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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.

 

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.

Release the Brake

Release the Brake

I have a friend who wants to make a difference the world. He is smart, talented, thoughtful, and empathic. Each time we talk I am energized by his depth and his desire to use his influence in the world. His skill set, coupled with his love for humanity, provide him the avenue to be a true world changer.

But every time we talk we find ourselves going down a familiar path, one where he shares that he feels stuck, that he is tired, and he isn’t sure what to do next to put his ideas into action. This is a conversation we’ve been having for several years. The reality is, he doesn’t need to accomplish all of his dreams. The fruition of just one of his visions would make the world a much better place. However, I must say, if there is anyone who could accomplish many world changing plans it is him. I believe in him.

Sadly, I doubt he will make many of his dreams happen for one simple reason … he is living his life with the emergency brake on. We can’t drive very fast or very far with the emergency brake engaged. We also do a lot of damage to our vehicles when we try and drive a car in this state. Our bodies are no different than a car. We can’t move forward quickly, and the wear and tear on our soul is exhausting when we try to dream big with the emergency brake on.

So do yourself a favor today and just release the emergency brake. You don’t have to press the gas the pedal, you don’t even have to start your engine. Just release the brake, put your life in neutral, and coast for a while. You’ll be moving forward, your body will be free to recalculate, and your soul will thank you.

Release the brake, trust me, we all need you to be free to move forward and dream big.

Life is best lived in motion.

More Gentle Blog

“I had to tell her to be more gentle.”

I recently had the opportunity to work with some young elite level soccer players. My work with them focused primarily on how they communicated with each other and how effective communication skills build a stronger team. I believe there is power in what we say and how we choose to say it. I was fortunate to not only work with this team in a classroom setting but also to observe them in a game.

The day of their game happened to mark one year since my last day as a college soccer coach. After giving 20-years to the game I had made the decision to resign from coaching to focus my work on developing people. Since my resignation, I had not been to a single soccer game. It felt strange to unpack my coaching chair and sit on the sidelines again. The question I am most frequently asked is, “do you miss coaching?” I often say I miss the day to day connections with my players but no, I don’t miss coaching because I feel like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.

During the first half, I enjoyed seeing how the player’s insights in the classroom were being applied on the field. It was also fun to see what soccer skills each player brought to the game. There was one player I really enjoyed watching. She wore #2 and she was physically smaller than many of the other players, but she was really good on the ball. My guess is at some point in her young career she got tired of being knocked around and a good coach probably told her that if she could dance on the ball, she’d get knocked around less. Clearly, she listened.

When the whistle blew for halftime something very bizarre took place. The truth is, it was so strange that I had to follow up with an email to the coach to ask if this really did happen. Sadly, it did take place.

The players came off the field, they grabbed their water bottles, and they began to chat with each other about how they could each do better in the second half. Then the Referee came over the sidelines. He knelt down in front of the two female coaches, leaned in, and calmly said, “Coach, I need to let you know that #2 fouled the same player two times and so I had to tell her to be more gentle. I just wanted to let you know.”

As I said before, there is power in what we say and how we choose to say it. Here are some of the questions I wrestled with after contemplating his words:

1. When was the last time a boy was asked to be “more gentle” in an elite level soccer game? Seriously, when does that happen? Do Officials pull boys aside and ask them to be “more gentle?” My first coaching job was a U18 boys team and no Offical ever asked one of our players to be “more gentle.” When one of them committed a foul, a foul was called and that was it. Our culture celebrates when boys go in hard on a tackle, play fearlessly in the air, or push themselves physically. We don’t ask boys to be “more gentle” and we shouldn’t ask this of girls either.

2. What does it really mean to ask a girl to be “more gentle?” Here are some synonyms for the word gentle; benign, mellow, quiet, soft, tame, domesticated, trained, bland, docile, soft-hearted, and sweet-tempered. As a former Head Coach at several NCAA schools, I can tell you those are not the words we used to describe our future student-athletes. To ask a girl to be more gentle in a contact sport is to ask her to be less than her full potential.

3. Why did the Official need to let the coach and player know that she needed to be “more gentle”? The truth is he didn’t need to share this because our society already makes this statement to girls and women. We hear this message on the radio, it’s plastered on our social media, and it is an undercurrent of pop culture. The world screams to girls and women that we need to embrace a role which is soft and tame. You don’t need to tell us, we hear it loud and clear.

As I sat on the sidelines that day I found myself reflecting on how I used my words to express my expectations for my players and I wrestled with the profound power of those words. If you’ve ever played for me, coached with me, coached against me, or found yourself within 200 yards of a field I was coaching on, I can guarantee you’ve heard me yell, “GOOD BATTLE!” This is a phrase I frequently used in training and in games. I wanted to let my players know that I celebrated their courage to battle on the field.

So do I miss coaching? Maybe some parts, but I have too much work to do in helping people to understand the significance of their own influence. This work includes teaching adults about the power of their own words and teaching young people that no one has the right to use their words to try and limit who someone can be.

I am certain this Official didn’t intend to use his words in a harmful way, but as many great scholars have shared, “words create worlds.” So what kind of world do you want to create?

There is power in telling a girl to be more gentle and there is power in consciously choosing your words to encourage a girl to be brave and strong. We need to be aware of the words we use and how we use them. And when words are used in a deconstructive way we need to speak truth to power.

So girls … step into your space, hold your head high, be proud of your bruises and scars, follow your chosen path, speak your truth, use your voice, be yourself (your full self) and make sure you hear all of us who are yelling “good battle!”

You’ve got this …

Yes and no

Great Leaders: Say yes & no

I arrived early that morning and ordered some sweet tea, I know, not really the breakfast of champions but I love their sweet tea. I grabbed a table in the back of the restaurant and got my laptop out knowing I had hours of work ahead of me.

For the next few hours I got a lot done, but as the clouds rolled in so did the parents with kids who wanted to play in the indoor play area. I happened to be seated directly across from the play area entrance.

A mom arrived with her young daughter, I would guess the child was about two-years-old. She was at the age where she believed she was independent but her vocabulary consisted primarily of “yes” and “no.” At one point her mom stuck her head into the play area and asked, “Kailee, do you want to get an ice cream cone?” Kailee came running towards the door and loudly shouted, “yes.”

When they came back to their table, which was next to mine, I noticed that Kailee had an adult size ice cream cone which required her to use both hands to hold on to it. Within seconds Kailee made her way to the play area door and tried to figure out how to open the door while holding her ice cream cone with both hands. Her mom asked her if she wanted to eat her ice cream cone and Kailee replied, “yes!” Her mom explained that if she wanted to eat her ice cream she couldn’t go in the play area. This caused a look of pure shock and horror from the young child! Her mom then changed the question and asked if she wanted to go in the play area and Kailee also replied, “yes!” And her mom explained that if she wanted to go into the play area she would have to hand over her ice cream cone. The idea that she could only do one of those things was turning this young girl’s world upside down!

I think a lot of leaders make the same mistake that this two-year-old made. As leaders, when we say yes to leadership we naturally say no to other things. When you say yes to being your team Captain you also say no to yelling at the referees. When you say yes to being a Division Leader at work you say no to ignoring the unethical decisions of a team member. When you say yes to serving as the Director of an organization you say no to public behaviors that would taint the reputation of that organization.

Great leaders understand that when we say yes to leadership we must say no to other things, but too many leaders want to yes to everything. They frequently behave like a two-year-old who wants to eat her ice cream cone and go into the play area. When leaders behave this way it’s their people who suffer because they are the ones who have to clean up the leader’s mess.

An immature leader takes her ice cream cone down the play area slide leaving a sticky mess behind her.
A great leader understands that leadership requires choices.

When you say yes to leadership make sure you have a clear understanding of what you are saying yes to and what you are saying no to. When you say yes to everything you create a mess and no matter how wonderful you may be, no one wants to clean up your mess.

Great leaders say yes & no.