David Pottruck is often described as a legend.
While an undergraduate in the Wharton school in the late 1960s, Pottruck wrestled and played football, earning MVP honors in both sports during his senior year and being named captain of the wrestling team. After Penn, Pottruck guided Charles Schwab from an anonymous discount trading company to a global industry leader during two decades with the firm.
When Pottruck came to campus on Sunday evening to lead a seminar for a room full of current and former Penn captains as part of the Athletic Department’s pilot Leadership Academy program, “legendary’ was how he was described by Senior Associate Athletic Director Roger Reina. Pottruck’s message was not one of hubris, though.
“What I’ve learned more than anything is that almost no success comes from individual effort,” he said in his opening remarks. “Your ability to not only contribute to the team but to help lead the team even if you’re not the official leader is an immensely important skill.”
The most obvious leaders in an athletic context are the captains of each team. They shake the hands of their opponents before the coin toss, they wear armbands over their jerseys on game day, they are often the first players to be interviewed by Daily Pennsylvanian sports reporters.
Accepting a captaincy means that practice is about more than just showing up and going through the motions and commitment to the sport extends far beyond the 20-hour weekly practice time limit determined by the Ivy League. I’d hazard a guess to say that for most captains at Penn, practice meant more than mere presence and commitment to their craft ran deep long before they were voted to be leaders in name.
During his senior year at Penn, Pottruck saw being a captain of the wrestling team as synonymous with being “a role model of commitment, a role model of confidence, a role model of perseverance.”
“I got that, and I tried to live up to that responsibility,” he said. “I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do really.”
There’s no handbook for how to be an effective captain. Sure, there are more books on leadership than there is time to read them. But knowing how to define your role given the unique makeup of personalities on your team can’t be deduced from the pages of some hardcover book.
As I write this column, a little more than two weeks of the official swim season have passed. Although I’ve technically held the title of captain since last May, I’m still figuring it all out. Most days, I have more questions than answers.
The day-to-day interactions on most sports teams at Penn don’t leave room for mid-season performance reviews or exit interviews. As Pottruck continued talking about the role of a captain, a nagging question formed in the back of my head. Was I doing enough as captain? Or worse yet, was I doing too much?
That’s when Pottruck imparted his most valuable piece of advice to his audience of twenty-something jocks.
“Not everyone is the “follow me” kind of leader — vocal, outspoken, high energy kind of person that rallies everyone with a lot of rah-rah kind of cheerful stuff and gets everyone to follow them up the hill,” he said. “Sometimes leadership is much more quiet.
“Leadership is a lot about listening.”
According to co-keynote speaker Mike Useem, the executive director of Wharton’s center for leadership and change management, Pottruck was tapped for the CEO position at Charles Schwab because of his background in marketing. Put another way, “he had his ear to the ground.”
The advice seemed obvious. A leader out of touch with his or her followers is little more than a passionate, if misguided, rhetor.
Walking out of the Kozloff Room on Sunday night, I made myself a promise. There are still 19 weeks left before my collegiate swimming career comes to a close. In those remaining weeks, I want to be a better listener.
While I can’t claim the same wisdom 46 years of life outside University City has brought Pottruck, I can cling tightly to that one piece of invaluable advice.
I can just shut up and listen.
Laine Higgins is a College senior from Wayzata, Minn., and is a senior sports reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian. Her column, Let Me ExpLaine, runs every Wednesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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