Jackie Gleason: The Great One Dishes on Talent

Is talent a gift or a burden?

In his only interview with Johnny Carson, Jackie Gleason said, “Talent is a very annoying thing because you can’t take any credit for it. It’s a gift from God, and you’re stuck with that. Somebody says you’re good… God did it,” Gleason deadpanned.

The gods may have been with Gleason, nicknamed “The Great One,” but he earned it with his work ethic. One of the comedic giants of his era, Gleason began his career in vaudeville and burlesque, then pioneered the early days of television with a variety show and later created the pathbreaking sitcom The HoneymoonersGleason then moved to film, won an Oscar nomination for his performance as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, and performed on Broadway. His last major gig was a reboot of The Jackie Gleason Show, a variety show featuring sketches from The Honeymooners and other comedic sketches.

It almost makes you winded just listing all of his accomplishments. Of course, Gleason had talent – timing and gesture for his comedy and subtlety for his drama. And he had energy – not only as an entertainer but also as a bon vivant. Gleason was the toast of New York nightlife but never missed a gig.

Putting talent to work

Talent is a gift, but for all successes like Gleason, you need to put in the work. The Malcolm Gladwell rule of 10,000 certainly applies. The Beatles played six-hour gigs up to seven days a week in Hamburg. Night after night, gig to gig, Bruce Springsteen wedged himself into a U-Haul-style truck packed with his band’s gear. Larry David did stand up to earn his comedy chops as he made the journey to writer-actor-producer.

Stephen King, the mega-selling author, put it best: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Talent opens the door to possibilities. For example, one may have a head for numbers, a gift for presenting aloud, an ability to conceptualize, or an attention to detail. Those are talents, but they stagnate unless married to skills that enable the individual to apply the talent or talents toward what you loves doing.

Talent offers choices

Of course, if you are talented in a particular discipline – sport or the arts – it does not mean you must pursue it professionally. It may become a hobby that leads to personal enjoyment, or it could lead to coaching or teaching, helping the next generation of talents to hone their skills.

There is another aspect to talent. “You gotta have luck,” said Gleason to Johnny Carson. “Anybody who thinks, it’s just their talent, they’re crazy. You gotta have luck.” Fortune, however, smiles most on those who put in the effort to be at the right place at the right time

“True happiness, wrote John W. Gardner, a life-long public servant, “involves the full use of one’s power and talents.” From the application of talent can come fulfillment. And as Jackie Gleason would say — “How sweet it is!”

First posted on Forbes.com on 11.00.2023

Michigan Wolverines: Competence, Confidence, Community

When teams perform well, credit goes to their leaders, often at the team’s expense. Good leaders know that little gets done if team members do not coalesce around the mission.

A case in point might be the Michigan Wolverines, which captured its first national championship title in over a quarter century. This year was their first trip to the national game after two tries at the playoff series, which ended in losses. The team was committed to staying together and going for it all.

Overcoming adversity

Standing in the way were not merely their opponents, including the always formidable Ohio State and Alabama and undefeated Washington this year. A couple of cheating scandals marked this season; both focused on head coach Jim Harbaugh, who was suspended the first three games of the season as well as the last three games. This situation left the Michigan players relying more on themselves than the head coach. 

[It must be noted that two coordinator coaches, Jesse Minter on defense and Sherrone Moore on offense, led the team ably in Harbaugh’s absence. Moore served as head coach for the last three games, and arguably the toughest part of the regular season schedule.]

The late Pat Summitt, who won 8 NCAA basketball titles as head coach of the Lady Volunteers at Tennessee, told her biographer Sally Jenkins that when a team is cohering and playing well together, “you can hear it.” The players have each other’s backs and can be audible in how they interact. 

If such coherence were audible at Michigan, it would be a roar. Game after game. Time after time. Situation after situation, when adversity struck, they did not bend nor break. They became more robust, and as my colleague and author Eileen McDargh likes to say, they would be transformed – stronger, better, and wiser.

Leveraging resilience

One word to apply would be resilience, and from this team, we can learn that what matters most truly in sports is who is on the field, not who’s off it. Players count on one another to do their jobs. The lessons for those who do not play the game come down to three factors.

Competence. People know their jobs and do them. Competency can also be contagious, especially when new team members come on board. The veterans take them under their wing and school them.

Confidence. From doing a job well comes confidence, the feeling that comes from doing the job well. While immediate tasks are accomplished, the mission still needs to be completed. Fulfillment of the mission requires the continuation of functions and the commitment to keep working toward a common goal.

Community. When teams cooperate, they lay the foundation for collaboration, where individuals create something that emerges from the collective effort of people pulling together as one. Call it community, where individuals feel they belong because their voices are heard and their contributions are recognized.

One team. One goal.

When competence breeds confidence and creates community, the team operates as one. It can focus on the job without being distracted by the outside noise. Things may not always turn out right, but in the moment, the team is clicking, and in the parlance of Pat Summitt, you can hear it.

“It doesn’t happen unless all 11 are clicking,” said quarterback J. J. McCarthy summed up what it means to play as a team.  “The players, they really can’t make the plays unless everyone’s on the same page. So all credit goes to everybody out there on the field and the coaches.”

Blake Corum, who scored two touchdowns, said, “We’ve proven a point. We’re a good team… We went through a lot of adversity this year, but to everyone who said we shouldn’t be in the natty, or they shouldn’t have been allowed to be in the College Football Playoff. What are you going to say now? You’re just wasting your breath at this point.”

What the Michigan football team accomplished is laudable. Its sense of teamwork holds lessons for those who play the game as well as for those who work in teams.

First posted on Forbes.com 1.09.2024

Detroit Lions: Renewal and Rebirth

Turnaround efforts are always tricky. They can be challenging when preceded by periods of malaise, disengagement and low productivity. Such was the case with the Detroit Lions, who last won a championship in 1957. Since that time, the team has won one playoff game.

Until now!

The Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams in their first playoff victory since 1993. In remarks to the team, head coach Dan Campbell recognized the efforts of two people, giving each a game ball. One was general manager Brad Holmes. Noting how they both came to the organization together, Campbell said, “You [and I] are in lockstep.”

Campbell turned to his quarterback: “I will just say it like this … You’re good enough for Detroit, Jared Goff.”  This comment refers to Goff being unceremoniously traded to the Lions after Rams coach Sean McVay lost faith in him despite leading the team to the Super Bowl in February 2019.

66 years of disappointment

“Them Lions” — one of many sobriquets bestowed by fans — have been the poster kids for mediocrity for so long that those alive during their heyday in the Fifties are either dead or eligible for Social Security. Lions haplessness has become their trademark.

For example, in 2010, the Lions started quarterback Shaun Hill, who was recuperating from surgery on a broken left arm. Lions commentator noted, however, that it was not King’s throwing arm. What team in the 21st century starts a quarterback with a broken arm? Why? Because even in his hobbled condition, King was their best alternative. Welcome to Lions’ misery.

No team has snatched defeat from the jaws of victories more than the Lions have. When you add up fumbles, interceptions, coaching mistakes, and 60-yard field goals made by Lions opponents, you could have had a couple of winning seasons.

A fresh start

And so when Campbell and Holmes were hired in 2021, expectations were “expectant.” It’s better to wait to jump on the bandwagon. And the team did not disappoint. It went 3-13-1 in the first season with Jared Goff at the helm. Expectations did rise for year two, and the Lions when 1-6, but then things began to click. The Lions went 8-2 down the stretch, just missing the playoffs. This year, the team excelled out of the gate, posting a 12-5 regular season record, the most ever for a Lions team.

Pulling back the layers, the story of the Lions comeback is both rebirth and reconstruction. And here’s how they did it.

Get the culture right. Holmes and Campbell had a plan, and together with Sheila Ford Hamp, who had taken over the running of the team from her mother, Martha, they focused on breaking bad habits and building a team with players who understood they must have a passion for doing what it takes to work hard, play their best, and win when it matters.

Speaking to reporters later, Campbell was more specific about the role that Brad Holmes played. “We’re very similar in the way that we view players, view a team, how we want to build it… “I have a certain vision and Brad has helped me by the type of players we acquire and what we look for. Campbell added, the “GM and head coach have to have a healthy relationship and it starts with ownership, but then that’s the next most important by far. And if you don’t have that, you just can’t sustain success.” 

Find the right pieces. In 2021, the team traded star quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Rams in return for Goff and two first-round draft picks. Those draft picks and other lower-ranked picks sourced by Holmes and his scouts have given the Lions a nucleus of young players upon which the culture can thrive and the wins can come.

Support the struggle. Jared Goff had a rough start with the Lions whose roster did not compare with the Rams team he had once led. Goff’s coaches did not lose faith in him or other players. They nurtured their talents and built game plans suited to each player’s strengths.

Be patient. Sheila Hamp deserves credit for holding fast and keeping Holmes and Campbell in the fold. She was booed at Ford Field but did not become discouraged. She knew fans’ frustrations because the team had been in her family since her girlhood. Sheila set expectations and supported her leadership team.

Common goals

A culture of winning comes when you have the right people in the right places at the right time. Easy to say but so difficult to implement. What the Lions have accomplished is a tribute to leadership and team working together to achieve common goals.

Will the Lions find a way to win it all? Perhaps, but for now, the team has achieved what fans – among the most loyal in all sports – thought was only a dream. In doing so, they have given fans something to cheer for and a lesson in leadership that will stand the test of time.

Note: After the game, Sean McVay praised his former quarterback “Jared was really efficient. You can see the command he has. I think there’s a lot made of it, but I’m really happy for him… and I certainly am appreciative of the four years we had together.”

First posted on Forbes.com 1.16.2024