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Brent Lang: 5 lessons college sports taught me

The president and CEO of Vocera Communications learned invaluable life lessons as a swimmer at the University of Michigan.

By Brent Lang as told to Tyler Crebar

Brent Lang was, and is, a champion. The former University of Michigan swimmer is a four-time NCAA champion and 1988 Olympic gold medalist. He eventually became the president and CEO of Vocera Communications. For those accomplishments, he was recognized as a Silver Anniversary Award winner. Lang always knew that athletics was a temporary career, but the lessons he learned from sports are something he will always carry with him.

Everyone makes mistakes, it’s just a question of how you learn from and respond to those mistakes that determines the trajectory of your life.

When I was a junior in college, I was the defending national champion in the 100 freestyle. I arrived at the NCAA championships as the favorite. However, in the preliminaries of the event, I was disqualified for a false start. I went from being the favorite to win to being out of the event in less than one-tenth of a second. But rather than dwelling on the negative, my coach and I agreed that I would lead off the 4x100 freestyle relay later that day to show the world what I could do.  I ended up swimming a leadoff time that would have won the event and proved to everyone there that I was the fastest 100 freestyle swimmer at the meet.  I was able to turn a negative into a positive and help my team in the process.

Maintaining a balance in life is critical. You shouldn’t let yourself become one-dimensional, because being well-rounded will make you better at everything.

When I was a kid, my dad used the individual medley as a metaphor for life. In the medley, you have to swim each of the four strokes, and my dad always emphasized the importance of working on all four strokes with balance in order to do the medley. As a student-athlete, I learned to balance many things in life.  I was an engineering student as well as training up to five hours a day for swimming. I needed to balance academics, in which I received a 3.8 GPA, and athletics, in which I won an Olympic gold medal and four NCAA titles, along with sleep, diet, friends and life. This skill has enabled me to balance the demands on my life as an adult. I am the CEO of a publicly traded company and need to balance the demands of my shareholders, customers, employees and community. It is kind of like the four strokes of the individual medley. I also need to balance my work life with my family life, where I have two active kids and a wife who works full time. Time management, prioritization, focus and dedication are skills that I have developed to help balance these aspects, but avoiding the temptation to become one-dimensional has also been a key part of this.

The difference between winning and just participating is only 10 percent. Always give the extra 10 percent in life and you will be a winner.      

My best time in the 50 freestyle was 19.36 seconds. That time was fast enough to win the NCAA championships in 1990. If I had been 10 percent slower, I would not have even qualified for the event.  That extra round in the weight room or that extra effort at the end of a workout can translate to a big difference. In my work life, there were times early on when my business almost ran out of money and 10 percent difference was enough for us to last a little longer to raise some additional funding.

There are lots of different types of leaders. You don’t have to be a cheerleader to be a leader. Leading by silent example can be the most powerful form of leadership.

I like to lead by example. I tend to be a fairly quiet leader. But in my job as a CEO, I need to speak to employees and customers all the time. I have become more comfortable speaking in front of large crowds, but I will never be the kind of leader that is very rah, rah. I have found that if I speak to employees and customers from my heart and be true to who I am, I can connect with them and lead without being the kind of dynamic orator that you see in the movies.

Believe in yourself. Having a positive attitude is the most important pre-race preparation in sport and in life.

When I was at the University of Michigan, I used to say to my coach, “For every negative thought you give me, I will give you two positives.” It was just a mental game, but I think it is really important. The evidence shows that if you approach a task with a positive attitude, you will do better. I try to remember that from my days as a swimmer and apply it to life. The key is to try to downplay the fear of failure. Fear drives negative thinking and can be exhausting. Focusing on having fun and doing the best you can, and focusing on the things that are within your control, helps maintain a positive attitude and leads to better results.

Biography

Brent Lang
CEO and president of Vocera Communications

Hometown: Portland, Oregon

Current City: Mountain View, California

School: Bachelor’s degree in industrial and operations engineering, University of Michigan, 1990; master’s degree in business administration, Stanford University

Sport: Swimming

Fun Fact: In his travels to 70 countries, the memory that stands out most was being in the wild with silverback gorillas in the Republic of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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