Defining True Toughness: Leadership Lessons from Heroes and Athletes


The True Essence of Toughness in Leadership and Sports

Two things will happen this month, as the nation begins its annual journey into March Madness. First, our brackets will be busted. Second, basketball announcers will go on about this or that player’s “toughness.”

And while ESPN’s Jay Bilas, the dean of those basketball announcers, can’t really help you with your bracket, he has strong opinions about toughness, opinions that might surprise you. In short, he thinks too many of us have toughness all wrong.

On a recent episode of the South Beach Sessions podcast, Bilas recounted his irritation years ago at the way some people were equating toughness with brute strength or “manning up” or even bullying on the court. He eventually wrote a column about toughness for ESPN that went viral. Later, he wrote a book on the topic.

Beyond Physical Strength: A New Definition of Toughness

Toughness, he wrote, isn’t beating up an opponent. It isn’t jawing at someone. It isn’t about intimidation. Rather, it’s a mindset and a commitment to do all the little things needed to win. To Bilas, and all those coaches who pinned his column on their bulletin boards, toughness isn’t necessarily about physicality. But it does require discipline, sacrifice and leadership. And the best part is that these are traits that are teachable like any other skill.

In short, we can all be tough.

Jay Bilas on Toughness: It's Not What You Think

Like Bilas, the National Medal of Honor Center for Leadership teaches that toughness is a hallmark of any leader, whether you’re the captain of the basketball team, a captain of industry, or running a project team in your office. And this toughness starts with values such as courage, integrity, commitment and sacrifice.

Toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. Some players may be born tough, but I believe that toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved.

Medal of Honor Heroes: The Embodiment of True Toughness

Nobody would dispute that earning the Medal of Honor, the nation’s greatest award for military valor, requires toughness. But the recipients themselves tend to be humble, self-effacing and soft-spoken. They never brag. They’re actually reluctant to talk about their own experiences unless asked. But dig a little deeper and you see how the toughness Bilas admires so much manifests itself in them.

Leroy Petry didn’t particularly stand out while he was growing up in New Mexico. He played sports and fixed cars and worked in a sign-making company before enlisting in the Army. He endured the grueling testing that’s required to be a Ranger and eventually found himself in Paktia Province, Afghanistan in 2008 when he was tested — and his life changed forever. During a daylight raid to capture a target from the Taliban, Petry and his team of six other Rangers encountered 40 enemy fighters. Despite being wounded, Petry led a wounded comrade to cover. A Taliban fighter threw a grenade that landed near Petry’s comrades. Petry immediately picked it up and tried to throw it back.
Petry, Leroy

He describes what happens next: “I reached over, leaned over to the right, grabbed it with my hand, and threw it as hard as I could. And as soon as I opened my hand to let it go, it just exploded instantly. And I came back, and the hand was completely severed off.”

For his actions, Sgt. Petry was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama in 2011. You can read his citation here.

Ask Petry what leads people to do heroic things, and he’s quick to say, “integrity.”

“It’s easy to give up,” he said at a panel discussion sponsored by the National Medal of Honor Center for Leadership last year. “Courage doesn’t happen naturally. It gets drawn out, and integrity allows it to come to the fore. Courage is about being true to yourself. It’s about your core beliefs and standing your ground.”

This is the toughness that Bilas is talking about. Whether it is on a basketball court, a battlefield, or at your desk, real toughness comes in many different forms. And it shines forth from the values you live by – the values that allow you to meet your moments.

It’s easy to give up, Courage doesn’t happen naturally. It gets drawn out, and integrity allows it to come to the fore. Courage is about being true to yourself. It’s about your core beliefs and standing your ground.

Leroy Petry
- Medal of Honor Reipient