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What Athletes Can Teach You About Embracing Diversity

Sharing success and failure is just the beginning of being a diverse team.

What Athletes Can Teach You About Embracing Diversity
[Photo: Flickr user Parker Knight]

Innovation and technology have contributed to the evolution of nearly every industry in the world. From advancements in medicine to greater access to information, global collaboration to enhanced efficiency, the lines and boundaries that once separated us have been blurred.

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While it’s true that technology has made us “global citizens,” turn on the television or tune into Twitter and you’ll discover no shortage of negativity. Hate, anger, racism, and discrimination are capturing headlines. From the political strife in Washington to protestors on the streets of Ferguson, there is a rising swell of disconnect.

Where the global lines that once divided us have been blurred, it seems we are constructing invisible fences that separate us from our neighbors, colleagues and communities. Though these fences can’t be seen with the eye, they can be felt, and they’re contributing to a cultural divide at a time when we should be coming together more than ever before.

My freshman year, I roomed with four other football players, all of us coming from different walks of life. We represented three religions, two races, and a broad spectrum of political views. Things were awkward initially, but we learned to respect each other and ultimately grew to appreciate each other.

If five college guys could overcome their differences, why is it so hard for society to do the same? I believe the answer is simple: we shared a common goal that could not be accomplished as individuals.

Athletics teach you to maximize your strengths, while also asking you to compensate for your weaknesses by relying on the strength of others. It asks you to embrace and respect the unique skills and talents of your teammates and how what they bring to the table contributes to the overall success of the team.

As it turns out, the same lessons that lend themselves to success on the field can also help build better leaders off the field:

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1. Success Is A “We” Thing, Not A “Me” Thing

No matter how good you are at what you do, no single player can do it all. When you build a diverse team of talent, you create a force that can do something powerful and meaningful by working together. Differences don’t matter on the field, but what you bring to the table as both an individual and part of the overall team does.

Winning is a result of how willing you are to work, how much heart you bring to the game, and how seamlessly you integrate with those with whom you’re working.

2. Nobody Wants To Work With A Brilliant Jerk

Talent will take you places, but arrogance, close-mindedness and ego won’t get you anywhere. In athletics, if you can’t get along with everyone on your team, you’ll be replaced by someone who can.

It’s inevitable that there will always be people with viewpoints that differ from your own. You don’t have to be best friends with every person who crosses your path, but you do have to respect them. When we’re all working toward a common goal, we need each other to succeed. Nobody wants to work for, with or alongside a jerk–so don’t be that guy.

3. A Diverse Team Is A Better Team

Good teams are made up of individual players who have honed the strengths and skills required to excel at their role. Great teams are made up of players who not only have the strengths and skills they need to do their job, but also an understanding of the strengths of every other player on their team.

Whether you’re trying to foster a stronger brand culture or striving to better understand market trends, building a diverse internal team provides a broader view of the bigger picture. When you’re able to come at a problem or question from a variety of viewpoints, backgrounds and perspectives, you’re empowered to develop better solutions.

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I learned many of my greatest life lessons through my involvement with athletics. Over time, I came to realize that winning isn’t just about final scores and trophies; it’s the sense of accomplishment that comes from working with others to achieve a common goal.

We all bring something unique to our team, on and off the field. There is strength in our differences. It’s time to step up and embrace a better way–by embracing each other.

Chris Smith is a former college athlete and founder/CEO of Athlete Network, a website designed to specifically connect athletes to the people, places, and things most relevant to them, fueling the driven lifestyles of its members.

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