Jason Carthen’s story is a unique one, to say the least. He overcame a disadvantaged childhood to become a star football player at Ohio University, then a linebacker for the New England Patriots. After retiring from the NFL, he earned a master’s degree in ministry and a PhD in organizational leadership. Now he’s a well-regarded scholar of leadership studies and a motivational speaker, author, and radio personality. It’s quite an inspiring journey!
I recently had the honor of interviewing Jason on my radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection. Among other subjects, I asked him how he’s managed to achieve so much, despite all the challenges life threw in his way.
Here are some insights Jason shared during our conversation:
Transcending a tough beginning
Growing up in a single-parent household, Jason can recall times when there wasn’t enough to eat. He easily could have become bitter, but instead, he made up his mind to apply himself at school and maximize every opportunity he got. “At the end of the day, you’re the one who has to make a decision whether or not you’re going to move forward, or if you’re going to press the pause button for the rest of your life,” he said. “And I knew for me, there was no way I was going to do that, because I knew there was something better. That’s really what propelled me.”
One day, as he was walking down the hall at school, a coach took him aside and suggested he play football.
“Hey, I can run around and hit people and not get in trouble?” Jason said. “Okay then, I’ll do it.”
“That was my moment,” Jason told me. “It was a turning point in my life. Football was my way of releasing stress and also developing discipline. It was operating within boundaries, because young people, though they may not like it, they want boundaries. They want to know: ‘How is my behavior going to impact others, and do you care enough about me to tell me No?’ ”
Sports opened up a world of opportunities for Jason and set him on the right path. “Football gave me an identity,” he said. “You took that helmet off after the touchdown and people saw you, and it was like, ‘Wow!’ It filled up that gap of positive reinforcement that I hadn’t had up to that point.”
Heavily recruited by colleges after high school, Jason chose Ohio University, where he found himself facing a whole new set of challenges. “As a minority, I had to step up my game in order to have a seat at the table,” he said. “But that part really spurred me to say, ‘Hey, no matter what, I’m going to give exceptional effort and just continue to move forward.’ And that taught me a tremendous work ethic that’s still with me even today.”
Jason found himself in much the same position years later, when he entered Harvard for his business management certification after retiring from football. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, here we go again. I’m back where I started.’
“You just have to remember it’s you,” he told me. “Don’t try and blame your circumstances. Don’t tell other people, ‘you’ve got to do this for me.’ No. When you wake up in the morning, when your feet hit the floor, get going. Develop discipline. Follow through and make gains. That’s what you have to do.”
The dangers of a toxic culture
In his career, Jason has seen a number of parallels between corporate culture and the organizational dynamics of sports teams. In particular, one experience on the football field has stuck with him.
While running a play during practice, one of his teammates lost a shoe. The young man kept right on playing, but when the play was over the coach berated him in the harshest possible terms. “The player said, ‘You don’t have to talk to me like that,’ ” Jason said. “But the minute he did that, it became worse. The coach got in his face. He said stuff like, ‘Get off my field, you S.O.B.!’ ”
Not only was the individual cut from the team, but he was labeled a “problem” player and another team that had expressed interest in him withdrew their offer. “To this day, he never played again,” Jason said.
“It was tough, because he wasn’t a problem. He was a good guy. He was trying to stand up for himself. It just showed that when you have a toxic culture, that culture will either build a champion or hide a hero.”
I told Jason I could relate to this, because I’ve seen many CEOs berate their people in public because they think it makes them look strong. And it doesn’t, not at all. Instead, they’re driving their people to operate on the basis of fear. And when people are fearful, they don’t do their best.
Jason agreed. “If you’re leading by fear, people are going to hedge,” he said. “They’re going to do just enough to not get fired, but passive-aggressively they’ll let you know they have not bought into the vision. They’re going to do just enough to hedge their bets until something better comes along.
“If you want the most out of your players, you have to build a relationship with them. Individuals need to know they’re cared about and they have a say in what happens.”
If more coaches and leaders would respond in this fashion, Jason told me, they’d be rewarded with better productivity.
“I’m a strong proponent of ‘servant leadership,’ ” he said. “It’s when you care more about your follower and their ongoing growth and development more than yourself. And I’m not talking about some masochistic thing. It’s more, ‘I want you to grow, because we all grow when you grow.’ ”
The importance of intentionality
Jason wrote his dissertation on how styles of leadership affect the performance of the people who follow. He believes changing a toxic culture is possible, but it needs to come from the top down. “It should become the norm for the leader to inject this idea of a healthy culture into everyone’s mind on an ongoing basis,” he said. “So, what does that look like? It means we are going to talk about it. We’re going to have some meetings that require us to talk about some tough things.
“It starts with the leaders, and then, from there, it has to be filtered down into a more of a shared leadership approach where everyone is having this conversation about culture.”
That’s where intentionality comes in, Jason said. “A leader has to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be vulnerable here and understand that maybe my process is not the best process. I want to hear from everybody else, and then we’ll figure out how to move forward.”
Advice for young people starting out
I like to ask my guests what advice they would like to offer listeners. When I posed that question to Jason, his response was instantaneous: “Purpose, passion, persistence, and partnership.”
“First, you must understand your purpose. Everything is an offshoot of that.
“The second one is passion. Once you’re aligned with our purpose, you say, ‘I can do this. I’m going to work at it.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s night or day, you’re focused and you have passion for your craft.
“The next one is persistence. You must be resilient, because life is going to punch you in the mouth. That’s just what it is, but if you’re persistent, you can push through. You can deal with it. You’ll get back up and fight again the next day.
“And the last one is partnership. When you’re able to stand on the shoulders of those that have gone before you, you’re already ahead of the game. You know more than most other people know at that point. And then you grow and develop, and you lean on others with humility.”
“Those four P’s could really rocket people forward if they focused on them,” Jason told me. “Because people do not habitually think about those types of things. They just walk up and they do life, and at some point they realize life is doing them.”