'You Don't Have to Be Perfect to Be Excellent"
We caught up with author and keynote speaker Stephen Mackey to discuss increasing toughness levels and his six pillars of championship character.
There’s a timeless fable Stephen Mackey likes to cite when highlighting one of his core leadership philosophies.
It’s the tortoise and the hare.
“The tortoise gave 100 percent of what he had every step of the race,” Mackey said. “The hare didn’t think he had to give 100 percent and could get distracted because he was fast. But the tortoise won the race.”
For Mackey, a best-selling author and keynote speaker, the lesson isn’t about overlooking the competition as much as it is giving our best even when we’re not feeling our best.
“Regardless of how good or bad your day is, give 100 percent of whatever you’ve got, wherever you are,” he said. “That’s what leads to consistency.”
The Daily Coach caught up with Mackey recently to discuss increasing toughness levels, his six pillars of championship character and the dangers of relying on external motivation.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Stephen, thanks a lot for doing this. Tell us a little about your childhood and some key lessons from it.
I grew up in central Texas, born to a teenaged mother, mom White, biological father older, Black. We lived in a small town where racism was far from gone. The statistics with that say children born to a teenaged mother, interracial couple, are less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be arrested by their 18th birthday, not go to college, father a child out of wedlock, all of those things.
My maternal grandparents made the choice not out of abundance but out of sacrifice to raise me as their own and to give me a second chance. They say it takes a village to raise a child. They were the cornerstone of the village to me. They invested in me to give me a stable home with love and support and showed me how to work hard for the things I wanted.
All along the way, there were people, elementary school teachers, coaches, counselors, all who took a step and leaned in to be part of my village to invest in me and give me a chance. What they gave more than a skillset was a foundation of character, faith and community. They created an environment for me to do the work that could stand.
You end up going to Texas A&M. What were you thinking you might want to do for a career at that point?
I knew early in life that I wanted to work with students. I didn’t know what that would look like. At first, I thought it would be student ministry in a faith context. Now, it’s character and leadership development and coaching. I knew it’d always be with students because I saw the impact of my village investing in me specifically as a middle school student. I thought I wanted to pay that forward. That’s blossomed into working with professional athletes and business. Every speech I do, every book I write, I do with students in mind first and everyone else second.
You have some pretty interesting views on toughness. What does toughness look like to you and what are some things you think we can all do to be a little tougher?
I use the phrase often that “Tough people win.” We will get knocked down in life and in leadership, but we always get back up stronger, smarter and more grateful because of it. The reason I talk about it that way is that it’s easy to see examples of elite performers and equate that to toughness, the ultramarathoners, the triatholoners, run across the Mojave Desert, wake up at 3 o’clock every morning, and have every minute of every day planned to a tee. “That’s what tough people do!” It’s easy to say that, but that’s just an example of someone who’s very disciplined, and we often make the excuse, “Because I can’t do that, I can’t be tough.”
What’s more realistic is seeing toughness as doing the most basic things over and over again really, really well. That allows you when you get knocked down to get back up stronger, smarter and more grateful.
It's really tough to have integrity. It’s really hard to own a mistake. It’s really tough to start with yes, not no. It’s really tough to outwork hard situations. It’s tough to say thank you. But those basic things are what you do when you get something wrong. For me, it’s let’s get back to the basics of character when things get hard. When we do that, we’ll see that adversity is also a teacher. Hard times are revealing to us. When our fundamentals have broken down, we need to get back to the basics.
You believe there are six pillars of championship character.
1. Tough people win
2. Integrity over everything
3. Growth follows belief
4. Excellence everywhere
5. Relentless effort
6. Service before self
Any one of the six can be a starting point that leads to the other five. It’s like a circle — no matter where you start, if you keep going, you’ll eventually end up back at the same spot. The reason I choice these to define championship character is that they require zero talent. I just have to be willing to choose to be the person to do the work. If I make that choice, inevitably what happens is that my talent gets better. These six amplify talent and apply in every area of life, whether it’s work, sports, relationships.
You also firmly believe that your identity and self-worth can’t be tied to your performance and results. That’s a pretty big challenge for a lot of leaders. How do you shift away from rooting your identity in what the scoreboard says?
Let’s think about it in terms of confidence. If your confidence goes up or down based on the performance, you have to ask, “Are you very confident?” If one bad shot can bring it down, are you really confident? The answer is no. Whether you do right or wrong, your confidence has to remain the same. Your process before you take the shot has to be right.
In the life context, if my identity, who I am and what I bring to the table is contingent on performance, what happens when my performance is taken away? My value drops like a stock. That tells me I’m not very confident in who I am. It’s when our identity, value and worth are separate from our performance that we find who we are.
The way we get to this place and move from a performance-based identity to a purpose-based identity is to find ourselves in something bigger than ourselves, something that can’t be taken away by injury or consequence or someone else’s choice. Who I am is independent of my performance. Those are things like faith, tradition, core values. Those things are rock solid and bigger than me so when I make a mistake, they’re not at threat.
Can you get into your five levels of motivation?
3. Want to
Fear and reward are at the bottom. Fear and reward are good short-term motivators, but they don’t do a great job of leading to long-term change. The reason is that when you’re motivated by them, it takes more and more of them for you to do less and less work. They get diluted over time. You think about money. If you make $1,000 and have never made money before, you think you’re rich — until you find out someone makes $5,000. Then, you really want that, and you find out someone makes $10,000. Fear gets diluted because the consequences have to be more and more extreme. Those are external drivers.
Love, passion and “want to” are internal drivers that you need less and less of to do even more. They’re the exact opposite. When I just want to do something, I don’t have to be paid for it because I desire it, I want it. You don’t have to give me an alarm clock for me to wake up for it. If I’m passionate about the work, I’m going to do it.
Your true motivation will always be exposed. People will be drawn to you when you’re driven by love, passion and want to. When you’re driven by fear and reward, people will see you as inauthentic.
You put a really big emphasis on giving our all on days where we’re not feeling our best. Why is that so important to you?
The myth is that if I’m disciplined, if I’m good, if I’m elite, once I finally figure out the secret, I’ll be 100 out of 100 all the time. That’s just not the reality. The best athletes have off nights, the best leaders have off days. The reason you don’t perceive it in the best of the best is that they always give 100 percent of what they have. Most people when they don’t have 100 percent to give don’t give anything.
When we talk about excellence as giving 100 percent of your 70 percent, we’re saying, “Regardless of what side of the bed you wake up on or how good or bad your day is, be the kind of person willing to give 100 percent of what you got.”
This is the irresistible pull of mathematics. If I give 100 percent of what I’ve got every time, I’m going to get farther along. The way I do that is I can hit a reset button. If I’m short with the Starbucks barista because they got my order wrong, I can say, “I’m really sorry. I was short with you and there’s no reason for that.” That takes integrity and some toughness.
You don’t have to be perfect to be excellent. Give yourself some grace.