Dennis Conner on Commitment
by Dan Skeen
Dennis Conner's philosophy for success is simple - find one thing you're good at, devote yourself to it and become great. It may sound easy, but as the 4-time America's Cup-winning skipper concedes, most people spread themselves thin among a variety of commitments.
|Lives in San Diego, CA
|Known as "Mr. America's Cup", for his long and often controversial involvement in sailing's most coveted trophy
|7 America's Cup campaigns including victories in 1974, 1980, 1987 and 1988
|2 time Etchell World Champion
|2 time Star World Champion
|Selected U.S. Yachtsman of the year four times and San Diego Yachtsman of the year seven times
"I think it comes down to attitude and it's hard to perform at the top level of your ability if you're not committed to that. If you want to be the best father and best husband and best community leader, how can you be the best golfer in the world, because the best golfer is out there playing golf every single day? And that's where most people are, they're somewhere in the middle. There's very few people that really know what an all-out effort at one thing is."
It was a good fit that Conner should dedicate himself to sailing. His father was a fisherman and he grew up near San Diego's yacht club. Combined with these favorable circumstances, Conner had a burning desire to win. And he admits that he wasn't winning at much else.
"I wasn't the smartest guy and I wasn't the best-looking guy, and I was batting seventh on the baseball team. The one thing I could do a little better than anybody else was sail. So I liked the positive rewards that I got by doing something better than the other people. And the more positive rewards I got, the more I gravitated towards it."
Not many can turn a childhood passion into a career. But Conner has proven that his level of commitment provides a winning edge � as it did in the 1997 world championships in Kiel, Germany when his crew topped 89 competitors in the field to place first in all five races. His simple but steadfast approach also attracts others who are as committed and focused as he is. So he doesn�t have to do much in the way of encouraging or coaching his crew.
"I really don't consciously give pep talks. I'm not Knute Rockne and I'm not Bobby Knight in there getting the guys fired up. I think that everyone has a little different style of getting the guys ready, and I prefer to have done my homework and make sure that they have a self-image of being ready by being the best they can be, and the rest seems to take care of itself. It's more lead by example, hard work and dedication and being ready, having covered all of our bases."
While he occasionally adopts a salty attitude with the media, the 59-year-old skipper is no Captain Ahab. If he's chosen the right people, Conner says that yelling and applying extra pressure are actually counter-productive.
"Sometimes people think better when they're not excited, and that's when they have the right mental level of anxiety. So, you can go yell and scream at a guy but that might make his performance worse, because he's already trying his best, and now you make him nervous. He's trying to get a piece of thread through the eye of a needle -- it's not necessarily going to help by having him under more pressure."
One other key tip: prepare better than anyone else. Critical decisions are all made beforehand,including detailed planning for every conceivable contingency. That's another reason Conner stresses finding the most focused and committed people. As well as requiring less coaching, they plan better.
"If they have the attitude in the beginning, you don't have to put the spurs in them. And that's where the staffing comes into play and the commitment to the commitment."
Check out Dennis Conner in the Wisdom of Teams leadership video training DVD.
• Sailing Basics
• Talk Like a Sailor
• It's Not Too Late to Sail
• Sale on the High Seas
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