The Man in the Arena

May 15, 2023

by Tom Console

This is one of my favorite quotes, given by President Theodore Roosevelt. I used to have a copy of it hanging in my room and would read it every day (I’ve since learned how to better decorate my walls).

It’s fairly straightforward, and the appeal is obvious: motivational, inspiring, and directing us to seize the day. But if you dissect it a bit, you reveal the four important leadership skills of blocking out the noise, finding our passion, making the effort, and embracing our failures. All leaders should add these tools to their repertoire.

You Want to Be a What…?

In the spring of my senior year of college, I met with my pre-med advisor to talk about the vet school application process. I remember this meeting like it was yesterday.

I didn’t have stellar grades in college, mostly due to trying to balance class with Army ROTC and playing football. I expected to hear some hard truths, but I was not at all prepared for when my advisor told me, “Find a new career. Don’t even bother filling out the application.”

He could’ve told me to take some extra classes to boost my GPA or told me how to frame my resume to let my extra-curriculars shine through. But instead, he booted me out of the office within five minutes of sitting down. And I almost listened to him.

Fast forward, and today I’m a 4th year student at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School of Medicine, a year away from becoming a veterinarian and a Captain in the Army. I’ve passed every test, not because I’m the smartest guy in my class, but because my passion to realize my dream compels me to put in the effort to study hard, even when doubt starts to creep in.

I took a chance on applying, not afraid to fail and hopeful that the admissions room would see more than just a GPA. I blocked out the noise, because it is not the critic who counts, but rather the man in the arena.

Block out Noise – “It is not the critic who counts”

It is very easy for people to armchair quarterback your decisions. Everyone thinks they’d make the best decision if they were in your shoes. But they aren’t.

Maybe there are certain constraints limiting your choices or resources that you don’t have available to you. A wrench could have been thrown into your original plan, forcing you to make an adjustment on the fly.

It truly does not matter how other people would have tackled a situation, because at the end of the day, they aren’t the ones making the decisions. You are.

If you listen to what everyone else has to say, you’ll end up with decision paralysis. In reality, the best plan isn’t the perfect one, because there is no such thing as the perfect plan. The best plan is the one that you start and make changes to along the way, considering the needs of your people and any variables you anticipate or curveballs thrown your way.

Block out the noise and focus on making a decision that works well for you and your team.

Find Your Passion – “who knows great enthusiasms”

A great leader is incredibly passionate about whatever it is that they do. They care a lot about their “worthy cause.” People without passion are not leaders; they are just bosses and managers.

Passion is a funny thing, mostly because it’s incredibly unique to an individual while also being a bit vague. My entire life, I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian. When people ask me why I wanted to become a vet, my short answer is that I love animals.

But tons of people love animals, and I could have been a zookeeper or a conservationist. I have lots of more nuanced reasons why I want to be a vet, but the best answer is that deep down I just know that being a veterinarian is what I was called to do, and that’s all the answer I need to give. Without passion for your work, your leadership potential is capped.

Make the Effort – “who strives valiantly”

But passion alone is not enough. You must be willing to do the dirty work and not think yourself above it.

If the Soldiers in my unit are setting up for a training event, then I’m right there with them, moving gear and equipment. If it happens to be rainy and muddy outside while we move that gear, then my uniform better be the dirtiest, because the leader should be the first one to get to work and the last one inside when the day is done.

When people see their leader in the fray alongside with them, it does wonders for team building.

Embrace the Failure – “who comes short again and again”

A leader cannot fear failure. You must be willing to take a chance (so long as you properly mitigate risks).

In veterinary school, when you enter your clinical rotations, you are peppered by questions from the clinicians. They ask you anything from any topic you were ever taught in the didactic portion of your education, which spans years and dozens of different subjects.

Many students are naturally very worried about not knowing the right answer and looking unprepared and unknowledgeable. But a leader understands that everything, even failure, is a learning experience, and while the student may not want to say the wrong answer or admit that they don’t know, the leader isn’t afraid to put their best foot forward.

And if (when) the leader gets the answer wrong, they research the correct answer and report back to the clinician, ensuring that they actually learn the information and don’t fail the same way again. Failure is the greatest teacher out there, so do not be afraid of it.  

Get to Work

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” To paraphrase sports enthusiast Teddy Roosevelt, you have to get in the ring to get your victory.

You are more than capable of achieving your goals, so lace up your boots and get to work.

There’s another great leadership lesson next week – click here to subscribe. It’s free to sign up and you’ll get a weekly Tuesday morning email to remind you to achieve your Maximum Standard!

Tom Console is a three-time author of The Maximum Standard. Check out his other articles below:

Lessons from the Operating Room

Organized Team Sports: The Great Leadership Academy

Are you ready to author – share your ideas and publish your thoughts – click here!

Full Man in the Arena Quote

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ~Theodore Roosevelt~

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