With regard to developing people of character, I start from a simple premise: identity drives behavior.
My Stanford Business School professor, Jim March, stressed that the best way to get people to change their behavior is to get them to change their sense of who they are and want to be. Rewards and punishments have drawbacks—rewards are expensive, and punishments make people angry.
But identity is clean. Who we want to be is the key to how we will act.
I experienced this myself. From 1987 to 1998, I was Director of Stanford Business School’s Public Management Program. My goal was to inspire MBA students to make public service leadership part of their lives.
As I introduced incredible agents of social change to my MBA students—such as Ashoka’s Bill Drayton and John W. Gardner of Common Cause—I realized I wanted to be like them, which led me to embrace a new identity: social entrepreneur.
A conversation with Jim Collins (before he wrote Good to Great) planted the seed of a BIG idea in my mind—forming a social enterprise to transform youth sports so sports can transform youth.
Collins asserted that most new companies are started by individuals in an industry who see firsthand where possibilities lie. My coaching experience had alerted me to a huge opportunity: Youth sports’ endless procession of teachable moments makes it the ideal place to teach character. And our country desperately needs people of character.
But a win-at-all-costs mentality pollutes youth sports, making coaches and parents less than ideal role models for athletes. I wanted to change coach and parent behavior by harnessing the power of identity and creating a movement to use sports to develop Better Athletes, Better People.
Positive Coaching Alliance has developed an aspirational identity for youth athletes: the Triple-Impact Competitor,® who elevates self, teammates, and the game by the way he or she competes. Or, for short, an “Elevater”—a new word for a new identity. An Elevater is a person of strong character who looks to elevate every situation he or she is in.
A clear vision of the self I wanted to be had motivated me to take on the enormous challenge of layering a world-class character education on top of the vast infrastructure of youth sports with millions of athletes involved.
And, of course, it was hard. I spent a lot of time those early days lying on the couch in my Stanford office curled up in the fetal position, asking, “What have I gotten myself into?”
What kept me going during those dark moments was wanting to live up to my new identity and be the kind of person who could make it happen.