Don Yaeger on “Great Teams”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

yaeger-donDon Yaeger is a nationally acclaimed inspirational speaker, longtime Associate Editor of Sports Illustrated and author of 25 books, nine of which have become New York Times best sellers. He began his career at the San Antonio (TX) Light and also worked at the Dallas Morning News and the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville before going to work for Sports Illustrated.

As an author, Don has written books with, among others, Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden, baseball legends John Smoltz and Tug McGraw and football stars Warrick Dunn and Michael Oher (featured in the movie The Blind Side). He teamed with Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade to pen the 2013 best-seller George Washington’s Secret Six, a look at the citizen spy ring that helped win the Revolutionary War and then again in 2015 writing Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History.

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Morris: Before discussing Great Teams, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Yaeger: John Wooden. Everything I would do and become not just as a professional and a leader, but as a husband and a father I can thank Wooden for.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Yaeger: Craig Neff, an editor at Sports Illustrated. During my time there he constantly was able to do me a favor in believing in me, and I think that’s the real mark of true leadership.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Yaeger: The turning point for me was probably my opportunity to live with Walter Payton. The fact that someone as extraordinary as he was would allow me into their inner circle reminded me that all of us have potential. We just have to find somebody that can help us get there. Walter was that guy for me.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Yaeger: My formal education as an extension to my college degree in journalism was the time that I spent working with the student newspaper. I would argue that my greatest education occurred by working for the student newspaper. It wasn’t necessarily the classroom work that made my formal education special. It was the idea that I had the opportunity to practice it before I went into the real world.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Yaeger: What I know now is that everybody in life, no matter where you are or what you do, must be able to sell in order to be successful. I used to believe that I could be successful on talent alone. What I realize now is that I can only be successful if I can have people buy my talent.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Yaeger: Hoosiers. I see myself as kind of an underdog. I barely got into college and barely got out of it. And so, much like those kids playing for that small high school team, I have the right to believe that I can roll with the very best of the best.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Yaeger: I think that’s actually a great description of almost all of the coaches and people that we are talking about here in Great Teams. They were able to inspire those who work and play for them. They take leadership of themselves which is the greatest form of leadership. That quote is emblematic of that.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Yaeger: That’s absolutely true. We all think that the answer to everything is to add more and to do more and to try more. Sometimes you have to have the discipline to say no and to believe in the process that you have established.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Yaeger: That’s true of the president that says that he wants to have a man walk on the moon but today we don’t even pay attention when a rocket is shot off. Somebody has to be there to have the crazy ideas. The great ones are the ones who are there.

Morris: From Darrell Royal: “Potential” means “you ain’t done it yet.”

Yaeger: Now we’re in my space because we are talking about a football coach. This is where so much emphasis is put on their high potential. It’s important to keep those people engaged that fit into that category. But we have to remember to continue to be engaged with those that have done it, and be grateful for those that have space to grow.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Yaeger: John Wooden would say never mistake activity for achievement. It’s the same basic concept. Sometimes we think we’re really doing well on a given day. But ‘What did you accomplish?’ is the question that we should really be asking not ‘What did we do?’

Morris: Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?

Yaeger: Mother Teresa. I’ve always been fascinated with the heart of someone that could so selflessly give up herself to others. She’s now Saint Mother Teresa and deservedly so.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Yaeger: The great ones realize that what you did yesterday guarantees you nothing today. The challenge is too many people are busy celebrating yesterday’s success.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Yaeger: The challenge CEOs will face three to five years from now is the same one that they face today. That is engagement. It’s hard to keep people engaged in what they are doing. As this generation grows up around social media like Twitter where things are 140 characters, how do you keep them engaged all hours every day at work? How do you keep them focused on the big goals you have?

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Don invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His Amazon page link

Great Teams link

LinkedIn link

Facebook link

Don’s YouTube videos link

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