Peter Jensen: An interview by Bob Morris

An authority on leadership and a renowned innovator, Dr. Peter Jensen is a pioneer in bringing the concepts of coaching and personal high performance to corporations worldwide. Jensen has worked with the best and brightest in Fortune 500 companies in eight countries applying his extensive understanding and realistic practices to the art of leadership. He knows firsthand what it takes to get the best out of people.

Peter has attended seven Olympics, assisting athletes and coaches in winning over 50 Olympic medals. His work with athletes provides an amazing laboratory in which to both observe and practice how to support and develop people who truly are striving to reach their potential while learning to manage intense pressure and high expectations.

Also a top rated instructor at Queen’s School of Business he combines a potent understanding of the fundamentals of effective leadership with new ideas and ongoing insights from Olympic coaches and athletes. He has a unique ability to bring practical clarity to complex concepts by illustrating their tangible application in the business world, and the power to invigorate audiences through his compelling use of humor, and personal experiences.

Jensen is the author of the best-selling book The Inside Edge, a powerful roadmap for using the mental preparation techniques of elite athletes to improve personal performance. His latest book, The Winning Factor, offers managers solutions from exceptional Olympic coaches on motivating, engaging and developing their employees. His work has been featured on ABC, CBS, CBC, and CTV and in a wide array of print media in North America and Europe.

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

Jensen: Probably my mother because she believed everything was possible so she put no limitations on me.

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

Jensen: Hard to single out one person but it was Kazimierz Dabrowski who first introduced me to the critical role emotion and imagination play in human development. He was the one who coined the term “third factor.”

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.

Jensen: Again it grew out of my working/studying with Dr. Dabrowski. I was going through a difficult time in my life at that point and the timeliness of his concepts given the adversity of was facing really changed the course of my life.

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

Jensen: I think formal education of any type can be an assist and a PhD has helped with credibility but I am also a believer in Mark Twain’s observation that you ought not let your schooling interfere with your education. Life can be a tremendous learning laboratory if you let it.

Morris: How do you define a “winner”? A “loser”?

Jensen: Only in developmental terms. Winning isn’t about the medal but about what happens to you in the achievement of that medal. If you will be nothing without a gold medal then you will be nothing with one. A loser is someone who lacks self awareness and self responsibility.

Morris: Of all the films you have seen, which do you think most effectively portrays great leadership in a competitive sports context?

Jensen: Probably Invictus, the Nelson Mandela South African rugby story.

Morris: Teamwork?

Jensen: it’s been a while since I’ve seen it so memory may be inaccurate but Hoosiers.

Morris: When and why did you found Performance Coaching?

Jensen: In 1991 because I saw a need for training in coaching in the Organizational world that paralleled the coaching development systems prevalent in the sport coaching certification programs that had been implemented in several countries at the time.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has its original mission changed since then? Please explain.

Jensen: Not so much changed as deepened and, to a small extent, expanded. We believe more strongly then ever that managers and leaders need to move away from constantly directing and supervising into developing. They need to take on the more fulfilling mandate of becoming a developer of people.

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent (if any) have professional sports been corrupted by greed? Please explain.

Jensen: There is no question that the pendulum has swung dramatically away from players as owned pawns that are used to generate huge profits for those who own them. Clearly the adjustment has led to some greed and entitlement in some athletes. Most people no matter where they work would take as a wage their market value. Many athletes can get that in today’s world. Is it greed? I suppose we would need to know what they do with their resources before we passed that judgment. They are privileged.

Morris:What do you regret most about organized youth sports programs for children up to the age of 14? Why?Jensen:That parental involvement has run amok. Sport has tremendous developmental potential for young people when they are involved not just in playing but in working through the various issues that are bound to arise in a competitive environment.Morris: In your opinion, why do so many (if most) professional athletes end up destitute?

Jensen: I don’t know if the number of athletes who end up destitute exceeds the average for “normal” citizens. What would be the percentage for lottery winners? Basically it boils down to an ability to manage resources and life. What in an athletic environment prepares anyone to handle adulation and money?

Morris: I am the father of three sons and a daughter as well as a grandfather of their ten children. I am very concerned about the increasing numbers of children who are (a) obese and (b) diabetic. In your opinion, what must be done [begin italics] immediately [end italics] in response to these health crises?

Jensen: To recognize that daily physical activity and nutritional education need to be a vital part of elementary school curriculum.  The chemistry, for example, you learned in public school is long out of date in 2012 but if you had learned to be physically active and had a basic understanding of exercise physiology and nutrition it would have served you for life.

Morris: Of all the coaches that you have played for, personally know, or have observed, which do you admire most? Why?

Jensen: Those who had a developmental bias. John Wooden, Anson Dorrance, and those who, when spoken of years later by their athletes, are talked about in terms of life influence well beyond the playing court/ field. Listen to Bill Walton of Kareem Abdul Jabbar talk about coach Wooden. They rarely mention basketball.

Morris: Of all that you have learned from the sports world, what do you think is of greatest value to the performance improvement of C-level executives? Why?

Jensen: Two things out of many…emotion and imagination. Exceptional sport coach do not fear emotion, they redirect/ harness it in a developmental way. They also “get it,” understand at the cellular level, that imagery is the language of performance. Why? Because imagination and emotion are key in helping people reach their potential.

Morris: Of all that you have learned from the business world, what do you think is of greatest value to the performance improvement efforts of sports teams or individual competitors? Why?

Jensen: Some of the research/information on giving exceptional competent feedback, change management, and a great deal from the whole realm of organizational skills.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Winning Factor. When and why did you decide to write it?

Jensen: After the Athens Olympics as a result of an interaction I had with Garry Winkler, a track coach, from the University of Illinois. He was my roommate and in seeing how he handled major adversity I realized I had a privileged vantage point with many elite coaches and given my business teaching role I was in a fairly unique position to distill out what made them so exceptional… and the lessons for others as a result.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Jensen: Yes. The biggest by far was a realization, while biking one day, that Dabrowski’s concept of the Third Factor tied it all together.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Jensen: It was fairly organic in the sense that my interviews with the coaches shifted things on occasion but once I had the Dabrowski revelation it pretty much stayed the course.

Morris: Until I read the book, I was unfamiliar with Kazimierz Dabrowski’s research on peak performers. However different they may be in most respects, what do they share in common and why lessons can be learned from that?

Jensen: Dabrowski studied moral and emotional growth and in reaching potential in any realm emotion and imagination are going to play key roles.

Morris: According to Dabrowski, what are the components of the developmental potential?

Jensen: Well certainly Nature and Nuture, the first two factors. But by the time your 18 they are done! He introduced the Third factor, the autonomous role that individuals can play in their own development that transcends the first two on many occasions. Think of Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Morris:What is the “developmental bias” and what is its significance?Jensen:It is a way of describing that quality in great coaches, teachers, leaders where in they really can’t help themselves, they are driven to help you get better…at whatever you are doing. It is significant in that it is essential for both coach and performer. The coach need to have it to get better at helping you get better and so they align themselves with the part of you, however small, that believes you can do this.Morris: Having coached varsity football, basketball, and baseball teams for many years at the secondary school level, I certainly agree that exceptional coaches have several defining characteristics. In your opinion, what are they?

Jensen: Easy question given that the whole book is about it! They mange themselves, including their emotions, and don’t create undo emotional wake for their players. They consciously work on building trust. They use imagery in that they paint very clear pictures of what constitute a good performance and they encourage you to see what is possible. They uncover and work though blocks rather than constantly tell their players to work harder. They embrace adversity and see it for what it is…an indication that we aren’t there yet.

Morris:  In your opinion, which of these characteristics is most essential to the effectiveness of a business leader?

Jensen: Unfair answer…all of them are but at different times.

Morris: What specifically is the business case for having a developmental bias?

Jensen: Where do I start? Succession planning, the bar is raised yearly, have to do more, quicker, with less resources, it’s a very long list.

Morris: Long ago, I realized that all great teachers are effective coaches and all great coaches are effective teachers. John Wooden and Pat Summitt offer two excellent cases in point. Here’s my question: What are the most valuable lesions that parents can learn from exceptional teachers and coaches?

Jensen: Allow children to make mistakes, have small setbacks. Your job is to put yourself out of work…not stake the tree for it’s entire life. You job isn’t to always make you children happy. It’s to help them grow to independence.

Morris: For years, I have supported Special Olympics and participated in a number of its activities. I think that all of the contestants in competitive events are “winners.” Your own thoughts about that?

Jensen: Can be if the attitude of coaches is developmental in the full sense of that word and not producing professional athletes. This includes being able to deal with winning and losing and to continue to strive to be the best each one of them can be.

Morris: You devote a separate chapter to each of the five characteristics of developmental bias. Of the five, which do most people seem to have the greatest difficulty mastering? Why?

Jensen: Self Management. In sport competition brings out the worst in many of us. Our children are important to us and we can get badly out of join in short order. In the work world leaders have challenging targets and are under tremendous strain and “acting big” at during challenging times requires exceptional self management skills.

Morris: One of my favorite quotations is from the sports world, provided by Jack Dempsey: “Champions get up when they can’t.” Your response?
Jensen: Neat quote…but if they get up they can. This speaks to the inner drive that exists in that environment for that athlete. It can be a strength but taken to an extreme, in another environment, it can be a major weakness.

Morris:  Here’s another, from Wayne Gretzky: “Everyone knows where the puck is. I know where it’s going.” Your response?

Jensen: Eyes in the back of his head. He saw the ice differently, as if he were above it in the ceiling. Michael Jordan seem to have a similar vantage point.

Morris: I’m interested to know how you define “sportsmanship” and why it is not among the characteristics of developmental bias.

Jensen: Behaving in a way that represents you and you team favorably in times of pressure or disappointment. It involves recognizing the true importance of what you are doing. Sport is a form of organized children’s play.

Morris: And what about “teamwork”?

Jensen: I dislike the phrase there is no ‘I’ in team. It misrepresents what it is truly like to be a part of a group or team. It is always about balancing Me and They, I and Them. That is the reality and the sooner we acknowledge it the better. Now that’s on the table in times of execution it is all We. Caring as much about the team as you can doabout yourself.

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply about whether or not athletes should be viewed as role models for children. What do you think?

Jensen: Only if they are good ones who display behaviors that are important for success well beyond sport.

Morris: What do you know now, today, about the Third Factor that you wish you knew when you began your career in coaching?

Jensen: Almost all of it. I made many, many mistakes as a coach. It took me years to look beyond the Xs and Os and see that it had to do with the name I put on each X and O.

Morris:  Why is effective use of imagery so important to effective communication during performance improvement initiatives?

Jensen: Because people can’t improve, get better, until they can begin to “see” it.

Morris:  Here are a few terms that caught my eye. Please explain each. First, Extinguishers

Jensen: Leaders who destroy internal motivation and do nothing to encourage self awareness and confidence in their people.

Morris: Next, Igniters

Jensen: Those who get it. They realize their job/ task is to ignite in another person that individual’s desire to get better. Therefore they ask questions and encourage self responsibly.

Morris: Finally, the GROW exercise

Jensen: A one-on-one coaching template developed by Sir John Whitmore and two of his colleagues. GROW is an acronym for Goal, Reality, Options and Will. It is an excellent process using a very consultative style of coaching that build self awareness and responsibility in those being coached.

Morris: Why “embrace reality”?

Jensen: All roads lead to the issue but they all start with what is happening now. Reality is often telling you that you aren’t there yet. Not that you are not going to get there but there is something you need to learn to take the next step. Sorting out what the real issue is, not the symptoms, from reality, what is happening now, is critical. It’s just information that you can use to either move forward, redirect yourself, figure out what to stop doing, or sometimes…let go of.

Morris: What does “reframing” involve and how specifically can it be beneficial?

Jensen: An excellent term from the picture framing business that reminds us that life may choose the pictures but we chose how we frame the picture, that information. Just as a black mat and frame will change how a painting you own looks when compared with a blue mat and frame, so to does taking a different perspective to what is happening to you. It is beneficial in that it often helps put something into perspective and supplies the necessary energy to move forward. When you sit down, for example, and start to consciously look at the opportunities in your dealing with a difficult issue you have been avoiding it is surprising to see all the upside in getting on with it. Seeing those is very helpful in mobilizing your resources and starting the journey forward, to resolving what has been an energy draining, attention occupying, impasse.

Morris: In your opinion, how best to improve one’s performance when helping others to improve theirs?

Jensen: Start to notice the subtle but very present assumptions you operate on that you never question that may be limiting your ability to work with this other person effectively. How are you and your beliefs getting in the way of you being more effective?

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in the Winning Factor, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Why?

Jensen: In a small company, such as mine, all resources are valuable and essential, none more so than the people who do the work, produce the goods, etc. Growing and developing people in theses environments is imperative. Because the organizations are small and we “know” almost everyone there, there is less of a tendency to be formal in our development of them. There is also a tendency to think we know their limitations or, when they are blocked, what is blocking them. We need to be very vigilant as leaders and consciously plan where theses people will be down the road later and how we are going to get them there.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Jensen: You have been very through, but I would add… don’t try and change everything all at once. Focusing on everything is focusing on nothing. Pick one thing and work on that. End goals can become draining, debilitating. Performance goals are a much better point of focus. Just do this by Friday! Sport coaches speak of this all the time but it frustrates reporters and everyday leaders don’t really get it. Working on small things make big, big, differences down the line. Most people bite off too much and lose motivation.

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Peter cordially invites you to check out the resources at his website:

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