The Real Competitor

Tim Selgo is the former Athletic Director at Grand Valley State and a speaker at the 2018 CSCAA Convention

Tim Selgo is the former Athletic Director at Grand Valley State and a speaker at the 2018 CSCAA Convention

A term we are reading and hearing a lot about these days is “fake news”.  As a citizen, one has to try and decipher what is real news and what is fake.  As someone who spent 35 years in the glass house of a coach and administrator in college athletics, in my opinion, the news is at best 50% real.  At least that was my evaluation of the sports news.  Either the media got things right only half of the time or they only told half of the story.  Of course, that’s been going on since the newspaper was invented so it is not some new phenomena as some may think.  Therefore, you better learn to think for yourself!

When it comes to success in your professional life, you must compete!  Now, here is Webster’s definition of compete:

“to strive consciously or unconsciously for an objective (such as position, profit, or prize)”

In my book, Anchor Up, Competitive Greatness the Grand Valley Way (, competitive greatness is defined using the great late Coach John Wooden’s definition, i.e. coming through with your best effort and best performance when it is most needed.  In other words, be at your best when your best is most needed. In order to put yourself in that position, you must strive for your best effort and your best performance EVERY DAY!  THAT describes a REAL competitor.  Every team has people that will wait until the outcome is decided and then you see them go really hard.  That is “fake” hustle.  Where was that when it was most needed?  Study people and watch those that aren’t afraid to jump in the fray when the going gets tough.  Those are real competitors and have the potential for competitive greatness!

I had a conversation with someone recently and he proceeded to tell me how competitive he was.  Red flags were going up in my brain because it is my belief that whenever someone has to tell you they are competitive, they probably aren’t a real competitor.  That would be a “false” competitor in my book.  He went on describe himself by saying “I just don’t accept mediocrity” and when I looked up his record my reaction was “really”?  His track record was mediocre.  Sometimes you see an athlete throw their equipment or let loose with some foul language after something didn’t go right.  Or a boss blows up in front of his/her employees perhaps with colorful language to accentuate his/her displeasure.  Those would also be examples of a “fake” competitor. There is nothing wrong with being upset with yourself at times when you don’t perform as you should, or being upset with your organization when things don’t go right, but the real competitor keeps his/her emotions under control and then does something about it to fix the problem!  Just getting mad when things go wrong and/or making excuses is “fake” competitiveness.

Real competitors aren’t afraid of tough moments because they have brought forth their best effort and best performance every day, so they are prepared for the big moment.  You see some people in organizations shy away from conflict.  I have known some in leadership positions that didn’t like conflict. Really?  You are in a leadership position and you avoid conflict like the plague?  Again, many leaders are false competitors.  I had the great privilege of working with Gary Pinkel for 6 years at the University of Toledo.  Gary was our head football coach and I was the associate athletics director.  Gary had huge success at Toledo, and then at the University of Missouri and is a sure bet for the College Football Hall of Fame. I remember one time Gary described his job as a collegiate head football coach by saying “this is a problem solving, decision making profession”.  He didn’t say coaching was drawing up magical plays and outfoxing every opponent.  He was saying that a real leader solves problems and makes decisions!  College football coaches make hundreds of decisions in a course of one game, the most successful ones prepare for this daily and challenge their staffs and players to bring their best effort and best performance every day!

It is my contention that as a leader, you exist to solve problems and make decisions.  If there were never any problems, they, i.e. your organization, wouldn’t need you!  You also exist because someone has to make a decision and in fact, many decisions every day in most organizations!  Yes, it is important to be inclusive and collaborative.  I believe wholeheartedly in that.  But the real leader, i.e. the real competitor, knows when it is time to decide and is not afraid to do so!  You have heard of the phrases, “the buck stops here” and “it’s lonely at the top”, in describing what it is like as a leader.  There is a reason those phrases exist – because they are true and have always been true of leadership!  

The best leaders are real competitors.  They aren’t afraid to tackle problems and aren’t afraid to make decisions.   Recently I attended a Leading With Courage Academy workshop ( led by Trent Clark, a former student-athlete in baseball and tennis at the University of Toledo who worked in major league baseball for a number of years.  It was terrific and the key word was courage!  My observation after almost one full year of consulting, teaching, writing and speaking is that there is a severe lack of courage in leadership today in every walk of life.  To find the real competitors and best leaders for your organization, find people who aren’t afraid of problems and will work at solving them, those that are willing to prepare to be at their best when it is most needed, and those that are not afraid to make decisions!  Those individuals are realcompetitors and they come in all shapes and sizes.  

I recall a friend who was a successful businessman telling a story of a friend of his in the grocery business who was complaining about the big box stores and how they were trying to put him out of business.  Certainly that is a problem in this day and age for a lot of smaller retailers, but my businessman friend wouldn’t hear any of it. In fact, he chewed him out and said “I can’t believe I am hearing that from you.  Get to work a half hour earlier every day and find a solution to be successful anyway”!  That’s what a real competitor does!

How do you find real competitors for your organization?  Stay tuned to my next blog for some insights into hiring and developing real competitors!