Profiles of ethical leadership in sports coaching: Jim Valvano

This is the third in a month-long series of five posts that analyze the ethical leadership of famous sports coaches. The first post was about John Wooden, the beloved UCLA basketball coach and creator of the Pyramid of Success. Last Wednesday’s post focused on Johan Cruyff, the acclaimed Dutch footballer and manager of Ajax, Barcelona, and Catalonia football clubs, and his 14 Rules. Today’s profile will be about Jim Valvano’s perspective on leadership and success as expressed in the famous speech he gave at the ESPY Awards in 1993.

Jim Valvano was a NCAA basketball coach for 19 years, ten of those seasons at North Carolina State. He coached his teams at NC State to many winning seasons, including two tournament championships and two regular season championships, and for several years also served as athletic director there. He was also no stranger to controversy during this time, due to accusations of rules violations involving his players’ academic qualifications and financial activities, which led to substantial administrative pressure, scrutiny, and a variety of investigations. Though these numerous investigations revealed no outright major violations in recruiting or financial practices, Valvano ultimately resigned as athletic director in 1989 and in 1990, negotiated a settlement and resigned as basketball coach as well.

Following this somewhat ignoble end to his coaching career, Valvano worked as a broadcaster and became a motivational speaker. His speeches sometimes covered his version of the controversy at NC State or offered commentary to his audiences on how to handle and get over these unfortunate events and the character and reputational damage they present. This is not an unusual path for high-profile people to take after finding themselves in crises of confidence. Practical ethics are complex and transgressions in these professional dilemmas can lead a person to a moral reckoning and awakening of the true values that matter in life and how to embrace them authentically.

Valvano’s enduring legacy is a speech he made in this exact spirit at the first ESPY Awards in 1993. He was accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award and at this time was in the throes of the glandular cancer which would take his life less than two months later. After announcing his intention to create an charitable foundation dedicated to finding the cure for cancer, he went on to speak emotionally and eloquently about individual success and his views on what made life worthwhile. This powerful perspective on purpose-driven living relied heavily on a definition of true success as inner and personal, not dictated by accolades from others or black-and-white “wins,” but rather a personal sense of accomplishment and completion that required no external justification.

This concept of internal success is important in an understanding of applied ethics and translates powerfully to a vision for individual accountability in a culture of compliance. In this theme, here are five significant statements from Valvano’s legendary speech, with suggestions for how to interpret these powerful insights for individual and organizational values to promote ethics and compliance:

  1. “To me there are three things we should all do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh… Number two is think… And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy… You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.” – A balanced life is a sustainable one. This way, the pleasure of the highs will be memorable, the pain of the lows will fade, and the middle will be where the lessons from both come together for a lasting effect. As Johan Cruyff’s “Total Football” showed in last week’s profile, the only practical approach to life or business is a holistic one, with all factors and outcomes taken into fair contemplation. An even keel is a long-lasting perspective.
  2. “I always have to think about what’s important in life to me… Where you started; where you are; and where you’re going to be. Those are the three things that I try and do every day.” – This expresses a perspective on success that is grounded, measured, and reasonable. Success may be a line, or an arc, or a constellation of peaks and valleys, but the present must always maintain an attachment to the origin as well as to the ambition. This perspective can both humble and motivate individuals and organizations to consider, and be true to, their values.
  3. “It’s so important to know where you are. And I know where I am right now. How do you go from where you are to where you want to be? … I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal. And you have to be willing to work for it.” – Success is equal parts planning and effort. In life as well as in business, if you don’t work for it, it’s not worth having and might not be possible to keep. Professionals should be passionate about and engaged the work that they do and the reasons for which they do it – not a paycheck or external recognition, but as Valvano says, enthusiasm, vision, and commitment. Ethical decision-making is only possible if individuals are purpose-driven and accordingly, so long as they hold themselves accountable to that purpose.
  4. “I urge all of you… to be enthusiastic every day… to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems whatever you have. The ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality.” – Adversity is always a great challenge to character ethic. Be it accusations of wrongdoing, confrontation with personal moral failures, opposition and criticism, doubt and uncertainty, or even physical illness and disease, resilience and perseverance are the only remedy. Continuing commitment to core values, even when feeding forward input or external changes and making adjustments is necessary, as is appreciation of the work and effort required to reach goals. With this in mind, genuine inner success is achievable.
  5. “Cancer can take away all my physical ability. It cannot touch my mind; it cannot touch my heart; and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.” – The closing and perhaps most famous and poignant lines of Valvano’s speech, the lesson from Valvano’s conviction to endure despite his illness and physical diminishment is universal to all human endeavors. Dignity, legacy, and respect are not circumstantial and cannot be taken from a person unless freely compromised. This goes to the heart of personal ethics and morality – a person’s own register of right and wrong, internal governor and code should be untouchable and can be relied upon in even the darkest and most uncertain times.

For Valvano’s powerful 1993 ESPY speech, watch it here:

Don’t forget to check back for next Wednesday’s post, which will be about Vince Lombardi, the NFL Hall of Fame coach (and the role model of Jim Valvano, as it happens), and clues about how he saw ethical leadership based on famous statements from his statements to players and motivational speeches. The final post in this series, on November 29, will profile Gregg Popovich, the current coach of the San Antonio Spurs with a progressive view toward people management of his players and political engagement as an expression of leadership.

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