Leadership Sports and Life Part 1

Sports and Life:  Common Principles of Success

By Steve Pagliuca

In a two-part series, Steve Pagliuca of Bain Capital and the Boston Celtics will explore some of the life and business lessons that he learned through his involvement with sports. Part II can be found here.

Sports and Life: Common Principles of Success

The game had reached a second overtime against our high-school archrivals. We were down by a point with less than 10 seconds to go. The four other starters had fouled out. With the game hanging in the balance, I stepped to the line to shoot free throws in a one-and-one situation. My heart was pounding, and my stomach was filled with butterflies.

duke31The packed gym became silent. I vividly recall the concerned faces of my teammates—at least the ones who didn’t have them buried in towels—when I looked down the bench. But I had been here many times before, if not in this gym, then during the colorful sequences that played out in carefree backyard games, sweat-filled practices and my boyhood imagination.

When the pressure was overwhelming, I would take a few dribbles and shoot a jump shot from the foul line. Although unorthodox, it put me in a comfort zone. Now, standing at the line, I had the feeling I would never amount to much if I missed this shot. I decided to risk taking the unconventional jump shot from the line. I thought that if I missed, at least I would miss with all guns blazing. With all eyes on me, I went through my routine ritual that now had become second nature. I squared my body to the basket, bounced the ball on the floor several times, jumped as high as my legs would take me and let it fly.

The shot hit the front of the rim, then bounced back before rolling in the hoop. The crowd went wild. I took the second shot and swish! Victory was imminent. Then, in an instant, one of the opposing players dribbled up the floor and launched a 30-foot shot at the buzzer. Just like that, the game was over and we had lost.

At the time, that moment seemed to offer little more than disappointment. Looking back, it meant far more.

For most of my life, I have been an avid participant and fan of all kinds of team sports. I started playing sports at a very young age; one of my earliest memories is of joining a Pee Wee football team coached by a friend’s father in 1963. This started a life-long love affair with sports, from football to basketball to baseball from grade school, high school, college until today.

I hadn’t really thought too much about the impact of sports on my life until I was asked to write this piece. The more I thought about my experiences, the more it became apparent to me that those experiences in sports were critical to my life and taught me lessons that went well beyond the games themselves. The ups and downs, the successes and failures ultimately taught me broader lessons about life and business.

duke61In the case of that basketball game, the experience proved that overcoming the fear of failure by taking a chance is critical in a moment of crisis. That crazy jump shot in the packed gym has been imprinted on my brain forever and still helps me to focus when critical situations arise in the business world today.

I am currently part of other teams – ones that are much more complicated and play for much higher stakes. As part of Bain Capital, we have acquired or invested in hundreds of companies, including many brand names you know like Staples, Burger King, Hospital Corporation of America and the Weather Channel. The partners of Bain Capital have always been the largest investors in each of our funds. We feel a great responsibility to our investors and to each other. We need to be diligent and focused in analyzing these investments, but we also need to overcome the fear that the responsibility brings. We need to pull the trigger on the best situations and take calculated risks to achieve superior returns for investors. I have those same butterflies in my stomach every time we invest, but I try to remember that day on the foul line and shoot to win.

The need to overcome the fear of failure is just one of the values that I first learned on the green fields, the blacktops and the hardwood floors of my youth. The many lessons learned while playing team sports have served me well throughout my life. Upon reflection, my passion for sports has benefited me greatly, by helping me on an on-going basis to learn many fundamental principles that apply to life and business.


Principle: Patience pays great dividends.

Then: I had never played Little League baseball and decided to play in my last year of eligibility as a 12-year-old. I did not know much about baseball so I remember the first day when they asked me to play second base. I was so new to baseball that I went out and stood on the base in the middle of the field. I tried several positions during the pre-season and finally found my niche at first base. I was playing behind a player who was a good first baseman and had three years of experience on the field. I was patient and kept working. Right before the first game of the season, a ball was hit sharply to him, breaking his wrist. I felt badly for him, and then terrified, as I realized I was his replacement. Fortunately, our team, The Saints, in spite of my poor hitting and mediocre fielding, won the championship. Maybe this principle should be called “providence” rather than “patience”.

Now: In our quest for the Celtics Championship, we were fortunate to hire Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers to lead the effort. We started with a team that was relatively good but one that we knew couldn’t win the Championship. We decided to change the make-up of the team radically, drafting younger players whom we could develop as members of the Celtics or use as assets to trade for proven star players. Two years ago, as we were developing the younger players, we suffered many injuries and lost many games. We had the second worst record in the league. Some fans and much of the media were pushing for us to fire the General Manager and the Coach (and perhaps ourselves). Our group was steadfast and patient knowing that we had a great GM and Coach and that we needed to stick with the strategy. That patience paid off with a championship and we could not have been happier for Danny and Doc! Their hard work and superior talent enabled us to capture this title. Maybe a little providence here, too, as Paul Pierce survived a nasty spill to become the MVP of the Finals.


Principle: Never give up.

Then: I was an avid football and basketball player throughout my school years. I was very excited about playing basketball on my middle school team in the 7th grade, when I believed I was one of the better players in the school. The coach of the team was a tough ex-Marine gym teacher. I thought I played well in the tryouts but then received the news that I had been cut. I was shocked! This was very unexpected and something I thought was not even a possibility. I wanted to stop playing basketball and focus on football, but my parents convinced me to continue playing basketball. Fortunately for me, when 8th grade rolled around, they changed coaches. I had redoubled my efforts at the game, and played well in the tryouts to be given a fresh start. I became a starting player, and one of the leading scorers. Looking back, it proves the old adage that you learn much more from your failures than successes. You should never quit. Good things happen to those who persevere.

Now: Currently we are in one of the toughest economic periods of the last 25 years. Every day there is more bad news about the stock market or the job market. The companies that will perform the best in this environment are managed by those who will keep persevering and never quit, continually trying new ideas and finding better ways to serve customers in this economic downturn. The attitude of never giving up is critical for all companies and team members in these turbulent times. The best CEOs always have the quality of staying positive, never giving up, and leading the team to find a way to succeed.

Originally printed by WEEI
April 2, 2009

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