What truly matters

by | Aug 18, 2019

I cannot remember when I first heard the quote, but whenever it was, I wished I heard it years earlier.

I recall it was a coach in the US, post game, responding to questions from media. His team had just won its way into an historic college basketball championship game, and he was being pressed to elevate the significance of the occasion.

His answer went something like “Because I understand what truly matters, I get to enjoy what seems to matter.”

He then explained that as the coach, he had seen wonderful personal development in the young men in his team. He didn’t need to say any more.

But yes, he would enjoy this moment.

Sport for most is a ‘heroes and villains’ business, and to the victor go the spoils. But this narrative often ignores what counts most, the “what truly matters”.

This coach was clear on “what truly matters” and he had seen progress in ways that few sitting in judgement could observe or understand, nor had an appetite for. I say this not out of disrespect for those tasked with questioning the coach, I am articulating the difference in “what truly matters”, and “what seems to matter” dependent on where you sit within the microcosm of this sporting system.

Perhaps the coach was also reminding those who communicate the game to the world, earning a living from the sport, to move beyond the shallow observations from the game itself, and not define its value by scoreboards past and present… even just for a few minutes.

You rarely see this from coaches, and when you do, it is mainly from those with plenty of silverware in the trophy cabinet, such that it affords them enough scope and space to give us a deeper insight, and it is priceless.

Great examples of this are NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, who try to rise above the banter, noise, and banality. A few hours well spent is listening to either talk beyond the game, even though basketball is the context of their conversation and learning. 

Fortunately, there is plenty of stuff available on YouTube and podcasts, a veritable rabbit warren of insight. An example is Dr Michael Gervais’ conversation with Steve Kerr in his outstanding ‘Finding Mastery’ podcast. In this conversation, it is clear that Steve Kerr understands winning, but he’s searching for something beyond that.

Podcast link to Dr Michael Gervais conversation with Steve Kerr, Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors

Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr

That coaches are narrowed in this way is such a shame, because in their heart, all coaches are teachers, and it shows up completely in the way they interact. I’d go as far to say most find it difficult not to teach when they have information to share and the capacity to awaken this in others.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear more insights, including the real learnings from the lived experiences from coaches whose teams are struggling with a loss of confidence and belief, not meeting performance expectations, or dealing with adversity, familiar territory for anyone who has held leadership roles. Unfortunately, they are reduced to a defensive position, left to justify their role suitability and the likelihood of keeping their jobs.

I can say with certainty that I made many of my worst choices as a leader when I lost touch with “what truly matters”. I cannot remember making a good decision when my thoughts were clouded by anger, fear or ego, and it happened often enough that I reflect with a sense of shame.

I have worked through this, in mainly healthy ways, but it is hard to budge and will return in my quiet moments.

I recall listening to a podcast with writer Michael Lewis, he of Moneyball, The Big Short and Flash Boys fame, who spoke of the need to “live outside the arena of our ambition”. He says our ambition doesn’t define us, and it is important that we do not allow it to.

Yes, ambition is important, but he suggests we only visit it for “professional reasons”. 

Michael Lewis

I like this, as it forces us to practice humility, particularly the role of learner/teacher. To stay grounded, never being above whatever your organisation, team or family needs from you. It allows you to recognise shortcomings and to behave differently to do something about it.

So how do we cultivate humility?

I recommend contemplation, a systematic process of reflection, going deep to go forward, lift your thinking to shift your thinking.

By definition, this means asking better questions of yourself.

The designCEO system is to set aside three hours of non-distracted time every three months to ask three questions.

  1. What does this role expect of me?
  2. What do I expect of the role?
  3. What do I expect of myself?

I recommend time-blocking in the Cal Newport ‘Deep Work’ tradition, where you push yourself creatively, seek new ideas, avoid default thinking, ensuring the work you are doing is right for you, and right for those who rely on you as a leader.

Attack it with a purpose and performance mindset, such as “Who I am, and why I do it?”

Then in three months, repeat the exercise. Make it a habit, a ritual. Put it in your diary, an appointment with yourself every three months. Make sure you start afresh each time to ensure that you are not just reiterating what you wrote last time.

And how do we ‘inform’ this reflection?

Dr Michael Gervais, a psychologist and wonderful thinker on all things high-performance, talks about three elements:

  • Being around, and in conversation with wise people (not just those who are within easy reach).
  • Listen to yourself (Dr Michael is firm on the value of mindfulness, stating high-performance takes place in the present, when wisdom is revealed).
  • Writing (I have become a strong convert to the value of regular writing, such as this weekly blog, to make sense of your thinking in a way that can be communicated with confidence).

I would add a 4th element to Dr Michael’s list:

  • Setting aside time for learning (but not only focusing on ‘what did I learn?’ but also ‘what will I teach?’)

Humility is the ultimate sign of success, and in my experience, contagious, modelling expectations by showing a deep commitment to something bigger than yourself.

Then you get to enjoy “what seems to matter”.

I always enjoy the opportunity to talk all things culture and high-performance, and the development of leaders to achieve it.

Here are three ways to start the ball rolling:

  • I teach and coach an integrated leadership performance system utilising sophisticated learning models and systems garnered from elite team sport, ideal for leaders who are committed learners, who understand the responsibility of leadership. To learn more, please arrange your FOC 30-minute leadership telephone consult to discuss your personal, team or organisational challenges or aspirations, please use this link.
  • Participate in our next one-day Leadership Masterclass which I personally facilitate. It is a sophisticated, intimate and practical leadership intensive for aspirational leaders, both current and emerging. To learn more, and to register, please use this link.
  • Sign up for the “More to the Game” weekly email, and receive a copy of my “What business can learn from football” White Paper. The emails are short leadership reflections, no more than a couple of minutes to read and we will always treat our communication with respect. Please use this link.

You can also contact me at cameron@designCEO.com.au and let me know how you think we can work together.

Cameron Schwab
CEO & Founder


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