Sustainable Excellence

INTRODUCTION


When fabled Green Bay Packers football coach, Vince Lombardi, took

over the fledgling team, he said this to his players: “Gentleman, we

will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the

while we can never attain it. But along the way, we will catch

excellence.”

But what is excellence, and how do we know when we have achieved

it? Numerous synonyms describe the ethereal word excellence:

outstanding, brilliant, high quality, indispensable, or extremely good.

We look at profitable companies with unique cultures, or successful

artists who relentlessly slave at their craft, or difference-makers who

attempt to positively change the world, as being excellent in their field.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined excellence as “a mean

between two extremes of excess and defect in regard to a feeling or

action as the practically wise person would determine it.” According to

Aristotle, a “mean” cannot be calculated and is relative to the

individual and circumstances. To Aristotle, excellence was defined by

the person and the conditions under which it was viewed. So,

excellence, like beauty, tends to be in the eye of the beholder.

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People love lists. When David Letterman was the host of the popular

television show Late Night he always had a “Top Ten List” segment in

the show. I’ve heard many reasons why lists are so popular. Things

like: “Because we are constantly bombarded with information, we

become overstimulated, and lists provide us with continuity.” Or: “A

list of topics provides our brains with decisiveness and definitiveness.”

Or my favorite: “Lists provide us with a form of communication that

allows us to know exactly what we are getting.”

Every Monday morning, on my website, Motivational Check, I publish

the Monday Morning Motivational Message. This message is one of

the most popular segments on the site. While many of these messages

are short stories that teach a lesson, I get the highest positive feedback

when I post a list of something. The topic of the lists doesn’t usually

matter; what matters to the readers is that they have an inventory that

purports to improve their lives.

In early 2020, I had a recent college graduate connect with me on

LinkedIn. The thing that drew my attention to this young man was a

question he asked me. He wanted to know what I thought were the

“most important lessons” he needed to succeed.

As I considered how I wanted to respond to him, I thought back to my

college days at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and some of

the most important lessons I learned about leadership, excellence, and

myself.

I was fortunate to accept a basketball scholarship to attend The Citadel,

The Military College of South Carolina, in 1978. I had received no

formal training in leadership up until this point in my life. My parents

had modeled what good behavior should look like and set an example

of how I should treat others. Still, I didn’t fully understand what

leadership or excellence meant until I attended The Citadel.

As I quickly grabbed a piece of paper and began jotting down lessons I

have learned over my sixty years in my roles as husband, father, police

officer, hostage negotiator, basketball coach, business owner, and most

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recently, cancer warrior, the words, “the most important lessons” this

young man wanted to know, stuck in my mind. I didn’t want the list to

be the generic, “work hard,” “be polite,” “help others,” etc. I didn’t

want to give him a catalog of rules, or canons, or directives. I wanted

my responses to be deeper, more profound, and worthy of putting in

the time to make them part of who he was and who he wanted to

become. I wanted to develop principles that would help this young man

become unstoppable at his craft, but I wanted the list to ensure that he

could sustain excellence, once it was achieved.

I sought to provide him with a list of principles rooted in bedrock to

form the foundation of unshakable beliefs and dedicated behaviors

despite the prodigious and tumultuous circumstances that he might

encounter during his life.

I remember one of the stories that I often tell when I am interviewed on

a podcast, or speak to groups. The story is about the scene in the movie

Rocky, where Rocky guzzles the five raw eggs.

Whenever I tell this story, I ask the audience to put themselves in the

place of Rocky and apply the scene to defining their brand of

excellence.

As a prelude to the scene, Rocky is a two-bit pugilist who has no hopes

of ever making it big in the boxing world. His job is to collect the

outstanding debts for the neighborhood loan shark.

However, out of the blue, Rocky is chosen to fight the heavyweight

champion of the world, Apollo Creed. Rocky doesn’t have a manager

or a trainer. To prepare for the fight, he develops his unique style of

training. This scene is the beginning of Rocky’s battle to get himself in

shape for the biggest fight of his life, against the most prominent

opponent he will ever face, himself.

The setting begins with the alarm clock going off at four o’clock in the

morning. How many people are willing to get up at 4:00 a.m. to

become excellent? Once Rocky turns off the alarm, he turns on the

transistor radio, and a Philadelphia radio station is playing in the

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background. If you listen carefully, the weather report on the radio

states that the high temperature will be below freezing. How many

people are going to pursue excellence in the cold, frigid winter?

Rocky then stumbles to the refrigerator and cracks those five raw eggs

into a cup and chugs them down. How many people would refuse to

hunt excellence if they didn’t have the right food to eat? After

breakfast, he puts on his tattered, worn cotton sweatsuit and his black

high-top basketball shoes. He puts a towel around his neck and a cap

on his head. How many people would refuse to follow the behavior

necessary for excellence because they didn’t have the right equipment?

Who would wait to pursue their dreams until they had the latest

moisture-wicking clothing or the top of the line running shoes or crosstrainers?

Rocky then heads down the steps from his apartment and out into the

cold, crisp morning air and does some basic stretching outside of his

building. How many people would find the excuse of not pursuing

excellence because they didn’t have their personal trainer or their

running buddy available to encourage them along the way?

And then Rocky begins to jog down the dark empty streets of

Philadelphia until he finds himself at the base of the seventy-two steps

that lead to the fountain in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

But he’s hurting; he has a pain in his side. How many people would

have said, “I have this twinge in my side? I’m done for today. I don’t

like being in pain. I’ll chase excellence when I’m not hurting as

much.”

Finally, Rocky struggles to the top of the museum steps, and he is

doubled over in agony. He is alone, in the dark and the cold. And

Rocky realizes that if he is going to be able to go toe to toe with the

heavyweight champion of the world, he will have to do the same

training regimen tomorrow, only better.

How many people would have given up on their pursuit of excellence

when they were at their lowest? How many souls would have thrown

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any potential opportunity to achieve excellence out the window

because they were tired, lonely, hungry, or hurting?

The boxer, Mike Tyson, once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get

hit in the mouth.” During my cancer journey, I came to a point where I

was tagged in the mouth, and things seemed extremely bleak. I was at

my lowest. I felt as though I was in the grips of total helplessness and

hopelessness. This despair bounded into my life in 2017.

After just completing an almost five-year cycle of the drug Interferon,

my melanoma had returned. My oncologist suggested that I start a

biological therapy that would do nothing to the cancer but would

hopefully cause my immune system to kick in and kill the marauding

disease.

I had just finished my fourth and final round of this biologic therapy,

which left me exhausted. A week later, I was diagnosed with

pseudogout when my right knee swelled to the size of a cantaloupe.

The fluid in my knee contained calcium crystals, acting like miniature

knives stabbing the inside of the joint every time I moved. That was

followed a few weeks later by a reaction to the biologic medication

that gave me a blood clot in my lung and fluid around the sac of my

heart. I woke up in the middle of the night with chest pains and

difficulty breathing. I thought I was having a heart attack, and my wife

rushed me to the emergency room.

Lying in the emergency room, I remember feeling so depleted mentally

and physically that I looked at my wife, with tears running down my

cheeks, and begged her to let me die. I just wanted out of my body that

seemed to be attacking me continually.

At that time, I remembered reading an article about the owner of a

professional sports team who paid a Navy SEAL to come and live with

his family for a month and teach them to use their minds to do more

than their bodies ever thought they could.

Part of this training was the 40% Rule. This rule says that if your mind

or body is telling you that you are through and can’t go on, you are

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only at 40% of your maximum ability, and you still have 60% left in

reserve.

I recall lying in the ER and having doctors, nurses, and technicians

performing all types of tests. As horrible as I felt, I remember blocking

out everything that was going on around me and telling myself that I

had so much more left to give. Even though my body was declaring I

was at the end of my rope and just wanted to let go, I forced my mind

to inform my body to tie a knot at the end of that rope and simply

hang on.

Realizing I had another 60% left in reserve literally saved my life by

forcing my mind and body to draw on those reserves that I still

possessed.

We all have those stockpiles waiting to be used if we ever get to the

point we think we are finished. I would encourage you to draw on

those reserves if you ever feel like you can’t or don’t want to continue

toward your purpose. I can speak from personal experience that even

when you don’t think you can move forward, you have so much more

left to give yourself.

I have learned that excellence comes to us when we continue to

advance in the face of overwhelming adversity; when we don’t think

we have anything left in our tanks. Excellence appears when we can

strive for our dreams at the lowest points in our lives. We can finally

define our excellence when we can force our minds and bodies to serve

us long after they are gone and be able to hold on when there is nothing

left within us except the desire that says to them: “Hold on!”