to maintain what currently exists.

One of the greatest assets of strength in a leader is a set vision. You have a picture of what the future could look like. Get us more excited about the future that we’re willing to go through a period of uncertainty in order to get there. When we talk about the fear of the unknown, getting over it, the task is just making the unknown known. That’s all we’re doing.

Another big word is vision and forecasting. No, it’s just goal setting. We do it all the time. It’s a basic fundamental. It’s simple. It is just deciding what we want the future to look like, deciding on what we want it to look like and then designing it. That’s all it is. And we need more leaders to do that very thing. Many times, when people resist making a change, it’s not that they’re against the change; they just can’t picture it. They know what’s going on right now even if they’re complaining about it. And they don’t know what the future looks like. That’s what we need to get even more intense on taking care of.

You may have had a picture of the vision for today, but do you have a picture for tomorrow? As I heard a gentleman ask me one time, “Eric, a year from now you will arrive. The question is where?” Will you arrive at a designed destination or an undesigned destination?

The next one we have is fear of failure. I want to talk about fear of failure in a quick way. Fear of failure is interesting. An unfortunate mantra that people will use is, “If at first you don’t succeed, set the blame quick.” It’s not the best mantra in the world to use, right? But literally learning from mistakes, embracing mistakes—in this time of change that we’re living in, things are changing far too fast to not allow mistakes and failures to be something we learn from. Too often, people quit after they fail. Why did you quit? Because I failed. No. You failed because you quit. We’re at a time where we have to learn more from trying new things and doing different things in ways that we’ve never had to do before.

And this isn’t just about your industry. Every industry is going through this right now. It’s a new mindset. We can no longer fear failure; we’ve got to celebrate failure and learn them together. We’ve got to learn from each other’s experiences. One thing I want to emphasize around fear of failure is how do we get the fear of failure out of a particular environment? Industry leaders and challenge coaches do this constantly. You’ve got to be willing to share your own values. You’ve got to be where you’ve arrived is awesome. Every single one of you is successful. But what most of your people need to hear, as well as those who are around you, are not your success stories, but rather your failure moments that you lived through and that you bounced back from. When they hear those stories, it raises their confidence that they can make a mistake, and there’s life after a mistake as well, because you are a walking example of it. So, how do you overcome the fear of failure? We celebrate failure. How do you best celebrate a failure? Talk about your own. Use it as a learning experience for those around you.

The last one we have is fear of rejection. Fear of rejection manifests itself in the ability or the inability to give or receive feedback. Think about where many of us would be if we weren’t afraid of the word no. Many people don’t have what they want. They haven’t made the sales they want. They haven’t had the impact they want simply because they don’t want to hear the word no. So we have to do a whole lot of planning and scheduling and strategizing when it only requires one conversation with one person, and you could have gotten to the place you wanted to get to a long time ago. But we avoid those conversations. We step back from them. We actually don’t solicit the feedback we need.

I used to think, If my wife hasn’t said anything in the last six months about complaining, she must be happy. A little bit of a mistake. I’m working off bad information. Key principle: Your actions and decisions are only as wise as the information they’re based on. In the absence of good information, you’re going to make bad decisions. So how do you get the good information? You must ask for it. And to ask for it, you will feel that anxiety that kicks in. What is it? It’s the fear of what you might hear.

Now I mention these three; these are three fears. And I’m going to summarize them in this one example. Three fears. The fear of uncertainty. How do you overcome that? With some goal setting. Fear of failure. How do you deal with the fear of failure? By celebrating events and reflecting on your mistakes. What you learn from and actually celebrate, which will flow through the rest of your organization and your team. How do you get over the fear of rejection? You just ask for the feedback. You give feedback; you ask for it.

But to make it really practical, let me go back to my rookie year playing in the National Football League, American football now. I’m a wide receiver. That means my job is to catch the football. But in order to get on the field, I had to play on what’s called “special teams.” And to be on the field, I am on the kickoff team as a flyer. The role of the flyer on the kickoff team is to run down the field as fast as possible. There’s something that comes together called a wedge. A wedge is comprised of four men whose necks and shoulders are all tied together. They’re just big massive individuals. And they would tie their arms together and run straight ahead, and my job was to run right through the wedge. That is a dumb job, just to make sure everybody gets it. There’s nothing good about this job. I just want everybody to be aware, that’s a really dumb job. Now, my job is to run down there and run through the wedge to make the tackle and either split the wedge where others can come in or make the tackle.

Well, in this particular game, I get on the field. The kickoff happens. You’ve got to see me. I’m running, getting down there. All of a sudden the wedge comes together, and it hits me that my job is to run through that wedge. But if I run through it, there’s a chance I might die. So I begin to strategize, problem solve. I’m like, well, if I run around the wedge and come from behind and make the tackle, win-win, I live. I make the tackle. No damage. Sounds great. So that’s what I do. I run completely around the wedge. I come up from behind, and I make the tackle.

What happened, though, was I was supposed to make the tackle on the 20-yard line in terms of a distance standpoint. I made the tackle on the 40-yard line, which meant they gained 20 more yards. They had a really good quarterback. His name was Dan Marino. He played for the Miami Dolphins. So we end up losing the game because of what happened. He only had to go about 40 yards, 20 yards to score, and they ended up scoring a touchdown.

Follow this here. I get to the sideline. I have teammates congratulating me on the tackle because the tackle I made prevented the guy from running it all the way back. I had others saying, “Eric, good job. Fantastic.” What happened, though, was that on Monday, we watch film. And when we watch film, it’s the whole team sitting together, and we’re able to analyze and assess what happened during the game with feedback. What happened when we first walked in? It’s showing on the screen that number 18, which is me, instead of splitting the wedge, ran around the wedge. As a result of running around the wedge, we ended up losing field position, and we lost the game. To make it practical, people lost their jobs that year. We didn’t make it to the playoffs that year. No one blamed, externally, number 18, this little rookie who did not do his job. In the meeting, my coach looked at me and said, “18, if I could cut you right now, if I could fire you right now, I would. Because your fear cost us. Because you ran around the wedge and not through it. This is the consequence that we face. No one is going to blame you, but everybody in this room knows it was because of you that we lost.” My answer to him was, “I’m a wide receiver. I’m not supposed to hit people in the first place. I wasn’t hired to hit people. I was hired to catch the ball.” After he loses his mind, he then looked at me and said, “You don’t get it. You’re a football player. You’re a New York Jet. You’re not just a wide receiver.”

Leaders do what needs to be done. Leaders don’t do what they want to do. He said, “You don’t get it, fear is selfish. Fear caused you to be consumed by how things impact you. As a result, Eric, you chose to be selfish, and it cost the whole team.” And he finished with this thought for me that I leave with many of you. He said, “How you do one thing is how you do everything.” And I stepped back and I looked over the years. And I found other times that I’d also run around the wedge. Many times I walked down my hallway, and I should have run through the wedge and had a conversation with my teenage daughter, but instead I kept walking straight. Many other times in my performance management leading people, I should have that real conversation with the members of my team who aren’t performing at a level. But instead of having that conversation, I keep going, hoping, using that strategy called hope, that everything just gets better on its own.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run around a wedge instead of having the conversation with my wife. I avoid it. What I’m telling you right now is what wedge is coming to mind for you? What wedge are you running around? What do you need to run through? Whatever comes to mind just now is it. Please do not have it escape out of your head.

Here’s what I just gave you. Running through the wedge collapses time. Running around the wedge costs you time. You can never get it back. Your success, many times, can be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have. It is clear you have the potential for greatness, but greatness is the result of doing the difficult things not the expedient things, not the easy things. What’s the conversation you need to run through? What’s the request you need to make? What is fear costing you?

Somebody asked me, “Eric, how do you just avoid fear?” You don’t. You run through fear. And as my mentor told me so quickly, “Eric, consider this. Fear is the doorway you went through, not a house you live in.” It’s always part of the transition. So this is my challenge to you today. Greatness is for you. You have everything you need to be at your best. What I just offered you is a tool to allow you to be at your best more of the time.

Eric Boles is the president of The Game Changers, Inc. and a highly acclaimed keynote speaker. Through a combination of coaching, consulting and training, he helps organizations collapse time, achieve goals quickly and function within their purpose and values.


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