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The Midweek Motivator – Taking the Choke

No matter our role, regardless of “rank” we’ve lived a year of Covid. Lest you read the following perspective as insensitive or callous, please don’t. No serious American would downplay the need for caution enduring this pandemic. Yet we have more control than we might think. It’s a balance of head, heart, and motivation, while some authenticity is always welcome as we plug ahead.

In Anton Myrer’s timeless novel “Once An Eagle” (required reading for West Point Cadets) Sam Damon is speaking to his young son about how to live his life. Damon is a career Army officer finding his way through the protocol and minefields of military advancement. He tells his son:

“You can’t do much about what you were born, and you probably can’t do much about how you’ll die. But all the days in between you can try to live your life as a good person.” There’s little to add to Damon’s doctrine. When as they say in England, “We’ve had all our innings,” it’s immensely comforting to have done our best as leaders and as human beings.

While attending college at Mount Holyoke, oldest of New England’s Seven Sisters Women’s colleges my daughter took a course from Pulitzer Prize winning faculty member Joe Ellis. The class was a distant look-back at the Vietnam War where Ellis’ biography spoke of his death- defying combat experiences. Students fought to get in his class…then, one day it all began to unravel. The Boston Globe, Time Magazine and others acknowledged Ellis’ history as a distinguished academician while exposing his claim as a decorated war hero. Ellis taught at West Point but never fought in Vietnam!

In stunned surprise the administration at the venerable women’s college in South Hadley said goodbye to one of its centerpiece faculty. Ellis is hardly a rare example. People and organizations choke all the time; while the term is generally applied to sports, “choking” happens from Fortune 500 Companies to the political arena. From Watergate and “Zippergate” to Enron, from the erstwhile Braniff Airlines to Napoleon and General Custer, people and companies have demonstrated the uncanny talent to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. WHY?

This column is far from a behavioral thesis, but taking a crack at an explanation for choking, it seems to be brought about by human beings who either from excessive greed or excessive fear, subconsciously set up a catastrophic outcome. We see it with sports stars, media celebs, even CEO’s. I once heard nationally renowned behaviorist Lou Tice put it in financial context: “Are you rich…or are you simply a poor person with money?”

Choking happens when a person or organization is not mentally conditioned to succeed. While outward appearance points to competence and control, they lack the inner compass to do the right thing at the right time; rounding third but never crossing home plate. It’s the “step-up-and-lose” model.

Phi Beta Kappa or “All American” can’t guarantee Emotional IQ or the maturity to deal with sudden success that may ultimately evolve to even greater accomplishment. Could your organization be vulnerable to the choke? Do “Solyndra,” “Google Barge,” “Facebook Phone” or Elizabeth Holms’ “Theranos” ring a bell? Each seemed conceptually great…in reality…gone.