Lessons from Jimmy V on Life and Leadership

When I walked through the doors of North Carolina University’s Sports Hall of Fame recently for a leadership team meeting, memories of the 1983 Wolfpack championship victory flooded back.

The man who led that team and defied the odds was Coach Jim Valvano, or Jimmy V as everyone called him. As I mentioned last time, I was in the Fifth Grade during that championship drive, but what I didn’t realize at the time was the tremendous impact Jimmy V’s leadership style would have on me and continues to have on me to this day.

After having spent time with one of our top partners and members of my team touring the Hall of Fame, and being surrounded by photos, newspaper clippings and memorabilia, the lessons from Jimmy V that have shaped my life and leadership style became top of mind.

“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.” Jimmy V

This quote was part of a powerful, and now legendary, speech Jimmy V made during his acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPY awards. As we get busier and more connected, it serves as a reminder of the importance of laughter, living life with passion and enthusiasm, and to find quiet time to just think. Everyone is so busy today, running from one appointment or event to the next, we don’t have or take the time for quiet reflection but it’s essential to achieve great results.

There are so many things that Jimmy V taught his team to be great. Here are just a few that really resonate with me:

  1. Set goals

When Jimmy V was in high school, he wrote out his lifetime goals on an index card. The list included: Play basketball in high school and college, become an assistant coach, move to head coach, win a game at Madison Square Garden, and cut down the net after winning a national championship. He accomplished every single one.

We talk a lot about goal setting but too often it’s viewed as a process or something we do every year at review or budget time. Goals should serve as a guide to help us reach a very specific destination that we have set for ourselves and our careers. It should apply to all parts of our life because with clearly defined goals, and a focus on their achievements, we can reach them.

  1. Visualize Success

During the regular season, Coach Valvano held a practice where every member of the NC State team took turns cutting down the net so they would know what it would feel like WHEN they won the NCAA championship. What Jimmy V was doing in that moment was showing, in a very tangible way, what success looks and feels like.

As I mentioned last time, the rate of technological and organizational change is moving the goal posts for a lot of businesses and people, which can make it very hard for people to know when they’ve won or succeeded. It’s important, as a leader, that we help everyone understand where success is measured, what success looks and what it feels like so they can achieve it. People can’t succeed in a vacuum and too often when people don’t have a clear vision for where they need to go, they will stop rather than make mistakes. Help your team visualize their success, your team success and your company success … and if you do, they will achieve amazing things.

  1. Don’t just teach, learn

As a coach that led an underdog team to a championship, Jimmy V is talked about as a leader who rallied an unlikely team together to accomplish amazing and unexpected things. He’s often talked about in terms of what he taught his team and his impact on the team, but later in his career, he talked openly about what his team taught him and how important that was to their success.

Sometimes I think that leaders can feel they have to carry the flag and lead the charge, but strong leaders build a strong team. We can never know everything or do everything. We must be willing and open to learn from those around us whether they’re your team, your bosses or your colleagues.

  1. Be Courageous in the Face of Adversity

It was not all a picture-perfect world of fairy tales: Jimmy V faced his share of scandals (which were never proven) and adversity (including his final bout with cancer), but not a single person could ever say he rolled over and let situations control of him.

When facing difficult times or a challenge, it’s tempting to throw up your hands and claim a resolution is impossible, but where would we be today if everyone did that? We need to dig deep, pull together and find the strength to solve the issue or move forward … and you know what, if you do that, you’ll ultimately succeed.

  1. Be Passionate

Anyone who’s listened to his speeches, knows Jimmy V lived with passion. He approached every challenge and task with an energy and an enthusiasm that was undeniable.

To achieve great things, you need to be passionate about them. If you’re just going through the motions, you’ll never excel. We need to help our teams find passion in their day to day, find ways to create energy and enthusiasm in our work life, and remember to laugh … life can get too serious!

Jimmy V passed away from cancer a short time after his incredible Arthur Ashe acceptance speech. It’s a short 10-minute video but is one I recommend everyone watch. It shows how someone can live a life with passion, humor and a drive that continued to his last day … and that’s something everyone should embrace.

“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up” – Jim Valvano