Competitive Edge

World-class rower Dan Lyons and his Narberth-based Team Concepts pump up corporate America with a healthy dose of Olympic-caliber bravado.

Dan Lyons is front-and-center in an amphitheater-style classroom inside the Pearlstein Business Learning Center at Drexel University. He doesn’t like that he’s so far from his audience—13 Drexel MBA candidates finishing their capstone project—but the setting is amazingly appropriate: Lyons relishes ancient history and the Socratic method. He’s even written a book-length manuscript, Fall of Honor, about what Athens and Sparta can teach us about leadership development and team building.

As president and “chief ennoblement officer” of Team Concepts in Narberth, Lyons, 50, is a resident expert in such things. “The job of an inspirational leader is to make a movie in the mind of the listener,” he tells the students. “It’s not to take snapshots and leave them, but to take a series of shots that are always there.”

It’s what Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy did. It’s the secret to Barack Obama’s success, he says, adding that in this year’s national election, it’s all about image—whether or not a voter can see himself in that image, and whether or not that vision reaches across ethical and ethnic lines.

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“Back at work, how will you ennoble the effort?” he asks the class, standing behind a table of trophies he’ll award for movies they’ve made.

Lyons’ core philosophy is embodied in The Eight Secrets of Inspirational Leadership, his brief tome on realizing individual and group potential through ennoblement. Its “integrated learning” model combines experiential training, interactive seminars, motivational speaking, online instruction and virtual coaching. “Ennoblement answers the question [of] why … we do what we do,” he says. “To ennoble is to make noble or, in other words, to give meaning and purpose to what we do.”

Formed in 1995, Team Concepts specializes in bringing the Olympic notions of high performance and inspirational and transformational leadership into corporate culture. Movie-making, rowing, festival games, stock-car racing and more provide the catalyst for creating teams cognizant of their moment-to-moment leadership decisions. Hundreds of major corporations are now Lyons’ clients—among them Alcoa, Johnson & Johnson, Urban Outfitters, NASA, PECO, Starbucks, Campbell Soup Company, Comcast, Godiva Chocolate, Hallmark Cards and Home Depot.

Lyons rowed in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea. These days, he employs numerous other former Olympians. They include Team Concepts program director Carol Bower, a six-time U.S. National Rowing Team member and one of just nine American women to have won an Olympic gold medal in the sport.

“We’re hoping in Beijing that we can change that,” says Bower, who in 1999 began the crew program at Bryn Mawr College, where she also serves as a senior lecturer. “Our [women’s team’s] chances are very, very good. An Olympic year is always something unique, and things could go any way at any time, but we have good depth. So we’re watching, listening and hoping.”

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Bower graduated from UCLA in 1979, earning a bronze medal in the World Championships that year. She was a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in 1980, but the Summer Olympics in Moscow were boycotted. Four years later in Los Angeles, she was part of the U.S. women’s eight team that won the gold. She coached the women’s four team in 1988.

“Just having the Olympics again (in 1984) was satisfying because we weren’t sure which way it was going,” she says. “It’s such a celebration of competition, and one way in which the world comes together in a peaceful manner.”

Years ago, team building was rooted solely in academic theory, round-table boardroom discussions and brainstorming—little of which worked. With the first introduction of ropes courses and other such corporate challenges in the 1970s, the multibillion-dollar business of training with co-workers to build “team” unity was born.

Lyons’ Team Concepts combines the Outward Bound experience, the Harvard Business School model and motivational speaking into one. Lyons incorporates his own experience as a world-class rower—and the sport of rowing itself—as one of the purest examples of teamwork.

Lyons grew up in Wayne and is a 1976 graduate of Archbishop Carroll High in Radnor. He’s influenced the most by his late father, Jim Lyons (who qualified for 1940 Athens Games before they were cancelled), and a large family of bright, driven and athletic progeny. At Fourth of July parties, hundreds of family members would each try to impress the others.

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“I always thought I had to live up to those expectations,” Lyons says. “As for my dad, he never sold himself short, and he always believed in me. He believed
in everyone.”

It’s the same message Lyons offers today. His father’s philosophy is sewn through the fabric of everything he does.

Early on, Lyons started rowing at the Penn Athletic Club, then graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981 with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics. He spent a year abroad at Oxford University before earning a master’s degree in American history from Villanova in 1989. As soon as he can find the time, he’d like to earn a doctorate in military history from Temple University.

A member of the U.S. Rowing Hall of Fame, Lyons has been on seven U.S. National Teams, winning two world bronze medals, a world gold and a Pan American Games gold. In the ’88 Olympics in Seoul, his coxed pair was among the favorites before partner Robert Espeseth, now rowing coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, became sick.

“Competition is in everybody,” Lyons says. “But it gets a bad name because some compete outside the rules. Competition is not philosophical; it’s very practical—just like capitalism, because in 100 percent of the cases, capitalism has won.”

Competition breeds trust, according to Bower, who knows first-hand: Before Bryn Mawr, she began her collegiate coaching career in 1980 at Yale University where, in five years, her women’s team won two national titles in 1981 and 1984. She became the head coach of the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s program in 1987. “Each company or institution we serve [at Team Concepts] is so unique and different that what’s most important is how we adapt,” she says. “We don’t make a company fit into what we do, but rather we figure out how we can fit into their needs.”

After his own competitive rowing years, Lyons went through some deep depressive cycles. He actually blamed his competitive spirit. As a cure, he tried extracting his competitiveness—but it wasn’t the answer. “I could try to do less, but that makes me unhappy,” Lyons says. “It’s not in my vocabulary to sit on the bench. I need to be stimulated. For vacation, I go on archeological digs.”

At the office, and in on-site training, he digs for the answers to empower others. “When the others have taken your dreams and vision as their own, then what happens to your job?” Lyons asks the Drexel class. “It gets easier, but it’s difficult. Rowing takes practice. Throwing a baseball takes practice. Leadership takes practice. You need to do it every day, and trying to get better is what makes you great.”

Lyons mixes in his own competitive stories to illustrate his points. He was trained first by his father, who instilled one fundamental lesson about winning a race: Get ahead, stay ahead. “When applied correctly, it works 100 percent of the time,” Lyons says.

With the 1986 U.S. National Team in Nottingham, England, Lyons came down with walking pneumonia. His team asked him to keep racing—against doctor’s orders. “I made it easier for them when I locked in,” he says. “A replacement would have put a big hole in the water.”

Up against European crews that train together for years—not to mention a Soviet Union team that hadn’t missed the finals of the World Championships in 35 years—the upstart Americans sent the Russians home after the semifinals “to smoke their cigars, drink their vodka and hang out with their KGB friends,” Lyons says. “We went to the finals.”

His team went on to win the finals by a 10th of a second to become the only U.S. crew team to ever win that event in the World Championships.

Beforehand, Lyons went to church as part of his preparation. Though he physically felt weaker and weaker, he told God that if he was to die, he wanted to be ahead (as his dad had coached). Later, a teammate handed him a Walkman with a tape already in it.

“It was some sort of angelic choir, and a deep voice said, ‘Today you will meet your death with the will of life!'” he vividly recalls. “Carpe diem, I thought. It was then that I stopped worrying. In the final, the first stroke, I pulled, then the next and the next—and gone was the worry about that one and the next one.

“Focus in the moment, celebrate life. Each moment means something—or not. It’s up to you,” Lyons says. “If you can give this [quality] to yourself, then you can give it to others. If you’re truly inspired to reach into yourself, you can inspire others to do the same.”

However, if you set limits on yourself, you don’t know, Lyons says. His dad used to say that Dan should do a 10-second 100 meters, but physiologically such a time was impossible (based on his slow- and fast-twitch muscle analysis). “Could any of you be an Olympic rower?” he asks the soon-to-be MBAs. “I don’t know, but I would certainly like to find out.”

Leadership has much to do with language. “It’s not what you say, but how you say it,” Lyons says, starting the famous line, “Give them enough rope,” then finishing it his own way: “to build a bridge.”

The 13 students who are divided into three teams share the movies they’ve made to illustrate the core competencies they’ve learned. Free Nights Productions’ motto is “Slay the Dragons.” It’s modeled after Austin Powers and based on a global awareness theme. It’s called AP International Man of Business. Little Franklin Films screens the PG-13 effort Worker at Oz (Corp.), and Ray Lewis will soon win “Best Actor” in his role as Dorothy. Shot at the Philadelphia Zoo and modeled after Shrek, East Coast Productions’ film is called It’s Not Easy Going Green.

“They could be the three best movies we’ve ever seen,” Lyons says.

For Lyons, the movie module is ironic, too. He’s executive producer of the full-length independent feature film Swing, a $12 million project that began filming in July. It’s written by Mike Gozzard, who also wrote the screenplay for Pride, a similar-themed inspirational movie in 2007 that was based on the life of inner-city Philadelphia swimming coach Jim Ellis, who broke through the white-dominated sport’s racial barriers.

Swing, which has been picked up by Untitled Productions in Hollywood, will star Chris O’Donnell as Rick Clothier, coach of the 1980 Naval Academy crew team that began the season ranked last in the country then won the national title. Lyons was stroke on that team. Subsequently, the No. 7 man, Steve Moreau, was killed in a training accident.

Years before the national title, as Clothier recruited Lyons on the banks of the Schuylkill River, a drunk driver struck and killed the coach’s wife and child. Every year after that, one athlete at a time, Clothier recruited others for their strong personal acumen. “We all learned what it takes to be part of something bigger,” Lyons said, while in the midst of raising $3 million and hiring the talent for the film.

Filmed at the U.S. Naval Academy and in Philadelphia, Swing—its title a reference to the moment of synchronicity in a crew shell—will be released in 2009. “People will row 20 years for five minutes of swing,” Lyons says. “The film could make a big difference for us [at Team Concepts], too. It will get our message out and raise our profile. But if nothing else, the film is for my peer groups, the Naval Academy and the rowing community.”

Lyons has spent 25 years coaching at the Naval Academy, St. Joseph’s Prep, Oxford, Stanford, Drexel, Georgetown and now at Penn Athletic Club, where he began. He knows—as Clothier did—that personalities almost always overshadow competencies.

“If I have a diverse group of people who feed off each other and are a little quirky, I know we’ll do pretty well,” Lyons says. “If it’s a bland group, no matter how strong and powerful it is, I know we’re in trouble. That’s the strength of diversity. It’s not just racial, ethnic or gender diversity—it’s diversity of spirit.”

Other than Dan Lyons and Carol Bower, Team Concepts has contracted with these former rowing Olympians:

Ted A. Nash 
A program director at Team Concepts, Nash is a 10-time Olympian as an athlete and a coach. He’s the elite men’s and women’s rowing coach at Penn Athletic Club. Prior to that, he was head coach at the University of Pennsylvania from 1965 to 1983.

Dan Beery
A six-time U.S. National Team member, Beery won gold in the eight at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Holly Metcalf 
The new varsity women’s open-weight crew coach at MIT, Metcalf was also a six-time member of the U.S. National Team. She’s won five world championship medals and, with Bower in the 1984 Olympics, captured the gold medal in the women’s eight.

Tom Bohrer 
A two-time Olympic silver medalist (1988 and 1992) and a three-time medalist at the World Championships, Bohrer is head rowing coach at Union Boat Club in Boston and at nearby Wayland-Weston High School. He writes training articles for Rowing News.

Dave Krmpotich 
Monsignor Bonner’s head crew coach is a 1988 Olympic silver medalist. He also competed on six world championship teams.

Bill Carlucci 
A Princeton University product, Carlucci was a bronze medalist at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Ted Swinford 
Currently coaching the highly successful Wilmington (Del.) Youth Rowing Association, Swinford rowed on six U.S. National Teams, including the 1988 Olympic Team. He won the gold in the 1986 World Championships with Lyons.

Team Concepts’ 8 Secrets of Inspirational Leadership
Secret 1: Everyone wants to be part of something bigger.
Secret 2: Everyone wants to feel valued.
Secret 3: Define performance objectives. Clearly articulate specific team objectives, including the expected time frame for achieving those objectives; create challenging and achievable objectives.
Secret 4: Ennoble the effort. Paint a verbal picture of what the future could look like, helping individuals see themselves within that picture; highlight the team’s intrinsic value in its historical and organizational framework.
Secret 5: Empower individuals within team synergy. Provide the framework for individual accomplishments that support team objectives.
Secret 6: Emphasize personal responsibility, challenging individuals to make a commitment to excellence. Develop the value of the team’s objectives within individual members.
Secret 7: Celebrate the journey. Win every day, and create awareness of the rewards that occur along the journey.
Secret 8: Positive, engaged energy. Draw the best from others by showing the best from yourself.

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