Gold Medal Leadership

bigstock--Gold MedalLike so many throughout the world, I have been watching the Winter Olympics and having discussions with my family about the kind of dedication it takes to spend your life working toward a goal that is dependent on a single performance. If you come up short, you have to wait four years for another shot at the prize. Upset stomach, headache, annoyance over some situation, nerves out of control … doesn’t matter … one shot … one chance to bring your very best (well okay, maybe you get three runs in some sports, but still only one day to make your mark.) If your leadership was judged based on your performance on a single day, would you approach the effort differently?

If the leadership gold medal was on the line, would you …

  • Bring your full focus to the task at hand, ignoring the ping of emails, thoughts of looming deadlines, conversations going on around you, or other random distractions?
  • Take extra care in monitoring the external conditions and making adjustments as necessary?
  • Replay the ultimate goal in your head so specifically that you know exactly what success looks and feels like?
  • Step forward boldly, confident in your abilities and your preparation for this moment?

Of course, the only way to make sure that you could do all of those things under pressure — at the moment of truth — is to practice them . . . day in and day out . . . until they become second nature. Sure, there will be days when you fall flat on your face, when you misjudge the environment around you, and when you get distracted from your goal. So you practice some more, improve your skills, and stretch for the next goal. Even gold medalists who continue to compete practice on a daily basis. They don’t get to sit on their laurels just because they had great success on a particular day — the gold medal performance from the last Olympics may not be enough to come out on top today because the bar is continually being raised.

Leadership is not a static skill that you either have or don’t have. It is a continual, competitive journey, and you never know which day is the day that you will be called to go for the gold on behalf of your organization. Of course practice, commitment, and hard work are no guarantee that you will achieve every goal, but without them, it is a pretty safe bet that you and your organization will come up short when you have the opportunity to go for the gold.

Putting Logic in a Box

Wooden box on the dark stone tableSometimes, you have to put logic in a box.

Those I work with have heard me say this on many an occasion. Whether it is an externally imposed bureaucratic rule that makes no sense from a practical standpoint or a crazy-sounding idea about how an organization can dramatically increase its impact, there are times when relying on a logical assessment only leads to frustration and/or limits forward progress.

If it is an illogical externally imposed rule, trying to use logic to explain it to others is akin to one of those wind-up toys that continue to run into the wall again and again and again. Is that really the best use of your energy? As long as the rule is simply illogical and frustrating, (i.e. not irreparably harmful) then the best course of action may be to simply to acknowledge to your staff, “You’re right. It makes no sense from where we are sitting. And it is a step we have to take to accomplish our ultimate goal.” And then move on. Sure, you can try to change the external regulation if you are compelled to do so. You simply need to ask if that is the best use of your time or that of one of your staff members. Sometimes the answer will be yes. But if the answer is no, then quit banging into the wall. Put logic in a box, pivot right or left and move on.

Then there are those crazy-sounding ideas. Love those. The problem with logic in these situations is that imposing it too early and too rigidly in the process is like throwing a bucket of cold water on kindling that is just starting to take off. You can logically plan your way to incremental improvements. Breakthrough ideas are the result of aspirational (one might even say illogical) goals and the messy process of trial and error, the what-ifs and what-abouts, the rabbit trails and side roads. Please don’t hear me say that logic does not have a role to play in such efforts. It is critical that any aspirational strategy ultimately pass the logic test . . . but crazy ideas will never have the chance to if you don’t put logic in a box at the outset.

Managing that creative tension — the paradox between experimentation and performance, improvisation, and structure, between possibility and logic — is the job of the leader. Because most leaders are wired, and rewarded, for results, sometimes the best way to make sure we don’t settle for less than we could achieve is to, at least for a bit, put logic in a box.

The Fourth Quarter

Basketball JumpI spent last evening cheering on my former high school, and my nephew’s current, basketball team in a post-season tournament. They led throughout the first half of the game, but unfortunately the momentum changed a bit in the third quarter, and they just couldn’t quite pull it out at the end of the game. As is often the case, it all came down to the fourth quarter. They played hard, they never gave up, and when the buzzer sounded they ended up just short of their goal.

Those are the hard loses for a coach, or a leader . . . when early in the contest it looks like the win is within your grasp . . . and then something happens. Maybe someone else caught a lucky break or used a strategy you weren’t expecting. Maybe your team struggled or was just a bit off their game. Maybe the officials/oversight bodies suddenly started calling things differently . . .

Regardless of the unexpected variables that may come your way, it all comes down to the fourth quarter . . . when you’re tired and probably a bit out of breath . . . when you are trying to make adjustments and communicate with your team while running at full tilt . . . when you feel the pressure bearing down on you, and the roar of advice/encouragement/criticism “they” are shouting at you. It can be exhausting and exhilarating, and how you handle the pressure can determine the results of the game.

So how do you prepare for the fourth quarter?

It starts with the fundamentals. Can your team move the ball down the court? Have they practiced enough to anticipate what needs to happen and where they need to be at any given moment? Does the team support each other when one of them is being double-teamed?

You have to know the game plan. It is the job of the leader/coach to set the strategy based on a whole host of variables. What “starting line-up” is the best match for the task at hand? What should the pacing look like? How will you re-group if things aren’t going as planned?

It takes endurance to finish strong. How many times have you witnessed an effort that just simply ran out of steam? Things started strong and appeared to be going well, but over time became sluggish? Unexpected distractions took extra energy or a turn of events just took the wind out of your sails? Does your team have the reserves to dig deep to bring it home?

Of course, you can do all these things and sometimes the fourth quarter still doesn’t go your way, but in the words of famed basketball coach John Wooden, “A man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success.” Start with the fundamentals, know the game plan, finish strong. . . then learn from the risks, and enjoy the rewards, of the fourth quarter.

Frame It

Colorful Paper Clip With Pile Of Paper Reports Arranged On Table

Think of the forests that would be standing today if not for weighty strategic plans — you know, those tomes that come from months of time consuming effort, the result of which is so thickly detailed that some poor soul is likely to strain a muscle lifting its numerous pages onto a shelf . . . where it will sit collecting dust until a few years down the road when the process starts all over again. Save the tree.

I absolutely believe that good strategy is critical for organizational success. I also happen to believe that most strategic plans are outdated before they ever hit said shelf (and they stay on the shelf for that very reason) because they are built around a specific set of variables that can change at the drop of a hat. So if strategy is critical, but strategic plans don’t work, what is a leader to do? Frame it.

A strategic framework identifies a few (like two or three) main areas of focus and a small number of indicators of success. That’s it. It identifies what you are working toward, and how you will know when you get there, but does not define (plan) the how. That happens along the way. Yes, I realize a number of readers who really like black and white details just started twitching. Hang with me . . .

A strategic framework applies the concept of emergent strategy, where ongoing observation, reflection and feedback enable leaders to adapt their actions as needed in response to changing variables to most effectively reach the intended goal. Re-read that sentence. You’ve got to admit, it really does make a lot of sense. Things are going to change on the way to your vision, so why would you want to put huge amounts of time into developing a plan that acts like they won’t?

In addition, the brevity of a strategic framework allows for much greater clarity of focus. How much easier is it for your staff to remember two key areas of focus than it is to remember a 47 point plan? How much more powerful is a targeted one page document than a ream of objectives, tactics and additional sub-points. Which do you think is going to excite your staff, and make them want to get on board with where you’re going?

Don’t be fooled. A boiled down, targeted framework takes effort to develop. Clarity of focus, simply stated, takes discipline, it is hard to achieve . . . It is also powerful, and motivating, and provides the direction staff need to continually adapt to a volatile environment and still reach the end goal.

The strategy is simple. Ditch the plan, save a tree, identify your destination . . . And frame it.