At Power’s most recent bi-annual leadership conference in Dallas, we had the honor of hosting Wayne Gretzky. Instead of delivering a pre-written speech, Gretzky agreed to participate in a one-on-one interview with me in front of 250 of the company’s leaders.
As a lifelong hockey fan, I always rooted for Gretzky and distinctly remember watching him play. Yet in preparation for the interview, I learned significantly more about him than I ever knew as a fan. The more I learned, the more amazing the statistics -- most goals in a season, most points in a season, most hat tricks in a season. Seventeen years after his retirement, he still has more career assists (1,963) than any other player has in total career points (1,887).
As his list of records and accolades grew, his historic and unparalleled career as “The Great One” came into sharp focus. I became increasingly excited to not only meet him, but also learn more about him on a personal level. Specifically, what needs to exist within someone’s psyche to achieve that level of greatness?
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In hopes of finding these answers, I peppered Gretzky with questions. From his childhood to his early NHL years to life after the game -- nothing was off limits. Again and again, he directed praise onto others:
“My parents were great role models,” he said.
“Every player on the team has an equally important role.”
“I was surrounded by great leaders.”
While absolutely genuine, these humble responses were initially off-putting. How could someone so talented and so elite be so down to earth? Was this the psyche of greatness?
I thought about this question in the quiet moments of the weeks that followed. Finally, I concluded that in order to perform at that exclusive level, you have to bring out the best in everyone around you. You can’t do it alone. Gretzky's awareness of this fact and his true openness to it was why he was so great.
As I watched ESPN in the ensuing weeks, however, I found myself bombarded with images that directly conflicted with this theory. Flashing before my eyes was Allen Iverson being inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, Alex Rodriguez breaking the American League record for RBIs, and Dwight Howard clinching a playoff spot with the Houston Rockets. Here were famously selfish, individualistic athletes reaching the top of their sport and, in the process, proving the exact opposite of my conclusion.
How could that be? How could two fundamentally different mentalities produce the same result? At first, this paradox was disheartening. Yet the more I thought about it, the more encouraged I became.
Greatness is not about one particular mentality; it’s about the choice between the two. Humility and selfishness aren’t mutually exclusive on the way to greatness. The access and money that come with the highest levels of success empower you to treat people however you want. You can choose to use your God-given gifts, star power and talent to propel the people around you, or to propel yourself. In the end, it’s not great performance that makes you a great person; it’s the choices you make throughout the journey.
Today, our sports stars are brash and self-centered. Free agency has created a rampant individualistic mentality. Yet the greatest individual athlete in modern times lives by a different creed. By lifting up the people around him, and acknowledging those who helped him along the way, Gretzky is leaving a legacy far beyond his years. That’s the type of leader I aspire to be and I want the people I work with to aspire to be like that too.
For my last question, I asked Gretzky which of his 60 records he’d like to be remembered for. “Records come and go," he said. "When people remember me, I want them to say, ‘That guy worked as hard as he could on every single shift.’”
Gretzky is truly "The Great One."