As an executive coach, part of my job is to help clients learn from and avoid getting their own version of some of the scars on my back. One of those scars came at an early age. As a young, 20-something leader I did my best to ensure that my team had its share of talent, a firm grasp of our mission and priorities, and as much preparation as we could arrange. We performed at a consistently good, but not great level.
In retrospect, I was unknowingly limiting our progress by playing too tight, playing not to lose, specifically, not to lose my job. As a result, I wasn’t having much fun at work, and the people around me weren’t either. And then a day came when my boss took me out to lunch, and when we finished, we were really finished, with only one of us still having his job.
After some reflection and getting a new job (a better one), I realized that getting fired wasn’t the worst thing in the world, and resolved to double up on my self-awareness, and loosen the necktie just a bit going forward. As a result, some things changed in my approach to being a leader, and our results got better, a lot better.
I really hadn’t thought much about that episode in my life until recently when I read an article written by Michael David Smith about Seattle Seahawks coach, Pete Carroll. In the interview, Coach Carroll said, “It really took me getting fired a couple times, getting kicked in the butt, to get to where I am now.” In case you missed Super Bowl 2014, where Coach Carroll is right now is a pretty good spot.
It would have been hard for anyone watching Super Bowl 2014 not to notice that, though the players on both sides of the field were immensely talented and well coached, Carroll’s players, from the very start, were playing the game a little looser, and visibly having more fun.
Indeed, the Bronco’s jitters showed early when the Seahawks scored on the very first play from scrimmage after Denver’s center prematurely snapped the ball over Peyton Manning’s head. Before they knew it, the Broncos were down heavy, and the game was out of hand.
Okay, so how does this translate for the average, non-NFL manager who is simply trying to get the wash out every day? Here are three things to keep in mind:
1. You’ve got to manage you before you can hope to lead others. And that starts with you being an optimist, keeping some fun in the game, and making sure that your players aren’t slowed down by fear (yours or their own). A Chinese proverb suggests that, “A man without a smile must not open a shop.” That applies just as much to the role of a leader as it does a shopkeeper. People will not follow a sour, grumpy pessimist for long. After being told by a client many years ago that I needed to smile a little more, I’ve made it a habit, particularly on days that I know are likely to be stressful, to wear a rubber band on my wrist as a private reminder to smile. It works. (I guess it’s not private any more, though.)
2. Be “the iron.” It has been said that it’s not the mountains we have to climb, but the grains of sand in our shoes that keep us from doing our best. That axiom is certainly true in the workplace. Our jobs as leaders involve spending time removing the impediments from the path of our team, making sure they have the tools, the processes, the wherewithal to do their very best work each day, every day. My co-author and business partner, Richard Hadden likens that to the effect that a hot iron has on a wrinkled shirt, as he advises leaders to, “be the iron.”
3. Let people know that you care about them, not just as players or cogs in the wheel, but as real, pulsating human beings. You don’t have to become buddies, in fact, it’s better that you don’t, but you can still demonstrate in lots of ways, some large, but mostly small, that you care about them. Start by taking an interest in them, what’s important to them, what their goals, aspirations, and fears are. In order to do this, it is vital to listen, really listen. One tip that works for me is, when talking with someone, to make careful note of their eye color, and then, in real time, “read” the words coming off their lips. If I’m doing that, it’s much harder to engage in what I call the opposite of listening, which is waiting to talk, while formatting what I’m going to say next.