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A Conversation with Rebecca Barnett
Author of Winning Without Losing Your Way


How was 9/11 a catalyst for Winning?

9/11 was a catalyst for our country - it forced us to push the pause button and re-examine our priorities and direction in life. 9/11 freed me from the distractions of running a small business, forcing me to become crystal clear on my priorities and jolting me out of my self-absorption.

I hope that Winning will act as a reminder of the great courage and sacrifice of Jeremy Glick on United Flight #93. My heart broke a million times when I first heard the story of Jeremy Glick's courage. We were lined up for opening ceremonies at the NATIONS judo tournament, just a few weeks after 9/11. We took our judo team to NATIONS because President Bush was urging the country to go on with our lives. However, only a quarter of the normal crowd and competitors came. We lined up on the mat, waiting to bow in when we heard Jeremy's story for the first time. We stood in shock, horrified at the violence, grieving and broken hearted for Lizbeth and baby Emerson. Even as we wept, we were so proud and so grateful for Jeremy. We understood immediately and instinctively why he charged the cockpit. Every person on the mat, regardless of age or physical ability would have done exactly the same thing. It is how we are trained, how our sport conditions each competitor. Judo takes years of practice, of pushing past physical boundaries, countless competitions that take every ounce of courage, intense physical conditioning to withstand pain without surrender. Jeremy Glick was one of us. He was a warrior. He lived and he died with courage and honor. I am honored that my book plays a small part in reminding people of Jeremy's tremendous courage and great sacrifice.

Six months after the tragedy, I watched Lizbeth on a national television show. She spoke calmly about her husband and her great loss as tears streamed down her face. My heart ached for her and baby Emerson. The very last paragraph of Winning tells readers how they can donate to Emerson's college fund. Two years later, I end each presentation with a slide that remembers Jeremy and UAL #93. Two years later, the judo community remembers Jeremy. At every national judo tournament, the competitor who shows the most courage and character receives the Jeremy Glick award. We will not forget.

How can the Olympic sport of judo teach character?

I am often asked by television reporters how the sport of judo can teach character. It is not the physicality of the sport; the sporting event is just a small part of the larger issue of how we live our lives. Rather it is valuable lessons we learn from sport: courage, commitment, honor, discipline and respect that carry over to all parts of our lives.

Judo did not come easily to me - I am not a natural athlete; judo was a difficult sport for me to master. I came to the sport after 15 years of being a workaholic and couch potato. The physical demands of judo were grueling and unnatural at first. I had to push past physical boundaries and force myself to trust my judo partner to throw me safely and release a choke when I surrendered.

From the very beginning, I was drawn to the people in judo. I saw in them an authenticity that was lacking in my corporate world. In the high stakes of sports, it is impossible to pretend to be something that you're not. There is so much drama and emotion in competition; the players and coaches show their true character for better or worse.

As a national referee, I have a front row seat. I see raw courage in a nine-year-old boy who has been thrown hard, is crying harder, and wants nothing more than to quit. He keeps fighting, not because his coach is urging him to fight on, but because of the will to win and the sheer guts to finish the match. The lessons that boy learns on the mat will stay with him throughout his life. He will be a better parent and leader for it.

Judo has a strong culture of developing character in its players, coaches and parents. As referees, we never allow temper tantrums from coaches or competitors. Any verbal abuse by a coach results in expulsion from the venue. Any parent caught berating their child is corrected. Competitors, from the very young up to young adults, get very emotional in competition, they cry out of frustration, pain and loss. As they grow into adulthood and through the ranks, they mature physically and emotionally.

Of course, coaches get upset when their player loses, especially when the loss is due to a referee error. The expectation of strong character throughout the sport carries over to officiating. Coaches can protest the outcome of a match. If the referee made an honest mistake, and the wrong player won, it will be corrected.

In the corporate world, people sometimes behave badly, especially when they are fearful for their jobs. The very high stakes of money, power and stock options brings out the best and the worst in human character. Think for a moment what your career would be like if it were like a judo competition. Imagine how it would feel if every day you went into work, you knew that your success or failure was 100% dependent on your own performance. What if you were surrounded by people of the highest integrity, by people who cheered and applauded wildly when you performed well? What if your co-workers applauded even when you lost as long as you fought your heart out? What if they loved and supported you, win or lose? What if you were surrounded by people who corrected you when you needed it and who stood up for you when you needed it? What if you worked in an environment where everyone made a contribution, no matter if it was as mundane as laying mats, keeping score or feeding the competitors? What if your boss wanted nothing more than to do his job well so you could perform at your highest level? This is the culture of judo in competition, the culture of character that is so sorely needed in corporations today.

Have we lost the capacity for corporate loyalty?

The important thing to remember is that people still long for loyalty; we have a deep hunger to belong, to feel like we are part of something that is larger and more important and longer lasting than our individual efforts. I am dismayed at the bad behavior of some corporations who are using the recession as an excuse to shed loyal workers. In the coming labor shortage, these corporations will pay a high price for the layoffs that are occurring today. Of course, the vast majority of companies are laying off a small percentage of workers in an attempt to ride out the recession and keep most employees on payroll. This is understandable; companies must cut costs to preserve the core business.

It disturbs me are some companies who became bloated during the economic boom, are now using the recession as an excuse to shed their most expensive and loyal workers. One example: a widely admired Fortune 100 company has been quietly downsizing for the past year. Each month, they lay off just enough employees to stay below the media's radar screen and not attract negative headlines. This company started by laying off their most senior employees, those with 20 to 24 years of service. They are replacing expensive employees who have accumulated weeks of vacation, retirement pensions and health problems with "two-fers." The Company can hire two college graduates for the price of one long-time employee who has devoted their life to the company's success. This is hurtful and deeply personal. Laid off individuals have been scarred; some have lost their homes, their life savings and their families from the financial strain. This company has been widely praised for it's financial success through the recession but it came at the expense of it's most loyal employees.

Organizations have an obligation to the people they employ. Our economy will always go through cycles of boom and bust, layoffs will always be necessary, but can layoffs be carried out humanely and without such an enormous human cost.

We are living through a seismic change in our culture and society. Each of us can only see and understand a small part of it but demographics don't lie. When the economy recovers, we will experience a severe labor shortage, beginning in 2008 with the mass retirement of the baby boomers. Demographics favor Generation X workers who have watched as their parents suffered from layoffs. These Gen X workers will transfer their loyalty to their families, their profession and their communities. Companies who treated employees badly will experience an employee backlash. Any person who was forced into early retirement or treated without compassion will refuse to work for an inhumane organization. Their stories of betrayal and mistreatment will repel the best and brightest talent away from abusive organizations. Any corporate attempt to recapture loyalty will be rejected outright.

How can a person live in this moment?

Have you ever been so happy you wanted to freeze the moment forever? The next time you are very happy or profoundly sad, be still for a moment and wallow in the emotion. It is hard to live in the moment because we live in an over-stimulated society. Advertising screams for our attention everywhere we look, blaring through the radio, internet and television. It is hard to turn the media off, but we must tune it out if we are to live in the moment. We keep our radio and televisions on all of the time, afraid we'll miss something important. The teenagers in our judo club think I am hopelessly old fashioned because I don't recognize the hottest new movie star or recording artist. I know that despite my best efforts, I am media saturated. Anything truly memorable will come to my attention, the rest is fluff and I don't want to clutter my mind.

When one bows onto the mat at the beginning of judo practice, it symbolizes leaving the outside world with all of its worries and distractions behind. Judo practice requires complete concentration because it is a physical, combative, full contact sport. Distractions lead to injuries. That same kind of laser like focus can carry over to all parts of our lives. It requires a mindset that is impatient with trivia and appreciative of the small beauties of daily life.

Cancer survivors often say, "Having cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me." A serious illness causes one to slow down and take stock of life. After my thyroid scare and brush with death, I became very conscious of my mission and the limited time and energy I have left to fulfill my purpose. Recently I had a large chunk of skin cancer removed. The surgeon thinks he removed it all, but it made me realize afresh how fragile our lives are and how we can take it all for granted until it is too late. When I left the surgeon's office, still woozy with anesthetic, I called my daughter and asked her permission to use her inheritance to buy a farm. For eight years we have been talking about and dreaming about buying a farm. It was never was the right time, we never had enough money to bring our dream to life. After my surgery, I realized there never would be a perfect time or enough financing. But I was determined that my daughter and I would enjoy our farm together.

Anyone can live in this moment. All it takes is tuning out and turning off. Carve out quiet time for yourself, preferably in the morning when your mind and body are refreshed. Living in this moment doesn't have to be a ritual or complicated; it needs only to be reminded. Most mornings, I sit at my kitchen table to drink coffee and let the dogs wander in and out. I listen to the birds and enjoy the quiet time to wake up slowly, think and plan my day without outside intrusion or distractions. Living in this moment is not expensive or difficult; it just takes a commitment to yourself.


The Author


Rebecca Barnett is an author and motivational speaker on character-centered leadership. Rebecca has a dozen years of executive experience with American’s most admired and aggressive retailers, including The Home Depot and The Limited. Drawing on her research and corporate experience, Rebecca offers practical, pragmatic, experienced solutions. Beyond her corporate, academic and research credentials, Rebecca is a success story on a personal level. Far from a privileged upbringing, Rebecca spent seven years working her way through college and raising her daughter. Her drive, determination and potential were recognized as she earned scholarships and benefited from mentoring by those who believed in her. She continued the fast track of success in her professional life, reaping professional and financial rewards. It took a dramatic wake-up call in the form of a health and family crisis to make her realize she had paid too high a price. Rebecca holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from The Ohio State University, and a Master of Arts in Organizational Communication from Western Kentucky University where she is an adjunct professor. Rebecca is a national referee and black belt in the Olympic sport of Judo. She is a Silver medallist in the 2001 World Masters Championships.

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Copyright 2003 by Rebecca Barnett. All rights reserved.

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