Leadership_ _I'll gladly go in the middle._

Leadership: “I’ll gladly go in the middle.”

I could tell as soon as they walked in the room that this was going to be a fun group to work with. My task for the afternoon was to take a corporate leadership team of about 40 people through some team building activities. As I stood before the group I explained that our session would include some fun games as well as some activities that would help them get to know each other better. Heads were nodding and people were smiling. I could sense that the culture in this company was healthy and that people were engaged in the development process.

As we began our first game they came alive. This group was having a blast and laughing so hard. After just a couple of minutes, I felt like I was a part of the group and hanging out with old friends.

The game required the group to be in a large circle with one person standing in the middle of the circle. The objective was to get out of the middle by walking up to someone on the outside of the circle and saying one of several silly phrases. The person on the outside had to reply with the correct silly reply. If they said the wrong thing they had to switch with the person in the middle. If they said the right thing they got to stay on the outside and the inside person had to try again. About halfway through the game, a woman was in the middle and she was having a hard time getting someone out. She was a quieter person and after failing to get four people out she said, “this is why I hate games. I’m not good at them.” The group fell silent, you could tell they genuinely felt for her. And then she walked up to a man on the outside and said her silly phrase and he said nothing in reply, which meant he was going in the middle and switching places with her. The room was still silent as he quietly said to her, “I’ll gladly go in the middle.”

At that moment, my point of contact looked at me and said, “and that’s our CEO” and I suddenly understood the significance of the exchange.

Effective leaders understand the value of letting people fight their own battles, the growth often happens in the struggle and great leaders allow this to happen. But great leaders also stay close to their people so they can help when help is needed. They will gladly take the place of someone else when the request for help comes in. That is exactly what this leader did. He was on the outside, but close enough to help, and willing to step in.

Be the leader that lets people fight their own battles, stay close enough to help, and step in when people turn to you.

Take care of your people and they will take care of you.

Good leaders

Can good leaders make bad decisions?

In the last week I’ve had several people reach out with an underlying common question; can good leaders make bad decisions? The conversations have been broached by leaders who have made what they believe to be a bad decision and in turn, are questioning their own ability to lead, as well as by others who are struggling with the decisions of their leaders. I believe that good leaders can and do make bad decisions, but I think there are additional layers to unpack in determining how to feel about those decisions.

Leadership is often about helping a group move from here to there; from where they currently are to where they want to be. This may require calculated risks as you step into the unknown. As a result, there may be decisions you have made that in hindsight are considered to be bad decisions. I would argue that there are two kinds of bad decisions:
1. A bad decision that you learn and grow from with no harm done. There might be a set back in terms of a timeline but ultimately the people you lead are safe and intact as a team.
2. A bad decision that does damage, often that damage is to people.

I believe that bad decisions which do damage can be the deal breaker in a leader’s career. These decisions may cause harm to a consumer, financial loss to franchisees, negatively alter the reputation of your employees, stunt or limit the growth and potential of your staff, or force your people to compromise their values. My experience has been that this is a quick way to sever trust and when trust is broken leaders shift from having engaged followers to people who function as anchors unwilling to move. Bad decisions that do damage often come from leaders who fail to recognize that the collective input of those around them is their most valuable asset. Willfully ignoring your people is simply not an option as a leader. A team, business, or organization can rebound from many things but a loss of trust is not one of those things.

The best leaders I know consistently do the following when making a decision:

  1. They hire great people and trust them when they point out a blind spot.
  2. They listen carefully to the opinions of their people and they ask the necessary questions to dissect and understand how a decision will impact others.
  3. They share the direction they are leaning to allow those around them to share dissenting opinions or to potentially to lean in as well.
  4. They communicate their decisions to reinforce the belief that their people matter in the decision-making process.

Leaders often have to forego what they want in order to move a group forward. Check your ego, it’s not about you. Do what it is best for the team, continue to see the big picture, purposefully consider the impact on others so you can help to move the group from where you are to where you want to be without losing your most valuable asset; your people.

As you move into unknown territory you may still make bad decisions but if your people are valued and protected in the process then a poor decision won’t be seen in a negative light but rather as an opportunity for all to learn and grow.

When you protect and value your people in the decision-making process they will do the same for you when decisions don’t go as planned.

Put your people first. 

 

Goldfish

Goldfish and leadership

Recently I was doing some research about the process of transferring goldfish from a bag to an aquarium. I should state that I do not own any goldfish nor do I have plans to purchase a fish tank! However, what I read got me thinking about how this also applies to leadership.

Several of the teams I work with are in deep conversations about who their team leaders will be next season. With one of these teams, we are struggling because the players with the most leadership potential are young, inexperienced, and just “not yet ready.”

In my conversations with the coaching staff, we have discussed the fact that we NEED these players to be the leaders but we also need to respect the process of developing them so they can lead effectively. While we would love to just throw them out there and see what happens, we are very aware of the damage that could do to the new leaders and to the team!

As I read about goldfish and the process of moving them from a small bag to a large aquarium tank I noticed some good leadership lessons, particularly in regards to leaders who are embracing leadership for the first time.

  1. Don’t keep your goldfish in a bag forever: If you don’t move a goldfish from a bag to an aquarium there won’t be enough oxygen for them to survive. As a result, they suffocate or poison themselves with their own waste. How terrible does that sound?! We can apply this in leadership as well; leaders need room to grow. While it can be tiring and at times difficult to develop others as leaders we know they will never grow if we leave them where they are. We have to help leaders to move into larger spaces and this means we must be intentional about inviting them into a larger tank. With new leaders, this often needs to be a gradual process. 
  2. Don’t overfeed your fish: Giving your goldfish too much food will simply create too much waste. The excess waste will produce toxic waters. While the intention might be good, the results can be deadly. In leadership, we may be tempted to give new leaders way too much information. When we do this, we literally muddy the waters for them. Give a new leader enough information to make good decisions but respect the fact that information overload is a real thing. 
  3. Don’t make your fish swim in a dirty tank: While goldfish may seem low maintenance it is important that their caretakers are willing to clean the tank. Failure to do so will make survival stressful for the fish. As leaders who are trying to develop more leaders, we must be aware of the culture we are asking people to lead in. There may be times when we need to intervene and clean up the culture to make sure new leaders are able to lead effectively. Let your leaders lead, but stay close enough to support them and help to address a cultural mess as needed.  

As you think about working with new leaders please remember that they, just like goldfish, will need time to acclimate. Good leaders are always learning but the growth curve for new leaders is high as they process their role from a new perspective. When you are intentional about how you welcome and develop new leaders on your team you are able to limit some of the shock to their system.

And just like goldfish, subtle changes can have a huge impact on the lives of new leaders. Be aware of what your people need and respect the time they need to develop.

Goldfish need care, so do your leaders.

 

A special day. (1)

Make today special

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to volunteer with the Missouri Special Olympics. My job was to help at the award station. There were about 20 of us assigned to this station. We were all from different backgrounds and different walks of life. We represented several generations and to my knowledge, only two of us had volunteered at this event in the past. We were a team of optimistic rookies.

Before the events began we were given our instructions and then we waited, and waited, and waited. I began to wonder why they had assigned so many of us to the award station and I questioned if my time could be better spent at another station.

And then it happened. Mulitple events finished at the same time and the athletes, their buddies, event escorts, and family members descended upon the award station. They arrived excited and in anticipation of receiving their awards. Little did they know that this ragtag group of volunteers didn’t have a well-oiled system in place.

Before we knew it we were experiencing a slow-moving and unorganized awards ceremony. It took us a few minutes to realize, “this isn’t working” and then we adjusted our plan on the fly and created a much better experience for everyone involved.

But here is why the experience was so special. At no point in the day did anyone express frustration. Athletes and their buddies had to stand in a long line – no problem. Family members had to wait a while to see their loved ones receive an award – no problem. Volunteers were asked to fill different roles to keep things moving – no problem. On some deep human level, everyone just decided that today was going to be special. We unconsciously agreed that we were going to bring our best as well as bring out the best in others.

And here is what I learned; it was a choice to make that day special. We all made the choice to smile, laugh and offer an endless amount of compliments, words of encouragement, and high-fives to strangers.

Every single day you have the opportunity to offer good to the world. The choice really is yours.

Choose to make today special.

roots

How deep are your roots?

When I was a kid there was a tree in our front year. I used to race home from elementary school to climb that tree. I wanted to see just how high I could climb. I loved to push my luck as I inched dangerously higher and higher than the day before. As a kid, it was all about how high I could climb but as an adult I often find myself thinking more about a tree’s roots and less about how high the branches extend.

Roots matter. They provide a tree with the nutrients it needs to survive. Deep roots also provide a tree with the stability it needs to withstand a storm. Strong winds may come but a tree with deep roots will survive that storm.

But the redwood trees are an exception to this truth. These trees often grow to well over 300 feet tall and many can be found standing strong at 20 plus feet in diameter. People travel the globe just to see the redwoods with their own eyes. These trees tower over all other trees and their height alone should make them susceptible to damage. A redwood should be an easy target in a heavy rainstorm, a tornado, or when lightning is present, but these trees are very resilient. By looking at a redwood one could easily assume that their roots go to the center of the earth to supply all the nutrients and stability that such a massive living structure would need to survive. But that isn’t the case. The redwoods have a unique root system that typically goes just 6-12 feet deep. How is it possible that these trees rarely fall over?

The redwoods stay standing because their shallow roots intertwine with the roots of the other redwood trees so they are literally holding each other up. The trees grow in close proximity to each other so they can share nutrients and physically support each other. Beneath the surface, it’s as if the redwoods are standing with their arms locked together. They are saying, “we are in this together, we are one, if you want to knock one of us down, you’ll have to knock us all down.” Their roots provide strength and their strength lies in their connection with each other.

The moral of the story? Plant yourself next to good people and find ways to purposefully connect with them.  When you do you will find that you can survive the most difficult trials by relying on and providing for those around you.

Being connected to others matters. When people and teams stay connected they share their resources and provide strength for each other and when that happens everyone has the potential to grow to new heights.

What are your roots connected to?

Scars

Calluses, scars & dirt …

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a convention for soccer coaches. While I was excited about speaking I was also really looking forward to some one-on-one conversations that I had scheduled. I was purposefully using my downtime to connect with some really good people.

For the last year, I have been working remotely with Sarah Dwyer Schick, the Founder of The Sports Bra Project, but this event was the first time she and I would actually be in the same place. We agreed to meet in the hotel lobby to talk, brainstorm, and dream about how we can continue to work together to empower girls and women both locally and globally. When I arrived in the hotel lobby I knew we would have to find another place to talk because it appeared that everyone at the convention who wanted to meet with someone else had also selected the hotel lobby! But as I surveyed the crowd I noticed a theme; all the men were in suits and all the women were in heels. It was like a giant board meeting was being held in the lobby. These were clearly the people who make decisions on legislation, policy, and funding for various programs and organizations.

Sarah and I decided to make our way upstairs where registration had been held a few days earlier. There were still a handful of tables and chairs that hadn’t been packed up yet and so we found a quiet place to talk. As a looked around I saw a few other small groups and I just smiled. Some of these people I knew by name and others I knew simply because of the work they are doing. These are all people who are doing great things in the world. They are using their voices and platforms for good. Some are using the sport of soccer to make a difference in their local communities and others are impacting people halfway around the globe. The individuals in this room see people’s needs not from a distance but up close and personal. They work among the people they love. They are literally doing the work.

I strongly believe we need good people who can advocate for legislation and policy while speaking ethically about the distribution of funds. But the people I connect with the most are the ones with calluses on their feet, scars on their knees, and dirt under their fingernails. When you walk closely with the people you love you will get a little dirty.

And I’m okay with dirt under my nails …

 

10 Things Preteens Can Do to Grow as Leaders

10 Things Preteens can do to Grow as Leaders

A few months ago I had a speaking engagement. I was talking about leadership and after the event, a mom and her son pulled me aside to ask a question. I would guess the young man was in 5th grade. His mom shared that he was a reserved person but that he really wanted to be a leader on his team. He just wasn’t sure where to start. This post is a direct response to that question.

For every young person who wants to become a leader, don’t wait for someone to assign you a title or appoint you as a leader. Leadership is a skill and the only way to get better at leading is to practice your leadership skills. Below you will find some tangible ways that you can begin to grow as a young leader.

Please feel free to share this with young people who would benefit from this list! I will post the list on twitter as well.

10 Things Preteens can do to Grow as Leaders

1) Ask, “How can I help?”: One of the best ways you can develop your leadership skills is to ask, “how can I help?” This shows you are willing to serve others. When you see someone doing physical tasks ask, “how can I help?” Great leaders are always looking for ways to help others. When your coach is setting up the field before practice ask, “how can I help?” When your coach is carrying equipment to the car after practice ask, “how can I help?” If a parent is bringing water to the field ask, “how can I help?”

2) Connect with Your Coach: To be a leader on your team, you may need to serve as a bridge between your coach and your teammates. Be intentional about connecting with your coach. Take a few minutes each week to get to know your coach as a person. Ask them some simple questions. For example; where did you go to college? Did you always want to be a coach? What do you love about coaching?

3) Connect with Your Teammates: In order to lead your teammates, they will need to feel a connection with you. There will always be some teammates you connect with more than others, but each teammate will need to know that they have a connection with you. During the course of a week purposefully divide your time between your teammates. Ask different people to warm up with you or to do drills with you, sit by a different teammate on the bench, and walk off the field with different players so you can connect with them.

4) Express Gratitude: One of the ways leaders can grow is by expressing gratitude. Be intentional about saying thank you to the adults who are a part of your team. This includes your coaches, the referees, and parents. By saying “thank you” are practicing gratitude which is an important leadership skill.

5) Do the Dirty Work: It is important that as a leader you are willing to do the tasks that others do not want to do. Look for moments when you can do “the dirty work” like picking up the trash around your field, carrying equipment, or collecting balls that might have gone out of bounds.

6) Take Care of Your People: Leaders are always thinking about others. When you know a teammate is struggling with something reach out to let them know you care. A simple text, a card signed by the team, or inviting them out for lunch when you know they are having a hard time will let them know that you care for them.

7) Find a mentor: All leaders need a support system. As a young leader think about an adult or an older teenager that you respect. It doesn’t have to be a coach. It can be someone who leads people in other ways. Ask this person if they will serve as your mentor. Request to meet with them face to face so you can ask them questions about any challenges you are dealing with. Use this time to learn from someone else who has been in your shoes.

8) Ask, “What do you need from me as a leader?”: Be willing to ask your coach, “what do you need from me as a leader?” This will demonstrate to your coach that you are willing to grow and do whatever the team needs. By asking this question you will better understand how you can best be a leader on your team.

9) Support Another Leader: Great leaders understand the value in supporting other leaders. When you see a teammate stepping up as a leader be sure to support that person. If a teammate speaks up, look them in the eye and give them verbal feedback. Say things like, “you are right” or, “that’s a good idea” or, “thanks for speaking up.” This lets them know that you support them in their desire to develop as a leader.

10) Be the First: As a leader, there will be times that you will need to “be the first.” When your teammates are complaining about the officials you may need to be the first to say something positive. When the team isn’t giving their best in practice you may need to be the first to give your 100% best effort. When the game takes a physical turn and players are getting out of control you may need to be the first to tell your teammates that this isn’t how we should act. Great leaders are willing to be the first in difficult situations.

She young (1)

“She’s a young coach …”

Last spring I had the pleasure of working with an up-and-coming young female coach. Not only did she play soccer at a very high level, but she has that “x” factor as a coach. She is wise beyond her years, she has invested in her own development as a coach, she has the ability to teach the game, she inspires her players, she holds them to a high standard, and she leads her players to places they haven’t been before. I’ve worked with a lot of great coaches, but this one will go as far as she wants to go in coaching.

At one point we were discussing some of the challenges she was facing. She shared with me that some of the dads of her players didn’t like how she managed the team tryouts and they had been vocal about their displeasure. She also shared that some of the parents had complained about who she selected for Varsity and others continued to question her ability to be a coach. I asked her how they justified those comments and she replied, “because I am young, I can’t help the fact that I am 26, but they question everything I do and they say it’s because I am young.”

As she continued to explain some of the parental issues on her team I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, I knew I had to tell her something that wasn’t going to be easy for her to hear. I said the following, “their criticism and disrespect for you isn’t because you are young, it’s because you are a woman, but they don’t have the courage to say that.” Her jaw dropped.

I continued to share that when a “young coach” is a male his youthfulness is seen as a positive attribute. We often hear parents saying that he connects with his players, he understands this generation, and that he brings a lot of energy. The same logic is not applied to young female coaches.

“She’s a young coach” and that should be a good thing. If you want her to ever be a seasoned, experienced, veteran coach, then she needs to spend some quality years as a young coach. But let’s be honest, her youthfulness is not the issue here, it’s just easier to blame it on that than to deal with the underlying, and at times overt, sexism in athletic culture.

It’s time for a change. We can do better.

Kids deserve the opportunity to learn from great coaches and some of the greatest coaches I know are young women.

 

Tiny Hands

Tiny Hands

I recently did some leadership development and teambuilding with a high school hockey team. On my closing day, they gave me a gift bag. One of the items included was a pair of tiny rubber hands – I know, I was confused too! The girls could sense my confusion and they started yelling that I needed to put the tiny hands on my fingers and pull my shirt sleeves down to make it look like these were my actual hands. I complied and we all had a good laugh, but I was still a little confused.

The coaches explained to me that during the previous season the term “tiny wins” was their catchphrase. They were building the program and they focused on the little things, the little wins, and fittingly the tiny hands became symbolic of tiny wins.

I strongly believe that healthy cultures focus on the tiny wins. Leaders who do this understand the behaviors needed to create those tiny wins are the same behaviors that create the big wins.

Many years ago I took over a college soccer program that had hit rock bottom. In the previous season, the team had gone 1-18-1 while giving up 84 goals. I knew my first year was going to be about teaching them how to win while not actually winning very many games. It was going to be a long process but I was confident that we could teach them the skills needed to be successful. My plan was to place a high value on academics knowing that winners need good time management skills. We drew a hard line on alcohol consumption knowing that winners have self-discipline. We had clear expectations about what to eat because winners make good decisions. We didn’t just set these as rules for our program, we also talked about how we were developing the skills which would lead to wins. Additionally, we filled our training sessions with competitions and we celebrated each of the victories. We created opportunities for tiny wins in our program.

We also spent an insane amount of hours doing service learning projects in our community. This was a positive experience because of the deeper sense of connection that we made with each other, not to mention the value we added to our community. As a result of our service in the community, we were given an award at our athletic department banquet. The award was a surprise to the team but I’ll never forget the moment. One of our juniors who really struggled with the on-field losses said to me with a massive grin on her face, “it just feels so good to win SOMETHING!”

And our tiny wins added up. The next season we went 8-5-5 and it was the first winning season for those seniors. It wasn’t that we magically became great soccer players, we simply learned how to do the little things. We were intentional about creating moments for tiny wins.

If you want to change the culture you are in think about the tiny wins you can work toward. Invest in those areas and celebrate your success. The tiny wins will develop the skills need to create the big wins.

Also, you should buy some tiny rubber hands to serve as a reminder of what you are working towards 🙂

-Don't swing at ...-

“Don’t swing at …”

It was a beautiful spring day and I was in the dugout with an NCAA college softball team. I had worked with this team all year and I was excited to be on the bench to see them in action. On that day we were playing a doubleheader against the #10 team in the country.

The first inning was rough but otherwise, I thought we played well. We lost 2-0 but I saw some positives. We had good leadership on the field and in the dugout, we responded well to moments of adversity, and all the players were embracing their assigned roles for the day.

After the first game, the team jogged to the outfield to regroup. As I walked with the coaches one of them said, “Hey, will you talk to them? They’re tired of hearing from us.” The answer was an easy yes for me.

I stood in front of the team, each of them on one knee with the coaches standing behind them. I remember saying something like, “Hey team, I’m not even going to try and talk to you about softball because you guys know I was a soccer coach, but I’ll give you some insights on what I observed.” I went on to say how I thought we were in the game and though we made some errors I loved the way we responded in those moments. I mentioned that the opponent was a really a good team but we managed to get runners on base and we had our chances and then, then I went off script… I said, and I can’t make this up, I said this to an NCAA college softball team… brace yourself …“it’s not like we were swinging at airballs.” Yep. Wrong sport. Wrong terminology altogether. And in that moment the players fell over the laughing, the coaches couldn’t look at me, and I couldn’t compose myself either. What a moment!

I share that story because I so frequently hear from young leaders that they are afraid to say the wrong thing and as a result, they don’t say anything at all. Here’s the truth; there will be times when you will say the wrong thing – trust ME on that one! But here is why that particular moment worked out:

  1. They knew my intentions: Because I had been working with them for many months they understood that everything I did was to help them develop, so a mistake on my part was easily forgivable.
  2. They trusted me: In our previous encounters, I had pressed them on some difficult team issues. I asked hard questions but what I did with their answers built trust between a tight-knit team and me an outsider. I had authentically earned their trust. In a moment when I clearly said the wrong thing, that relationship didn’t fall apart because the trust was real.
  3. They saw me as human: In that moment they saw me laughing at the absurdity of the situation and they saw me as “one of them.” Too often people view leadership as being “above” their people but I strongly believe the most effective leaders see themselves as being “with” their people. In this situation, the team saw me as someone just like them, full of flaws and very human.

But the story doesn’t end here. You see we had another game to play and early in the game, our pitcher caught one of their batters swinging for the fences. This player swung hard and missed and then it happened … our entire dugout started chanting, “airball – airball” and that’s when I knew we were good. When teams can laugh together that’s a sign that trust has been built.

And to this day I remind their coaches on a regular basis of my deep and profound softball knowledge: “Don’t swing at airballs.” Words of wisdom right there …

If you want to lead stay true to your intentions, earn the trust of others, be human AND laugh together when you make a mistake. Leading is worth the risk of making a mistake.