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?
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 🙂
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Help the Helper by Pritchard & Eliot
Topic: Extreme Teamwork
Audience: Appropriate for teens and adults
Help the Helper is a must read for people who want to develop a culture of extreme teamwork. This book highlights the success that can happen when we truly become selfless and decide to do whatever it takes to help the team succeed. The book is full of examples of people who lead with a help the helper mentality.
One part of the book that I enjoyed was the introduction of the idea that we all need people who will lead like Sherpas.
Page 216: “When a climber shows you photographs of scaling Everest, there are always snapshots of their group hoisting arms and ice picks in celebration at the top of the mountain,” relates Domingo. “There’s never a Sherpa in those pictures.”
What he’s referencing is the contrast in mission between climber and guide. Hikers’ goals are to summit, to stake their flag in the mountain. Sherpas’ goals are to see to the hikers’ safety and survival. And while foul weather can derail climbers, Sherpas stop at no length to accomplish their goal.
Teams that I have been a part of that were highly successful all had a help the helper culture. When people come together and truly put the team first great things happen.
Teammates Matter by Alan Williams
Topic: Teamwork and Playing your Role
Audience: Appropriate for teens and adults
Teammates Matter is a must read for anyone who is a part of a team. Author Alan Williams, a member of the Wake Forrest Men’s Basketball, shares stories from his perspective on the team. Despite his work ethic Alan finds himself sitting the bench for the bulk of his four years. In fact during his four year career he played a total of 59 minutes. That is correct, 59 minutes over a four year span.
What he does very well in Teammates Matter is bring into perspective the reality that we each have a role to play and every role matters. While he wasn’t a well known player he did play his role better than anyone else could have and he found ways to make his teammates better. He also brought to the light the value of what his teammates did for him. He gives several wonderful of examples of teammates who weren’t going to let others look down on him or on the role he played.
People who aren’t athletes can also benefit from the concept of knowing your role which is so prevalent in Teammates Matter. It is valuable resource for all-star players, bench warmers, coaches, fans and parents. Do you want to play your role the best you can? Give yourself a few hours to read Teammates Matter and I think you will be energized to play your role.
About 15 years ago I had the opportunity to spend most of the summer in The Philippines. It was my first time out of the country and a wonderful life changing and fulfilling experience. I was with a group of 10 people and each day we traveled to a new place to serve in a new way. One day we would be in the heart of Manilla working with homeless boys, the next day outside the city working with small school children and the next day on a small island helping to build a fish pond for college students who were in need of a source of protein.
There was one part of the trip I was not looking forward to, a hike, through the jungle to a remote mountain village. We planned to spend a few days in this village and I knew I would be pushed far outside of my comfort zone. As I now reflect on this portion of that journey I am able to see how critical it is that we travel with people who will advance us on our journeys in life. Looking back I am able to identify four types of people that I witnessed on that hike in the Philippines as well as what I witness in my own personal journey.
On many of our journeys we are exposed to Tourists who are usually excitable people but they don’t last long on the journey. Their approach is to get started with enthusiasm, they are energized by the newness and excitement of what lies ahead but not long into journey, after taking a lot of pictures, they find a reason to abandon the journey and head in another direction. If I am being honest, that was me on the hike in the jungle; “well this is different, how many people can say they have been to the jungle, let me get some photos… well, good, I am ready to go home!” Tourists can help you get going but don’t be surprised when they bail on you. Appreciate the excitement they bring, even if it is brief, and then you must keep going.
As you continue your journey you may notice at some point that people start to stand out as Campers. Campers are willing to work hard but they hit a point where they decide “this is good enough” and they are ready to settle at that point. Our group had that moment in our hike though the jungle that day. We were halfway up the mountain, covered in mud, exhausted, with limited water and food and no shelter but as a group we were ready to stop, we were thinking “this is good enough, this will do, I mean look how far we have come”! There is no doubt on your own personal journey in life you will encounter people who become Campers. Value you them for coming this far on the journey, recognize that you may need to stop and rest with them, but if your mission and purpose is still out in front of you then you need to press on and you may have to leave some Campers behind.
As you move forward you will want to make sure that at this stage in your journey, as you work through the really difficult things, that you have a core group of Climbers. Climbers are the people who have their eyes on the final destination yet at the same time they understand the value in the journey. The Climbers are going to do whatever it takes to keep moving safely. It took a lot of encouragement for my group to become Climbers on that day!
But the people that I think we most often over-look on our journey are the Sherpas, the people who’s sole (soul) purpose is to help you reach your goal. Sherpas do not receive credit for their part of the journey but the journey doesn’t happen without them. Whether you are climbing Mount Everest, on a hike though the jungle in the The Philippines or on a new career path we all need good Sherpas. Your Sherpas will look out for your safety, they will help you carry the load and they will help you find the way when the way isn’t clear, but they do it all with the purpose of serving you. In my opinion Sherpas embody characteristics of leadership that are far too rare. On my hike in the jungle my Sherpa emerged when we were about halfway up the mountain and ready to stop, he was a 4 year old boy, who came running down the mountain to carry my backpack. I’ll share more at another time about his influence on me that day.
The reality is that as we seek to move forward in our lives and to live out our influence we are going to find ourselves on difficult journeys where the path is sometime treacherous and unclear. Who you travel with really does matters because they will influence your journey. Do not be discouraged when people who you thought were in it for the long haul turn out to be Tourist or Campers. Instead, be grateful for their role in your journey. Shift your focus to your fellow Climbers and celebrate that you do have people on your journey who are with you every step of the way. And lastly, how will show gratitude to your Sherpas, those people on your journey who look out for you, who help carry the load and who help you find your way. Sherpas are very rare.
Who are your traveling with? Who are your Sherpas? And who can you be a Sherpa to?
Last night I had the pleasure of attending my first Women’s Wheelchair Basketball game at the University of Illinois. I have become friends with the head coach, Stephanie Wheeler, and I was thrilled that it worked out in my schedule for myself and some of my players to attend the game.
While this sport is very different from the sport I coach, NCAA DII college soccer, there was so much we were able to learn from watching one game! The thing that stood out right away was the communication on the court. Because of the way their wheelchairs move and spin there are many times in the game when they are not able to see the ball. Constant verbal communication was paramount to success. One of the phrases we heard players saying throughout the game was “I have your back”. This one phrase made me smile. There is nothing I believe more in regards to leadership than the idea that great leaders always have your back!
I also thought about how difficult it is for a team, organization or company to be successful when everyone is looking in the same direction. While we need to be moving in the same direction we don’t always need to be looking in the same direction. Successful teams often have different people looking in different directions to prevent or manage trouble or to be able to see other opportunities that might be coming from another direction. Perspective, and communicating that perspective does make a difference. Can you really have someone’s back when you are all lined-up side by side facing the same direction? Who in your circle of influence do you count on to have your back, who’s back do you have and how do you communicate that with those people?
Great leaders will always have your back.
The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon
Audience: Appropriate for Adults & Teens, he also has authored The Energy Bus for Kids
The Energy Bus is simple to read but full of deeply profound life lessons. The story centers around George, a father, husband and employee who is finding life’s challenges to be overwhelming and these challenges are taking a negative toll on his life. He is miserable and those around him are miserable too. One Monday morning George finds himself with a flat tire and he forced to take a city bus to work, which he is not at all happy about doing. Little did he know he was in for the ride of his life. While on the bus each day he learned from the driver, Joy, a series of ten life changing principles called The Ten Rules for the Ride of Your Life. Once he applies these rules to his life everything changes for him.
This book is easy to read, has great character developed and strong underlining moral themes. Whether you are a CEO of a large corporation or a young teenager this story will apply to you. I highly success taking the time to read The Energy Bus, but be warned, you might just find yourself enjoying the Ride of Your Life!