Posted by: Knightbird | September 13, 2010

“Greatness was not a thing to Ted Williams, it was a process.”[i]

Ted Williams was a prodigy, a once in a lifetime talent aided by outstanding eyesight. So goes the myth. In actuality, Williams was the product of an incredible work ethic and thousands of hours of effort and practice. He practiced alone many times, occasionally with a newspaper in place of a bat, with fraying baseballs and in dim or artificial lights. His talent was not prodigious, but his effort was. Matthew Sayed would call it “purposeful effort.” Pushing yourself to become better and better, challenging your existing skill level, and attempting to improve that. It was about never being satisfied with what you were able to do today, but always aspiring to achieve what your own abilities could lead you to do. Continuous improvement even in the face of considerable achievement was William’s goal, and he did quite well at it.

Apparently Mr. Williams was “considered an indifferent outfielder with a good throwing arm.” He also lacked good foot speed.[ii] His eyesight was also good, but not extraordinary. Still, his incredible attention to batting makes him one of the most revered athletes of the 20th century.

I believe that greatness for business is also not a thing, but a process. Mr. Williams had a long term vision and goal—to be an outstanding batter. He put his heart and soul into practicing, learning and kept an open mind. While he is acknowledged to be one, if not the, greatest hitter of all times, he was open and willing to talk hitting with anyone who had talent and knowledge. Our business leaders have typically spent a great deal of time learning how to manage a business. But for many, their minds close up at some point, and they fail to continue to learn. Their long term vision is lacking, their practice is inefficient, and they believe they know what they need to know at some point so they stop learning.

The practice required in order to achieve his long term goal was important to Mr. Williams. You see the same traits in Tiger Woods. They pursue “purposeful effort” and believe that there are people out there that they can learn from. Tiger has revamped his golf swing a number of times. It also takes purposeful effort to achieve an outstanding business.

Another attribute available to Mr. Williams was a set of “metrics” that couldn’t lie. A batting average compared that of his peers is persuasive evidence of achievement. For Tiger, a golf score and tournaments won are persuasive evidence of achievement.

What is the lesson for business managers. My first piece of advice is to say that you should not be done learning. Mr. Williams understood that his greatness was the result of a lifetime process of learning a new skill, practicing, trying to perfect that skill and then learning what the next skill level was. Continuous improvement. He also understood that he needed to know what pitchers were going to do against him (the competition) so he studied them. According to Mr. Williams, if he had worked on his foot speed, he might have had additional .400 batting seasons. For those business leaders who have never had a .400 season, the lesson is simple. Have a clear and measurable long term goal, keep an open mind, understand that greatness is a process, be purposeful in your effort and realize that lots of practice is necessary. If arguably the greatest batter of all time had these attributes, why shouldn’t you.

[i] David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us, New York: Doubleday (2010) p. 7



  1. Patrick,

    We will soon be training our hospital’s Unit Managers to coach their people in A3 problem-solving. This blog entry applies quite nicely, for reasons I am sure you know.

    Well-written, and Thank You!

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