My high school basketball career was a bit short-lived.

I pushed myself through the middle school years and eventually found a way to start in a few games as a freshman and sophomore. Yet, by the start of my junior year, I had developed some bad habits. They were not physical limitations. I had learned the habit of "complaining" and "sulking" about the outcome of a game, of "not persevering" when my opponent took the upper hand. There were times when I would give up on the court and act like the game didn't matter.

One day, my coach called me into his office. He had just met with my friend Gregg who had also learned some of my bad habits. The coach was not happy. He said I was not living up to my potential, and my poor attitude was starting to spread like a virus. He had to take swift action. He told me he had no choice but to remove me from the team unless I could promise to work harder and make some changes in my attitude and performance. It was all a mental game, he said. He told me I had the skills required to become an excellent, even promising, basketball player. But my heart wasn't in the game. I hadn't learned about what it means to persevere.

I had a day to think about it and give him my decision.

I sulked home. I sulked on the couch. I sulked at the dinner table. I was a sulker. It was my go-to response to any challenge in life. The next morning, I told the coach I had decided to leave the team and didn't want to work so hard.

To this day, I'm not sure what made me decide to do that. I've often thought, maybe I don't respond well to pressure tactics. (It turns the coach gave my friend Gregg the exact same lecture but, for him, it worked so well he became the best player on the team and started in every game.) I've thought, maybe there was something inside me that didn't think I had enough talent to play the game.

I've since realized: I didn't have enough areté in me. This Greek word means to have an attitude of excellence that is tied closely to purpose. It's a word the author John Ortberg writes about in his book When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box and describes as a desire to achieve excellence in everything you do no matter what.

Another way of saying it is: You have excellence baked into your character in a way that you don't know how to respond to a situation in any other way other than making it excellent. You have so much excellence and purpose in you that you will naturally become a great leader because you don't have any other option.

I'm convinced this is what makes a leader rise above the rest. (The lack of it ruined my basketball career, and it's an attitude I'm still developing decades later.)

When you're training employees on the best approach to sales, the core tenet is predicated on making the process excellent. When you lead a design team to make a new product, you are driven by virtue. When you start a company, you choose people who will live up to your definition of making things great at all costs.

Yet, the word areté is not just about excellence and greatness. It's also about purpose. You want to make something great because you want to be great, you want to be known for greatness. Your goal in building a company or a team is to achieve something worthwhile. In the end, the word is closely tied to virtue. Your definition of excellence is equated directly with value. You don't care about riches. You don't care about beating out the next guy. You only care about value. It's a personal mission.

That day I decided to quit the team, I didn't just let the team down or my coach. I let myself down. I spent the last two years of high school squandering my time in class and everywhere else. I chose lousy friends. I didn't get good grades. By the time I finally landed in college, I was a mess. I'll save this story for another day, but suffice it to say, it wasn't until after college and even after I got married that I realized the full meaning of the word areté. In fact, it wasn't until I reacted to another pressure tactic and started a writing career that I began to pursue excellence.

And what about you? What did it take for you to come to terms with your own areté?  Ping me by email to tell your story about developing an attitude of greatness.

Published on: Apr 6, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.