Book Review - The Great Traits of Champions: Fundamentals for Achievers, Leaders and Legacy Leavers (2008)

Readers of this website will likely know of both Mark Tewksbury and Debbie Muir, authors of the recently released book, The Great Traits of Champions: Fundamentals for Achievers, Leaders and Legacy Leavers. Mark is a former swimmer, winner of three Olympic medals and holder of seven world records, while Debbie is a former synchronized swimming coach, who coached Canadian teams to seven world championships and four Olympic medals. Mark is perhaps most remembered for his thrilling come-from-behind gold medal performance in the 1992 Olympics: a victory that he attributes in part to Debbie, who had coached him in the year leading up to this final race of his career.

Since forming their unique coach-athlete partnership nearly twenty years ago, Mark and Debbie have remained close friends and collaborators. They have also each gone on to significant achievements and leadership in other fields. However, their unusual coming together before the Barcelona Olympics planted the seed for many of the ideas that eventually coalesced into this book on achieving, leading and creating legacy.

The premise of this book is three-fold: first, all of us can aspire to be champions in some aspect of our own lives; second, being a champion means different things at different times (sometimes we are champions through achieving, other times through leading others, and yet other times through the positive impact we have on the world around us); and third, the fundamental traits of champions are fairly timeless and universal.

It is these traits that form the body of the book and they are identified in a straightforward and organized way for the reader. Each trait is presented in a concise manner, stripped down to its essential core idea, and illustrated with a colour-coded, visual icon. Each trait is explained through its core concept (a simple sentence) and its three key elements, and the trait is illustrated through a story or anecdote from the authors’ experiences. The section on each trait concludes with a one-page review containing both cautions (obstacles to watch for) and empowering tips for bringing this trait to life. Each major section of the book also concludes with a self-evaluation tool to help the reader identify those traits that they need to focus on.

In total there are 24 champion traits presented: eight underpinning achievement, eight underpinning leadership and eight underpinning legacy. These are colour-coded as are the three main sections of the book, with the result that the book is really like three little books. The authors even suggest that this is how readers should approach the book – as a series of smaller reads, versus one big one.

When I first read this book, I read it straight through (which was remarkably easy to do as the book is written in an easy, conversational style), and since then I have carried it with me and have browsed through it section by section, sometimes even trait by trait. Being a somewhat visual and spatial learner myself, I find the icons (some of which are quite playful) easy to refer to and recall.

The traits themselves establish excellent points of reflection. The stories the authors use to illustrate the traits are at times amusing, other times powerful. Certainly, the reader gets a sense of Debbie’s creativity as a coach, and of Mark’s self-awareness as an athlete. Their unusual yet successful pairing in 1991 is itself a testament to certain traits mentioned in the book (‘create synergy’, ‘be innovative’, ‘challenge convention’, ‘make a plan’).

The authors emphasize that each trait might play out slightly differently for different people and different circumstances, and that some people might be naturally adept at certain traits but not at others. For me, certain traits are self-evident (‘embody values’, ‘continually evolve’) while others really make me pay attention (‘embrace contradictions’, ‘live now’). Since first reading the book I have often referred back to certain traits when confronted with a challenge or a setback. I think this is the great advantage of this book – it is meant to be read but also to be used, thumbed through, referred to, glanced at, carried around, and read again as time goes by.

I have read (or attempted to read) many books on leadership and I have also taught a 4th year leadership course at a university. I can state quite frankly that this is the most practical and useful resource on motivation and leadership that I have known. It is very accessible, even to those of us who don’t aspire to change the world but just want to behave like a champion in our own small corner of the world. I think that even accomplished leaders will find something useful here: perhaps they have already become a high-achiever and they have mastered many of the leadership traits, but this book is very good at encouraging personal reflection on a range of traits and showing how the different traits work in combination to enable new breakthroughs in achievement, leadership and legacy.

I am not sure if there will be a second version of this book but if there were to be one, I would recommend that the authors enrich the section on the legacy traits. Accomplished achievers and leaders themselves, it is clear that the traits of achievement and leadership had the benefit of their own rich experience. The section on legacy, on the other hand, lacks the same depth. The traits are excellent – but their illustration suffers through a lack of direct experience and a lack of Canadian examples. I believe there are Canadian men and women, in sport and in other areas of life, who have created lasting legacies and they deserve to be featured here.

I recommend this inexpensive book for all participants in the sport system: whether you are an athlete, coach, official, volunteer or administrator, these champion traits will make you better at what you do. This book also drives home a truth: values can be your greatest guide. Champions are those who stand up for what they believe in: and in so doing they help to create an environment where excellence thrives, where others are changed in positive ways, and where great outcomes unfold.

For more information on this book, click: Great Traits of Champions

Originally published: Coaches Plan (2009) Vol. 16(1)

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