Playing through the pain

Last December, Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers injured his knee in the third quarter of a game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Last December, Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers injured his knee in the third quarter of a game against the Memphis Grizzlies. He put some ice on his leg and then came back in to finish the game.

Turns out he had fractured his lateral tibial plateau. In other words, he played an entire quarter with a broken leg.

The sports world is filled with glorious tales of athletes playing through pain. Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks battled through 12 postseason games last year with a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder. Franz Beckenbauer, a German soccer player, broke his clavicle in a 1970 World Cup match, but stayed in the game, with his arm hanging limply in a sling.

My personal favorite is from the 1996 Olympics when Kerri Strug helped secure a gold medal for the US gymnastics team despite a third-degree sprain and tendon damage in her left leg. She had to be carried off the mat after landing her vault.

Following a recent lunch with a friend, it occurred to me that corporate executives also have to play through pain, although none of it is particularly glorious.

The friend who prompted this insight is the head of communications for a very large financial services company - and he reports to the CEO. He loves the organization, job, and the team.

There is just one catch: The chairman of his company is engaged in a nasty grudge match with the CEO and my friend is caught in the middle. So, if he pleases the CEO, he gets berated by the chairman and if he placates the chairman, the CEO is angry. This is the pain he has to play through every day.

I have another friend who was recruited to a company with a promise that she would be promoted to CCO in 12 months after the incumbent retired.

But six months in, the then CCO announced he was extending his retirement horizon and that there would be an internal competition to see who would ultimately get the job. My friend had to compete with one of her cohorts for a job that she had already been promised.

She had to play through this pain for two years - had to manage crises, present to senior management, draft shareholder letters, work nights and weekends - all with a smile and an undying commitment to the team.

She was ultimately awarded the top job, but no photographers or TV cameras were there to capture the moment.

When I was at Nissan, I reported to the head of North American operations. My biggest internal customer was the CEO of sales and marketing, who felt I should report to him.

He took me to lunch one day and told me it was "my job to convince senior management that communications needs to report to sales and marketing." I declined the offer and he proceeded to make my life miserable for the next two years.

We all have to play through some version of corporate pain in our careers. Sociopathic bosses, subordinates who undermine, neurotic internal customers, and absurd bureaucratic hoops are just a sample of the ailments that afflict the senior executive. And the higher up you go, the bigger the stakes.

After my nemesis at Nissan finally moved on and stopped torturing me, I wanted a Kodak moment. I wanted to march through the halls on wounded legs and fist-pump like Kirk Gibson after his World Series home run, but I decided against it. Instead I just sighed, had a celebratory drink with a col-league, and suited up the next day for more battle.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at

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