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Character Is Tough to Teach

If you’re a fan of sports then you must appreciate the San
Antonio Spurs basketball team.   Their coach, Gregg Popovich,
is the longest tenured coach in U.S. professional sports and in
his 19th year has a run going of 17 consecutive winning seasons
and five NBA championships.  He graduated from the U.S. Air
Force Academy and it is obvious in how he runs his team that
discipline and character are the hallmarks he continues to
carry forward with him from that past. I’ve been a lifetime fan
of basketball and, as a New Yorker, was pretty sure I’d never
see a team as well managed and admirable for their team play
as the N.Y. Knicks championship teams from the 1969-70 and
1972-73 seasons.  But I think that last year’s Spurs
championship team surpassed all previous teams.  Their team
was comprised of a bunch of good but not great talents (maybe
one or two former great ones who were past their primes).  It
was their character and commitment to winning as a team that
made them so outstanding as they literally destroyed a Miami
Heat team that had won the title the previous year, possessed
perhaps the best player of all time, and who had marched
through their previous opponents quite easily.

Over the summer I became friends with an NBA veteran of 17
seasons.  As we discussed hoops, he confided in me that it
would be a dream of his to finish his career as a Spur – that it
would be a tremendous honor for him to be selected by Coach
Popovich.  He told me that was the dream of many, if not most
NBA players today.

All this is in contrast to most of what we read in the news on
sports, or life in general.  The recent stories of the Cleveland
Browns football team’s grave disappointment in their three
young recent high draft picks, and especially last year’s much
heralded quarterback Johnny Manziel, the self-proclaimed “Mr.
Football,” stands in stark contrast to the Spurs’ success.  Off-
field problems and partying that undermined commitment and
effort, and suspensions due to bad behavior were the stories of
the Browns’ 2014 season of disappointment.  It is almost
humorous to read of their owner voicing his displeasure in
others, when in reality he has only himself to blame for not
properly valuing character when making his hiring choices.
The stories of the Spurs and Browns, one a dynasty and one
with a long tradition of futility, is played out in the corporate
world too.  Dynastic companies treasure character, win,
continue to attract the best, and keep winning.  This is the
great virtuous cycle.  Of course, we can find exceptions -
sometimes companies that are “protected,” perhaps by
government, and therefore live far longer than they otherwise
might, sometimes companies that were so well run by prior
leadership that it takes a long time for newer and less
competent ones to destroy what was built.  In the end, all of
these companies must collapse.

Most NBA players are talented enough be taught to shoot or
dribble at the highest level, just like most high level executives
can be taught to master the tools of their particular trade.

Character is the ultimate differentiator.  I’m not sure it can be
taught to adults.

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