I have a confession to make.
There was a time in my life when I regularly watched professional wrestling. In the late 80’s and early 90’s it was something that my dad and I enjoyed doing together. Wrestling taught me to say my prayers, eat my vitamins, and that to be the man, you had to beat the man.
Now at age 44, much to my wife’s bewilderment, I still find myself drawn to those old matches. I especially enjoy listening to podcast episodes featuring my former heroes as they recount their glory days – dishing on their experiences in the squared circle and behind the curtain.
It was here that I stumbled upon the story of former champion Ricky, the Dragon, Steamboat.
Steamboat broke into the wrestling business in the mid-70’s. He was a generational talent with great physique. Known as one of the best in-ring workers, he played a character that people loved to root for especially against bad guys like Ric Flair.
In 1989, Steamboat reached the pinnacle of the profession by beating Flair for the NWA World Championship, a title he held for just three months before losing it back to Flair later that year. Even though outcomes were predetermined, a fact I better understand now than I did when I was ten, the Big Gold Belt was a symbol of a wrestler’s popularity with the fans.
Steamboat and Flair headlined three main event matches that year, before the Dragon slipped back down to the mid-card. Despite spending another twenty years in and out of the ring, he never wrestled in another main event for the rest of his career. For the life of me, I could never figure out why. Though Steamboat had the talent to become one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time, he chose a different path.
On a recent episode of the To Be The Man Podcast, Flair explained that Steamboat didn’t want to be on the road full-time no matter how much money there was to make. He famously upset World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon by asking for extended time off to be with his family following the birth of his son. McMahon had been plotting another strong push for Steamboat to become a main event player, and his decision to put his family first ultimately led to his exit from the company.
The message to Steamboat was clear, success comes at a price, a price that the Dragon was unwilling to pay.
The cost of greatness is something that many high achievers are acutely aware of. Consider Michael Jordan’s reflection on what it took to win from the documentary series The Last Dance.
Winning has a price.
Leadership has a price.
So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled.
I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged.
Once you joined the team, you lived to a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn’t going to take anything less.
Now if that means I have to go in there and get into your ass a little bit, then I did that.
When people see this they’re going to say, “He wasn’t really a nice guy. He was a tyrant.” Well that’s you because you never won anything.
I don’t have to do this (play and lead this way), I’m only doing this because this is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality.
If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.
While largely a celebration of Jordan’s career, the documentary also pulled back the curtain on some of Jordan’s unflattering behaviors, particularly his tendency to be extremely demanding while often demeaning his teammates. However, he was quite clear about one thing. He didn’t care about being loved or feared. He cared only about winning, period. He viewed criticism, hurt feelings, and frayed relationships as a small price to pay.
The Cost of Greatness
The Dragon understood the cost of greatness, that it might require a massive amount of time away from his family, and decided it wasn’t worth it.
The Goat understood the cost of greatness, that it might mean being viewed as a tyrant or disliked by some teammates, and decided it was.
This is not a moral argument about who was right, and who was wrong. The point is that each man considered the cost and made a decision that was right for him.
What’s tough about the pursuit of greatness is that it starts before we even know it. From the first moment a whistle hangs from our neck we are taught to pursue excellence. Yet rarely do we consider the cost before the payment plan begins.
I admire both the Dragon and the Goat, not for their respective accomplishments, but because they had the courage to honestly examine their relationships with greatness, or the pursuit thereof, before it extracted a price they could not repay.
Do you understand what you are chasing and why? Have you considered the cost, or are you paying as you go? What is the pursuit of excellence demanding from you, and will it ultimately be worth the cost?
Food for thought.
Nate Sanderson, TOC Mentor and Co-Host of the Coaching Culture Podcast