Got a nice email the other day from Logan Flora, an assistant at Wisconsin-Superior. He was passing along a copy of the commencement speech that Jerry West gave at West Virginia University (his alma mater) in May 2006.
Here's an abbreviated version of his moving address to WVU's graduating class:
I was once told that there are three types of people in the world, and it is a view that I very much believe in. There are fighters, flee-ers and floaters. Let’s take a few minutes to look at what happens to each of them through their lives.
A floater is a person who drifts through life taking things in, going with the current, sharing in success and failure, but seldom determining his own fate.
There are many successful floaters in the world. As you look around you today, I am sure you can pick them out. They spend endless amounts of energy positioning themselves. They can often avoid failure, but the success they achieve cannot possibly be personally rewarding.
In my mind, success without a sense of personal accomplishment isn’t success at all. It is merely positioning. These are often the same people who equate success with money. Money is a measure of buying power, but seldom is it a measure of success.
Below the floaters are the flee-ers. A flee-er will jump from job to job, will run from challenge and opportunity alike. A flee-er is the first to cast blame, to make excuses, to point a finger when things do not go his way.
Alone, a flee-er is fairly harmless to anyone but himself. It is when he latches on to a floater that they begin to have a meaningful impact. A flee-er will bring down a floater. A flee-er believes that misery needs company.
A flee-er’s worst nightmare is a fighter.
A flee-er and a fighter are the opposite ends of the spectrum of self-determination. George Bernard Shaw eloquently described the difference in these two types of people.
He said, “Some people are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”
What Shaw describes is a fighter. A fighter is a person that will succeed. A fighter is a person with a direction. A fighter is what I challenge each of you to be.
What sets a fighter apart is simple to describe, difficult to maintain, yet vital for personal and professional success.
What sets a fighter apart is a goal…a dream…a vision.
When I arrived at the University, I was homesick for Cabin Creek, the town of 500 I had left behind. I soon realized that my dreams and goals had to expand. While I had a God-given gift, that gift was not going to be enough.
And while I did not realize it at the time, my goals were achieved because I possessed three additional characteristics. It is these three characteristics that define a fighter. These three characteristics allow a fighter to believe in his goals.
They are character, determination and resolve.
Character, determination and resolve will give you the foundation needed to face the world.
Character, determination and resolve will help you stand fast as a fighter, to step above the floater and to surge beyond the grasp of the flee-er.
Character, determination and resolve are the virtues that you can drive to success. And if you play well, with that success will come the responsibility of leadership.
Basketball is probably the ultimate team game. Everyone has a role and everyone is striving for the same goals.
In the world of basketball, the goals are clear. They stand at either end of the court. The goals are always 10-foot high; they are always in the same place at the end of the floor.
The goals create energy. The goals create excitement. The goals create something to strive for. As long as I stood on the court, I knew my role and the roles of those around me.
I had played my role for years – in the driveway, in high school, in college and in my professional career.
Each of you will likely face changes in your world as well. The path to success is never without its bumps and challenges. These challenges will create internal battles. These bumps will also create new and exciting opportunities.
And with each change, with each bump, with each opportunity, you will again need to draw upon your character, determination and resolve.
With each change, you will face a new group of floaters, flee-ers and fighters. In fact, you will again have to decide which type of person you are.
My point is this: Change and challenges never end. Each day you need to get up and decide what kind of person you are because each day is an opportunity to succeed or fail.
As my life on the court ended, I decided that I was going to be a fighter. I decided I was again going to lead. I didn’t know how, but I knew what was in me, so I knew that I could.
I am basically a quiet and introspective person. I am also very demanding of excellence in myself and those around me. At this juncture of my life, I found great inspiration in reading books and articles written by people who have long been associated with their views on leadership. In fact, I am still a prolific reader.
By reading, you expose yourself to great accomplishments, valuable lessons and many different views. I believe leaders are never afraid to embrace the lessons of others and apply them to their own lives.
A few common leadership lessons came to mind as I thought about you sitting here today. Many of you – I hope most of you – have what it takes to follow the path of leadership in whatever you are passionate about.
As leaders, I hope you will remember seven basic lessons that I have taken to heart:
1. As you look forward, it is never wrong to reshape your goals. It is wrong to not have any goals at all. An ancient Greek saying reads: “Before you can score, you must first have a goal.”
2. Leaders who are not limited by their lack of vision can continue to have success as their careers advance. Remember: People copy success. When others copy you, it’s flattering, but it’s also dangerous.
3. What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right. As a leader, you must follow your instincts, but never let go of your character, determination and resolve. You can’t get everyone to like you. If they do, it should be a red flag for you.
4. Keep an open mind and an open door. Don’t ignore suggestions and advice because if you do, people will assume you don’t care and will soon stop offering. Even more than keeping an open door, seek mentors. I have people in my life that I have trusted for decades, and I value their every word. Make sure your mentors are wise, not just smart. Leadership can be lonely, but it does not have to be pursued alone.
5. Don’t become old and dated. Don’t become complacent. Don’t become happy with the status quo. No matter what you are doing with your life, you can bet that your competitors are not ready to settle for second best. As Americans, we are getting copied better than we copy ourselves. We can do better than that.
6. Optimism is contagious. It uplifts and gives people a reason to compete and excel. Surround yourself with people who share your optimism. Some people need to be motivated more than others. Stay away from people who cannot be motivated; they are flee-ers in disguise.
7. Leadership is very lonely; you must follow your instincts when everyone says no.
Gen. Fred Franks, who garnered wide acclaim during the Vietnam and first Gulf War, said, “To lead is to serve. The spotlight should be on the led and not the leader.”
That is, perhaps, the greatest lesson in leadership I can offer today.
A true leader does not need to be the center of attention. In fact, I believe leaders who are selfish and always want the attention for themselves are not leaders at all. They may be good at generating attention, but they are probably not good at commanding respect. A leader commands respect and gives respect in equal measure.
I find a skill I developed as a child still works when I am faced with a challenge of leadership. And I still probably look odd talking to myself, cheering myself on.
It reminds me of the story of an old Cherokee Indian’s description of a battle that goes on inside people.
The old Indian explained to his grandson, “My son, the battle inside each of us is between two wolves. One is evil. It is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.
“The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Amen to that.
Success in life depends on which side you will feed.
I would venture that the flee-er finds it easy to feed the evil side. The floater will feed whichever side is most convenient. The fighter will only feed the good.
As you venture from the world of university life and move for the first time into what those of us on the outside call the “real world,” make sure you feed the good.
As with many things in life, what is most important is often invisible to the eye. Only you know which wolf you feed, although sometimes it is painfully obvious watching someone who is feeding the wrong wolf.
At other times, personal trouble is not so obvious.
Several years ago, there was a young NBA player named Ricky Berry. He played for his dad prior to going to the big leagues at San Jose State University. Ricky was drafted high in the draft and had a great “up side” at an agile 6 foot 8 and 220 pounds.
His first two years in the NBA were right on track to be a guy who would be in the league for a long time.
One morning it was reported in the San Francisco paper that Ricky Berry had killed himself.
At that time, a friend of mine was working for the University of California, Berkeley. This was very devastating to him personally because he knew both Ricky and his dad.
He went to the campus that morning seeking a good friend who was a philosophy prof who also knew the family well. He went to the professor’s office and asked him why this happened. Ricky had everything going for himself and his family, and he was only 24 years old.
My friend proceeded to tell me a story that I would like to pass on to you.
He said we have three window panes in all of our lives. We have a physical window, a mental window and a spiritual window. He said we need to clean the panes every day so that we can see out of them.
He went on to say Ricky worked out every day of the week and was in top condition – his physical pane.
And he read every day trying to improve himself – his mental pane.
But he had no spiritual commitment and that window became very cloudy, so dark that he could not see out of it.
So, when he had a crisis in his life as he did that morning, he wasn’t prepared to handle it and instead took his own life.
This is a true story. The moral of the tale is that we need to clean all three of our windows constantly.
Three windows to clean. Three types of people in the world. Two wolves begging for food. Three personal characteristics to nurture and develop.
Life is an obstacle course around them all. Strong and clear goals provide the light to guide you.
Carl Sandburg said, “Nothing happens without a dream.”
I have lived my dream. I hope you are able to say the same thing as your journey winds down, as mine is now.
Your foundation has been laid; it is up to you to build from here.
Remember the words of Samuel Insull, Thomas Edison’s personal assistant and the man who created the Chicago Transit Authority: “Aim for the top. There is plenty of room up there. There are so few at the top, it is almost lonely.”
Protect your character.
Maintain your determination.
Build your resolve.
And always, always have a goal.
Thank you. Good luck. And dream big!
[Here's a link to the speech on the WVU website.]