iMahal Interview Series:
Jim Thompson
June 26, 2000

iMahal:  A former colleague of yours said, "Anyone who has spent any time around Jim will recognize one of his coaching mantras: 'It's OK to make a mistake.'" Could you tell us why you think this is a useful principle to promote as a leader?
Thompson:  My wife once took an education workshop from a Catholic nun named Sister Grace Pilon who said over and over again to her first-graders: "It's okay to make a mistake. Did you know that animals can't make mistakes. Only intelligent creatures can make mistakes."

She created such a freeing environment in her classroom that kids loved being there. Well, inside ourselves most people often feel like first-graders. We feel like we have to be perfect. Now, this is not only impossible, it's terribly constricting. When we feel we have to be perfect, we tighten up and our energy goes toward trying not to screw up.

One of the best definitions of leadership I've heard is that leadership is the release of energy. I want people's energy to go toward trying to make positive things happen rather than focusing on what bad things might happen. It's liberating to not have to worry that your boss is going to get upset with you if you make a mistake. Now your energy can be channeled to getting something done.

   ... And if you want a lot of great things to happen, there's nothing like helping a group of people really BELIEVE that it's okay to make a mistake ...
And if you want a lot of great things to happen, there's nothing like helping a group of people really BELIEVE that it's okay to make a mistake. I actually think that people who are freed from the curse of perfection make fewer mistakes and there's no question that they cover more ground, and get more things done.

iMahal:  How important is it to you to "have a mission in life"?
Thompson:  Very much so. A few years ago I was encouraged to get a PhD degree because it's kind of an entrance requirement to top management positions in higher education. I mentioned this to my wife who said, "You don't need a PhD to do what you want to do."

I said, "Oh, really. And what is it I want to do?" I was pretty interested in what she was going to say because I had no idea. She said, "You are an encourager. You don't need another degree to encourage people."

I thought about this and realized that this is true. I get a lot of satisfaction out of encouraging people to grow, improve, and make their dreams happen. And that has kind of become my mission in life.

I also have a very specific mission through Positive Coaching Alliance -- "to transform youth sports so sports can transform youth." I am very excited about this effort to transform the culture of youth sports so that every child can have a positive, character-building experience with sports.

Harking back to the influence of Gandhi in my life, I was struck by a quote from Louis Fisher, Gandhi's biographer. In his Life of Gandhi, he noted the transformational power of mission in one's life:

"The contrast between the mediocre, unimpressive, handicapped, floundering M. K. Gandhi, barrister-at-law who left England in 1891, and the Mahatma of the twentieth century who led millions is so great as to suggest that until public service tapped his enormous reserves of will power, intuition, energy, self-confidence, and devotion to a cause his true personality lay dormant."

The very nature of the word "mission" implies something larger and more transcendent than simply making money or providing for one's own family. When an individual takes the time to think about a personal mission statement, he or she usually begins to think beyond the day-to-day issues to what kind of an impact can be made on the larger world.

iMahal:  Tell us more about your latest mission, the Positive Coaching Alliance. When it achieves success, how will it have changed society for the better? Also, help our readers to understand how you feel about being a leader in such an organization.
Thompson:  Thinking about what success would look like is a great exercise for any leader of a nonprofit (or any) organization. One way of thinking about that is to compare what we are doing with the anti-smoking movement. Ten years ago smoking was cool and it was okay for people to smoke and pollute the air for non-smokers. Now it's not okay although the powerful interests that profit from selling tobacco still work hard through product placement in movies and the like to make smoking seem cool to kids.

Right now all over this country there are coaches who routinely humiliate young athletes and get away with it. In 10 years when PCA has succeeded in transforming the culture of youth sports, it will no longer be acceptable behavior. When it happens, parents, other coaches, and league administrators will intervene to tell that coach that that kind of behavior is not acceptable.

As to how I feel about being a leader of an organization like Positive Coaching Alliance, it is one of the greatest feelings in the world. I get paid to work in sports, which I love. I work with talented, committed people who are fun to be with. I'm helping to make changes that will reverberate throughout the culture way beyond youth sports -- the kinds of coaching behaviors we are teaching coaches will make parents better parents. I've also had people who take our coaching course ask us to come and do workshops for the managers in their firms because the same ideas also work well with managing adults. Finally, the job gives me the chance to be highly creative -- few of the things we are doing have been done before so we get to make them up as we go.

It's so exciting that sometimes I can't believe that this is actually my job. If I were independently wealthy I would continue to do this anyway because it's the most meaningful way I can think of to spend the hours and days of my life.

iMahal:  Jim, you are an inspiration. Thank you for taking time out to talk with us. We hope the PCA is a wild success.

I have used some of Jim Thompson's methods in my efforts to become a better coach. His books have some wonderful words of wisdom to parents and coaches. Jim states that his positive coaching tactics may not work on a professional level. Being a believer in motivation through support and praise, I know it works on this level too.
Phil Jackson, Head Coach
NBA Champions: Los Angeles Lakers


   Search Help

Tell a friend about this webpage!