The Stoic Tao of Orr


There are many famous images in the history of sports photography. Michael Jordan scoring the winning basket in the 1998 NBA finals, Willie Mays’ famous 1954 World Series basket catch, Mohammed Ali standing over the fallen Sonny Liston in 1965 all come to mind. Included in that distinguished collection must certainly be the iconic photo of Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr suspended midair, celebrating scoring the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals over the St. Louis Blues. Orr was the greatest player of his time but possibly more importantly he was most stoic leader the world of sports has ever seen.

The Calm Cool Collective Orr

Those late 60s/early 70s Boston Bruins teams were known for their colorful cast of characters. There was leading scorer Phil Esposito, whose pre-game ritual included chain smoking Marlboros, Ted Green who lived his off-ice life as if he had a plate in his head because, well, he did, Mike “Shakey” Walton who could have won a contest for most apropos nickname, Bobby Schmautz who looked like a member of the Dead End Kids and who used to mumble to himself on the ice, Johnny “Pie” McKenzie whose monikor was actually short for Pie Face and Ace Bailey, another larger than life Bruins personality who tragically died on United flight 175 that crashed into the South Tower on September 11th. Then there was the NHL’s answer to Joe Namath in the form of center Derek “Turk” Sanderson. Sanderson never met a camera, a female flight attendant, or loud clothing he didn’t like. He didn’t appear on Johnny Carson because of his hockey prowess, that’s for sure.

The true leader of those great Bruins was a mild-mannered hockey phenom from the small town of Parry Sound, Ontario. His name was Bobby Orr. Orr was the epitome of cool, quiet stoicism. He was never a rah-rah kind of guy, either on the ice or in the locker room but his courage through a rash of debilitating injuries and having a bullseye on his back from the rest of the league made him the true leader of those Bruins locker rooms. When Orr spoke it was as if Moses had descended down the mountain top. He could have been the basis for those old E.F. Hutton ads (“When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”)

Stoics Lead the Team to Victory

But what has impressed me as I read more about Orr is how his stoicism made him the kind of leader who got the best out of his team simply by pulling them along into his orbit. My best clients do exactly the same thing, just not on ice. Orr didn’t need to yell and scream or berate his teammates. He quietly led by example and his fellow players never ever wanted to let him down. Orr commanded respect in the most stoic way possible – he led by example. His quiet confidence and his humility was the hub in the middle of the Bruins logo that the rest of the team revolved around. He was their sun.

How would one explain the leadership skills that Orr displayed? The great Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden summed it up best when he said, “He brought others with him; he wanted them involved. That’s what made him so different: It felt like a five-player stampede moving toward you – and at his pace.” Orr’s aura extended to Boston sports fans who still genuflect and make the sign of the cross when his name is mentioned. The few times he attends Bruins games these days there is a palpable murmur in the stands. “Bobby is here tonight”, they say. No one needs to ask, “Bobby who?”

Mindfulness is Caring for Others

A far too common knock against stoicism is that those who display these traits simply don’t care about the world or those around them. Bobby Orr cared deeply about his teammates. When Derek Sanderson had hit rock bottom after a decade of alcohol and drug addiction, Orr drove Sanderson to a rehab facility in his own car, undoubtedly saving his life. Mindfulness to assess the world around for you what things are is to be able to see one’s darkest needs objectively. If I’m at a high school pep rally, by all means send me the peppy cheerleader to rally my team spirit. If I’m laying at the bottom of a canyon with broken leg I’d rather have the stoic who looks down upon me and says “fascinating, perhaps we should extract him and take him to the hospital.”

Sadly, Orr’s career was shortened by a rash of knee injuries that would ultimately end his career in 1978. But his legacy will ultimately be the stoic leadership he brought to a rambunctious group of loose cannons who he transformed into a succinct unit. He led that succinct unit to two Stanley Cups. Stoicism not only has a proven track record of success, but it just might be sexiest ‘new’ reinvention in corporate leadership emerging today. It pains my inner philosopher to its ancient Greek core that it even needs a rebirth, but thankfully those organizations that have abandoned it in recent decades are now realizing their folly. Wondering if stoicism will work for you? Just check out my piece on embracing your inner stoic here.

What Does this Mean for You? 

First of all, keep your ego in check. The world doesn’t revolve around you and it often takes a stoic to remind you of that incontrovertible fact. Your ability to add stoicism to your leadership portfolio has implications far beyond your staff writing nice things on your Hallmark card on Boss’ Day. Stoicism offers those around you the opportunity to benefit from objective leadership and it saves them from the painful death of being shielded from the truth. It’s all nice and well that your employees think you are so nice, but I wonder how nice it is to withhold truthful professional development only to have their next boss fire them for what they are lacking.

Stoicism offers you the ability to operate and gift truth to your fellow man. Perhaps the greatest stoic of our time comes bearing truth to us with formal hat and cigar stogie hanging out the side of his mouth. When the Germans were blitzing London he took a scenario that would invoke national panic and turned it into a moment of national resolve. In what is one of my favorite quotes of all time, Churchill delivered this tiny piece of stoic heaven. He said, “the truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end there it is.”

Couldn’t we all use a little more stoic truth in our lives? Does the notion of leading your team to victory through pep rally style school spirit make you want to throw you pom poms in the trash? Embrace you inner stoic, dear reader.

Sign up below to get more information and the stoic truth on coaching your way to leadership success. Bobby Orr earned a Stanley Cup with it. Churchill led a nation at war to victory with it. You too can let stoicism lead you and your team to victory.

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Boyd Falconer

Boyd Falconer

People have described Boyd Falconer as a secret weapon for navigating success. He specializes in coaching executives, entrepreneurs, athletes and celebrities.

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