Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shock and Awe

There are times in life when you cannot simple lead through idle means. Everyone has bad days, everyone makes mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is to keep things status-quo when that just isn't working. Never mind that it has worked; sometimes the process needs to change. Or, if not the actual process, then the perception of the process.

That's where shock and awe come in.

It can take many forms. Maybe it's a stern lecture. Maybe it's no stern lecture. An unexpected gift or praise will often suffice, as will a kind word completely unrelated to anything else. What makes this complicated is that each person reacts differently. Some people are team players, and some are not. That's the challenge of leadership.

The true struggle, however, comes when a leader feels like he is alone. They say it's lonely at the top. And I suppose it is. But it's even lonelier to be a leader who isn't at the top. To sit and try hard to achieve success, and to fail, is not easy; the emotions become very complex when there is no support structure, when those you need to have helping you refuse to do so, and offer criticism. It is the nature of leadership to deal with that. You cannot make everyone happy, and the leader that attempts to do that will ultimately fail. And that's been a hard lesson, made harder.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sports Leadership Lessons

Yesterday I played soccer. Today I hurt. My ankles, knees, back are all protesting the rough treatment.

As I attempted to keep up with people ten years younger than me, I had time to reflect on how a group of guys playing soccer mirrors a lot of what I have seen over the years at work.

First, let me explain how we play. Nobody has an assigned position. If you're feeling energetic, you run forward; if you're tired you play back. Most people try to balance their play so others can have chances to make shots. Nearly everyone takes their turn as keeper.

There are a few types of players. Some are content to spend more time on defense. They're good at that and, recognizing their skill, they play the position that offers the most benefit to the team. Others are more balanced and play all over. Some are more likely to keep up the pressure.

We have players who constantly look to make a play; they work to make or receive passes. They don't simply kick the ball when they have it, and they don't selfishly keep possession. Some players aren't sure where they're supposed to be on the field and either run around or stand still. A few are there to socialize; they like to play, but they're really wanting to talk and hang out. And some want to win, they're there to play hard and always look for ways to make that happen.

None of these types are necessarily good or bad. It's not a competition team. At our core, we're just a bunch of guys either approaching or just past middle age, and without exception we enjoy ourselves. Our type of play gives everyone a chance to achieve whatever their personal goals are, and I don't think I've ever heard of someone walking away dissatisfied.

Companies can learn from this model of play. Some already behave this way. There is an ebb and flow to life. Some days people want to push their limits. At other times they are tired or sore and need to slow down. Some people go to work to socialize, and are content if they aren't in the limelight. Others are motivated to succeed and always push the envelope.

There is no leader on our team. We have people who lead, people who are dynamic and help direct everyone's efforts. But nobody is assigned that role. And we succeed. Sometimes leadership is about more than the position of "leader." Employees usually have their own reasons to show up for work every day, and seek their own rewards that can be different than the corporate goal. Certainly some want the company to "win," but that's because, in "winning," the company helps the person achieve their personal objective, be it to make a better salary, to attain a high rank, or to simply stay employed.

In thinking about this, I wonder if I don't play soccer so aggressively because I don't have that level of success in the "real world." There is little reward for the work I do, either financially or emotionally. The older I get, the more I want to succeed at least in some small way. So I play soccer. I bend a shot in from the left side and play it off as a fluke, but inside I beam because that was my intention. There are no such opportunities in most of our lives at work. We're not given a chance to even touch the ball, much less take a shot on goal. That is a failing of companies. Employees want to succeed. It might not be easy to find out why and cater to that, and some might argue that it's not needed. But success for the company is exponentially increased when the individuals who make up the team are able to reach their own success.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Leadership is about making choices. In my last post I talked about my baseball team and our struggles. Last night we struggled again, losing 28-0 to a team of Goliaths. They truly have no business playing us, and after our first loss perhaps I should have emailed their coach (who is also the commissioner for our age group) and asked to change the game to a weaker team.

But I didn't, because that's not the right thing to do. You can't run from battles. You have to stand up and take it sometimes, because that's your job. As their leader, I hated to see them get beat so badly. But they didn't give up. If anything, they tried too hard. They learned respect for losing, they learned the bad taste of it. And hopefully they learned what a bad winner is, because there were many kids on the other team that fit that category.

Sometimes it really sucks to go into a situation knowing you have little hope of winning. As a leader, the job is harder because you cannot admit defeat before the game has even started. You must work on strategy and make decisions that give the team the best chance to win. I feel I accomplished that last night. The loss was worse than our first game against that team last week. But the effort given was greater by far. The difference was that the other team hit better (two home runs made the biggest difference, both by the same kid, one of which was a grand slam). Sometimes a win is in how you measure it. We were the better team last night in terms of heart, effort, and sportsmanship. Those are the only things I have any control over in the short term that is a game. I am proud of them. Now I must prepare them for the next game.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Little League

I'm getting tired of losing baseball games. When I volunteered to coach the team, I didn't realize the stress involved. It's a good kind of stress, for the most part. But there are times, like yesterday's game, that push me to the limit.

I don't ask much of the team. For example, a couple of games ago a player was unhappy that he didn't get the "game ball." He felt that he deserved the honor because he'd had a good hit and made some good stops. I explained to him that the things he did were the minimum I expect.

You don't get a reward for doing the minimum. Just because only a few of his teammates reached even that basic level doesn't mean he was exceptional. Our level of play has been low the last couple of games. I take that upon myself. It's my job to get the players to live up to their potential. I can make plenty of excuses; we haven't been able to practice much because of rain, and some of the kids have issues at home that distract them; for that matter, I have my own distractions with work that frustrate me; truth is, if I could coach full-time, I would, and I'd be good at it. But I can't, and my players depend on me to guide them through their own obstacles. It is the coach's responsibility to prepare the team. And I've obviously done something wrong.

And to top it off, I had a parent complain that his son didn't get to play at all in the previous game.

We are in the competitive division. There is no rule that says I have to play anyone in any game. I explained this to parents at the beginning of the season. It is very taxing to try your best to be fair while at the same time fielding a team that has the best chance to win. The player whose father complained is not good. He lacks confidence. He doesn't listen. He doesn't pay attention. I can't even say he tries very hard, though I'm certain he and his parents would disagree with that. In short, he doesn't reach the minimum expectation. Yet the parent expects me to reward him.

I cannot do that; philosophically I disagree with rewarding mediocrity when others have put more effort and deserve higher praise. Don't misunderstand; I will play him; I have played him, when probably I shouldn't have. Other coaches would not have. In the last three games we were only on the field for three innings, either due to reaching the run limit by the fourth inning or running out of time. (As I said, the games have been hard to watch; in one we lost 16 to 0.) That means that I have very little opportunity to put his son in. He isn't a starter.

This puts me in a pickle. But that's what leaders do. It's very easy to watch from the stands and judge. It's different to sit and try to be fair to all 12 kids. So I take it on the chin and then turn back around to take it some more. I've now had two parents complain about playing time.

Most likely we'll lose our next game; I know this, and the players know this. It'll be hard to inspire them to do their best (it's the team that gave us the 16-0 thumping). But, as they say, that's why I get the big bucks. It's a process. A leader must see that process, must see more than the events of a single day. That's what I focus on when parents complain. It's not about their son. It isn't about mine. It's about all 12 kids, and it's about 2 months of games. I want to win. I'm very driven by that. But I'll accept defeat as long as we can hold our heads high and say we did our best. We could not do that yesterday. Hopefully we can on Monday.