Editor’s Note: This article by AIIR CEO Dr. Jonathan Kirschner originally appeared in Entrepreneur.
I’ve been a hockey player almost as long as I’ve been alive, with many of my formative years spent learning fundamentals on the ice that, believe it or not, would ultimately influence how I operate today as a CEO.
Much of my leadership today is guided by the lessons I’ve learned — and continue to learn — playing hockey: how to lose and stay resilient, how to win and remain humble, and what it means to be part of a team.
Here are six lessons I’ve learned about leading from playing hockey:
Every week during hockey season when I was a kid, I’d drag myself out of bed in the dead of winter, throw on some clothes in the dark, and make my way to the rink for our 5 a.m. practices. There were some mornings when I would much rather have stayed in bed and slept in, but I knew the rule: if I didn’t go to practice, I didn’t get to play.
In business, we often become enamored by the action of the “game.” It’s the fun part: We are coming up with exciting ideas, selling new products, and closing career-altering deals. But great results require great discipline — they require practice.
If we want to play in the high-stakes arena of building a business, we have to put in the work to reap the rewards.
A famous Wayne Gretzky quote has been imprinted on my brain ever since those early morning practices: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”
We cannot just wait to make our move when the puck arrives — and yet, this is exactly what we do when we wait for the market to tell us what to capitalize on next. Instead, we have to look ahead and predict what is coming.
Tactical execution will get the job done, but it will only take you so far. The best leadership comes from those who can take the 10,000-foot view of the big picture and anticipate the next set of challenges and opportunities. These leaders are always one step ahead because they properly assess the macro-environment and prepare accordingly.
Holding a clear perspective of the big picture allows leaders to fully seize on opportunities ahead while mitigating risk factors — no different than Gretzky’s keen ability to always be one step ahead of his competition.
You could have the best players in the world, but without a coach, it will be very challenging to form a cohesive, winning team.
Teams cannot self-govern. They need a coach to motivate them, support their growth and hold them accountable. As a player, you are often so immersed in the game that you cannot see the bigger picture, but standing on the bench without skates laced, the coach holds a different perspective and can see what the rest of the team might have otherwise missed.
Furthermore, a coach brings the team members together, reminding them of the values, expectations, and goals that brought them to the rink in the first place. It is the same in business — without our own coach, we are simply a collection of individuals completing our tasks. Whether shooting a puck or pitching a new client, we all need a coach to see us through to victory.
I’ll never forget the ringing in my ear of my high school coach who would always shout multiple times a game, “Shots on goal!”
It was a simple instruction: The more shots we took, the higher likelihood we had of scoring and winning the game. Years later, I heard the same mantra in my head as I built my business — to succeed, you must go beyond a “build it and they will come” mindset. That means taking risks, seizing on opportunities and fundamentally going outside of your comfort zone, regardless of the likelihood of “scoring.”
“We miss 100% of the shots we don’t take,” Wayne Gretzky famously said. Hockey taught me to keep shooting the puck at the net, no matter what. The puck might go in, it may miss the goal entirely, or it could bounce off the goalie’s pads and create the chance for a rebound. Some of these shots may not look picture-perfect in the replay, but in taking them, you create far more opportunities (perhaps including some you hadn’t seen before) than when you take no shots at all.
Chasing the “perfect shot” limits business opportunities and slows your progress toward any goal. Taking risks is where growth occurs, and it is the key to success.
I’ve always considered the “slapshot” to be my superpower. It is a type of shot where you throw all of your strength into hitting the puck, enabling you to send it flying at a speed otherwise unattainable. But a slapshot won’t work if you only use your wrists or your arms — you have to throw your entire body into it. It would be unsustainable to use a slapshot for every shot, but in the moments that matter, it can become a secret weapon propelling you and your team to victory.
As a leader, a slapshot can be your superpower, too. There will be critical moments in your career when you will need to go all-in and throw every part of yourself into the execution of your goal. Pay attention to those moments when you will have to take a risk and put everything on the line — and prepare yourself to take the shot of a lifetime.
There are few things I love more than playing hockey. Every game I get to play — win or lose — still feels like a gift. As an organizational leader, I try to also bring that same level of fierce dedication to my company.
Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito said “Play with passion and heart. If you don’t carry passion into sport — or into any job for that matter — you won’t succeed.”
It’s not always easy to lead with the heart because everything — wins, losses, and ties — carries so much weight. And yet, this is how great organizations are built.
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