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Personal Best

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: March 2016

“Personal mastery teaches us not to lower our vision, even if it seems as if the vision is impossible. Personal mastery also teaches us not to shrink back from seeing the world as it is, even if it makes us uncomfortable.” –Peter Senge, et al.

Do you remember the last time you felt like you were at your ‘personal best’? As a student of leadership and individual/organizational development, I am not only curious about the pursuit of ‘personal best’ from the professional perspective, but also individually as an employee, a parent, and as a friend. There always seems to be room for improvement.

Another birthday recently snuck by for me, and while I’m grateful that they keep coming, I find it more and more difficult to stay as physically active as I’d like. My quest to maintain a level of fitness and strength isn’t as easy as it once was. My personal best running times are behind me, so what’s the point? I believe it’s about finding the best that I’m capable of right now. For the record, that will not involve any marathons.  

What about encouraging and appreciating the personal best pursuits of others? As we head into the last week of March Madness, I’m enjoying the efforts of college basketball teams to move through the tournament brackets to reach winning milestones known as the “Sweet Sixteen,” the “Elite Eight,” and the “Final Four.”

Most of us who follow the games suffered a badly busted bracket in the first week of the tournament. All it takes is one big upset to be out of the running for the million-dollar prize, or at least the $100 pool with your coworkers. Of course, the fun of the tournament is the shocking losses by big name teams to obscure, smaller conference opponents, hence the term “madness.” I had high hopes for the South Dakota State Jackrabbits this year but that just didn’t work out.

I’m also one of the rare basketball fans who enjoys the women’s NCAA basketball tournament more than the men’s. I’m sure it has something to do with being a former college player and having closely followed the exciting growth of the women’s game over the past thirty years.

The University of Connecticut has dominated women’s college basketball in recent years, and I’ve become a fan of the Huskies. UConn has won ten total Division I national championships, including the last three. Not only do they win, but they win big. From 2008 to 2010, they won 90 games in a row, most by large margins, and their current win streak stands at 66. Of course, I love that their roster has eight out of 13 players standing six feet tall or more. I know from experience that these women take some grief over their height, so I think it’s great to see them embrace their physical gifts and show their talents.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma has an expectation of personal best for his program and his players, and brings a fiery intensity to the game that is often criticized. I’ve always dismissed the criticism as lack of understanding and respect for what it takes to have sustained success at that level year after year. He is portrayed as harsh and demanding, but he also appears to be a strong and caring leader who has built his program based on the development of people. People dismiss his coaching and development abilities based on the gender of his teams. How unfortunate. He sees the best in his players, and demands it from them until they learn to demand it from themselves. We should all have a coach like that.

There are people who despise Auriemma and the UConn women’s teams simply because they are so dominant in the world of women’s college basketball. Dan Shaughnessy, a Boston Globe sportswriter who happened upon last week’s tournament game between UConn and Mississippi State where the final score was 98-38 in UConn’s favor tweeted that UConn’s dominance was“killing the women’s game.”  

Wait, what? Young women who are strong, skilled, disciplined, and some of the best athletes in the world are “killing the women’s game”? These student/athletes are articulate role models who graduate with above average GPA’s. They actually spend four years in college going to class. Let’s just say that Dan Shaughnessy has me wondering what planet he’s tweeting from. Because really, how can the notion of striving for individual and team personal bests be perceived so negatively? He certainly showed his ignorance of women’s basketball and how far it has come in thirty years.

The truth is that highly successful sports programs like UConn, or the New England Patriots, or the Boston Celtics of my childhood, inspire greater achievement in individuals and teams. Great players and teams drive the level of play higher as others strive to emulate their success and improve their own skills and fitness levels just to compete. There are young girls, and I hope boys, practicing jump shots in their driveways to become the next Breanna Stewart or Steph Curry. They want to pursue their potential and try to reach their personal best. 

I’ve been thinking about this within the context of organizational leadership and achievement. I recently shared a leadership presentation with groups of supervisors at my credit union. I chose to share my ongoing learning from The Leadership Challenge and The Leadership Challenge Workbook by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. This information is being taught in development sessions with “people of potential” groups in our organization, so it seemed like a good time to share the concept of “making extraordinary things happen in organizations” through the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.

If you are not familiar with the five practices and ten commitments as written by Kouzes and Posner, they are:


What I asked our supervisors groups to consider is if they, as individuals, are leading and performing at their personal best. The question led to some looks of discomfort around the room. The idea of leadership learning as an ongoing discipline is a new concept to many, but I encouraged them to think of it as opportunity as well as a challenge.  

We talked about which of the practices we do best, where we think we need to focus more attention individually, and where conflicts can arise. It was no surprise to me that those who “encourage the heart” first can often be in conflict with those who like to “challenge the process.” Balance is important.

As I told them, I am sharing the information because it’s part of my own learning and quest to find my personal best. I’m not quite there yet, and have plenty more to work on myself. I think that’s part of my efforts to “model the way,” and “inspire a shared vision,” and it seems that people are noticing. I happen to believe that it is good for our organization. It doesn’t make my attempts at fitness any faster, but I’m not complaining. Running gives me a chance to clear my head and buy cool running shoes. I’m not trying to be Joan Benoit Samuelson.

I would love to know what you think of the pursuit of ‘personal best’. Is it something that you do personally or encourage in your organization? Is it detrimental to have standards that raise the bar for all of us? Your thoughts and feedback are welcome.

Thank you for reading.

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at