Last Friday night former Philadelphia Eagle QB, Donovan McNabb, in his guest role as a panelist on “Fox Sports Live,” enraged NASCAR fans everywhere when he said Jimmie Johnson was absolutely not an athlete. “Do I think he’s an athlete? Absolutely not. He sits in a car and he drives. That’s not athletic…. What athletically is he doing?” McNabb asked, as the panelists discussed the most dominant athletes in sports. In addition to surprising his host and fellow panelists, McNabb managed to burn more than a few tires in the NASCAR nation. What happened next, however, was more interesting.
While McNabb used his All-Pro celebrity status to create controversy, dismissing and disrespecting a fellow athlete, Johnson took the high-line in this track. With now six NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) responded via twitter among all the vitriol: ???? “The debate continues… Everyone is entitled to an opinion. ?#DriversAreAthletes???.” And, when the smell of burning rubber started to grow among Jimmie Johnson fans on social media he mindfully responded, ?”I choose to be respectful. There is way too much venom spewed these days.”
THAT’s leadership. When a person with power, influence or even “celebrity”, chooses to redirect the perspectives of others in a positive way, they demonstrate true leadership. When they do otherwise and incite inflammatory rhetoric, reward ignorance and promote “partisan” epithets, they fail as would-be leaders. But let’s not digress into commentary on our political “leadership” ;-/
What matters most here is an essential truth: leaders lead through two ways – the words they choose and the actions they take. Everything else is secondary. The key element here is choice. We all have a choice in how we communicate through words, tone and the intent behind them. People listen and watch, often more closely than we might like. As leaders we have the opportunity to move people forward and create a better way for all of us in the process. This seems simple enough, although frequently more challenging than it sounds. For all of us who have been seduced by the desire for snarky retort or deftly placed digs, we know the challenge too well.
That said, here’s how another driver-athlete weighed-in while resisting the urge for snark: Jeff Burton (@JeffBurton) in a series of tweets: “We need a cup owner to provide a current car, go to Bristol, put McNabb in for 500 laps by himself. Then ask if drivers are athletes. #educate…I understand why people watch and it doesn’t look athletic. The only way to prove it is to put people in ‘real’ cars and let them learn…Stating an opinion doesn’t make McNabb a bad guy. Many believe the same thing. Gotta prove it before doubters will understand.”
Fellow NASCAR drivers and fans soon followed the lead of Burton and Johnson with positive remarks, encouraging fans to educate others regarding the true athletic nature of racing. It’s somehow ironic that several driver’s training regimens include competitive triathlons…I wonder why?
With our first ever NASCAR experience a little over a week ago at the Phoenix International Raceway we got a first hand glimpse over 2 ½ days of the inner workings of NASCAR competition…and business. From conversations with Kurt Bush, Bobby Allison and Marine Corps veteran and country music star Steve Cochran (sang the National Anthem), to garage-tours and pace-car rides, to the radio crackle of spotters, crew chiefs and drivers making split-second decisions and maneuvers, we and 125,000 other attendees experienced a world driven by athletes, patriotism and a whole lot of t-shirt sales.
While some might still debate whether or not Johnson and his crew (made up of former pro football players due to the physical demands of the sport) are “real” athletes, one thing is certain: Johnson has proven his leadership at the top of his sport for the sixth time in his career…and he’s demonstrated his true leadership in the entire culture of people that surround it.
*As Phoenix International Raceway Octane Club guests of our dear client, Digitech Systems, we want to personally thank Scott, HK, John and Sean for an incredibly memorable, educational and fun experience.