Today’s guest columnist is John Chayka, an entrepreneur and former NHL general manager.
Fear is rarely logical. I learned this with certainty on the first Thursday in May 2016—I’m sure of the date because my wife saved the newspapers—the day I was announced as the general manager of the Arizona Coyotes, becoming the youngest general manager in the history of the NHL at 26 years old.
I should have been exultant. Instead, I was terrified. I was brimming with more uncertainty and anxiousness than I’d experienced in my life. Though I could not identify it at the time, I was experiencing what psychologists call “imposter syndrome.” First coined in the 1970s, this phenomenon typically afflicts high achievers who attribute their success not to their own abilities, but to a “fluke” or grand good luck. Imposters feel like a fraud destined to fail, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
Driving to the arena in my first days as GM, I remember fixating on my resume, working to talk myself into a degree of self-confidence. I had majored in business at a top school, graduating at the top of my class. I’d been in hockey all my life in one form or another, beginning with countless hours in a backyard rink in Canada to founding the gold standard of hockey analytics, Stathletes Inc., with my brother-in-law in his basement. I was also overseeing a restaurant portfolio with a larger staff and more expansive operations than my eventual position with the Coyotes. (We now operate over 30 restaurants, employ over 1,000 people across Canada, and I sit on the board of Wendy’s Canada.)
Only in retrospect did I fully grasp that this fear and self-doubt was strength in disguise.
Five years removed from those initial doubts, I see now that my years leading an NHL team taught me several lessons, the most important of which is that leadership is hard. And that’s OK.
Those fears you feel, despite what your brain says about your qualifications, are a natural element of achieving outsized successes—and of helping those around you transcend their own fears and limits.
During my tenure, and in partnership with another young leader, team president Ahron Cohen, the Coyotes set franchise records in ticket sales, TV ratings, corporate partnerships and philanthropic contributions. There was no magic to these achievements. We reached our goals by rolling up our sleeves and leading, in every sense of the word. We made genuine connections in the community, investing time in listening and learning about the challenges of others, and leading our organization with a clear vision for the future—a vision that made people proud to represent our team. On the ice we spent efficiently and punched above our weight, finally ending an eight-year playoff drought.
Was it hard? Absolutely. The team had operated for years in a negative culture and resource disadvantage measured against our peers. But difficulty, I learned, was not something to be railed against or lamented; navigating it is the mark of a true leader.
Sports also represent a spellbinding, educational live experiment in human psychology. It teaches us firsthand the impact of the human element on organizations—how one addition can create a transformational shift in culture or performance for better or for worse. While it can be tempting to focus solely on results-driven metrics, that can distract us from an important reality: Human beings are not widgets. Nor are they dollars, cryptocurrency or hourly resources for deployment.
I have declined many media requests to discuss my departure from the Arizona Coyotes in 2020, because the truth is, it was hard. However, it’s also true that, like any good leader, I needed to make a hard decision, and this was the right one for myself and for my family. While leaders are ultimately judged by their wins, they also must recognize the time to move on, and that’s what I did.
Much of what I learned running the Coyotes translates to all aspects of any business. With sports, accountability is measured each and every game. In the restaurant business, it’s the same win or lose mentality that allows an organization to employ measurable objectives and be held accountable. I’ve learned that leaders who embrace competition in healthy ways—without losing sight of humanity and grace—can help teams achieve.
There is also the reality that the next generation of leaders needs to feel compelled by a mission and aligned with the values of their organization. While some traditionalists might contend that we should put our head down and keep working, I think it’s commendable that individuals are prioritizing the quality of their time on Earth, and their ability to enrich their communities with their work.
In hockey, in the quick service restaurant business, and in life, I have learned over and again that investing in people is what makes a true leader. Practicing empathy and compassion is a competitive advantage. That I can promise you. We sometimes look at leaders with rose-colored glasses and perceive only the glamorous parts of the job. The reality is much more complex. Leadership is hard. Making complicated decisions—particularly those that impact others—is hard. And that’s OK.
Chayka founded Stathletes Inc. and JKC Capital. He is married to Kathryn Chayka, has two daughters, and resides in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
(This column has been corrected in the headline and first paragraph to reflect that Chayka was the youngest general manager in NHL history but not in North American pro sports history.)