[Volume VI, Issue 6 ]
“Never confuse activity with achievement.” – John Wooden
There are so many challenges that the business leader, the manager, and the coach must face. Organizing, aligning, and leading a group of individuals to achieve successful outcomes is about as tough as it gets in the modern business world. Every one of us is different, with different strengths and weaknesses. And since teams are made up of people, every team is going to be different as well. Yes… this adds to the challenge of leadership because the strategies and tactics that led to a successful outcome with your last team may not be the correct ones for your next team.
As most of you are already aware, I lived out a major leadership challenge this past summer when I served as the Team Leader for the US Olympic Sailing Team. This was an intense experience that required me to spend weeks living and working with the team, helping them each day leading up to and during the Olympic Games.
Our team had mixed results at the 2008 Games – we won a gold medal and a silver medal, but could have won more than that. Some would say we should have won more medals than that. Regardless, I was intensely proud of our team and the way they performed as athletes and as people.
The experience of the Games taught me many things. And as with all great and intense opportunities, I learned from my own successes and failures. As I think back and reread the notes I kept each day during the Olympics, there are some insights I want to share. In the last issue of The Beacon, I shared some thoughts from the Games on how to build a great team. In this issue, I draw further on my Games experience and share some thoughts on how you, as the leader of a group or team, can help the people on your team perform at their best.
Some people think that being the leader of the group is about being in the spotlight.
Some people think that being the leader of the group makes you the most important member of the group.
Some people think that being the leader of the group means everything revolves around you.
And, finally, some people think that being the leader of the group is about being the most successful member of the group.
I disagree with all of these sentiments.
Leading a group or an organization or a team is indeed an honor. But once you get over the initial enjoyment of elevated status (hopefully quickly), the real work of leadership begins. It is hard, and more than anything it is about eliciting great performances from the people around you.
When my colleagues and I at The Latimer Group coach leadership skills and leadership communication, we constantly point to the simple belief that great leadership is about facilitating an environment in which the people around you can succeed. When they succeed, you succeed.
More specifically, here are five leadership ideas I brought home with me from the Olympic Games. All of them center on the goal of facilitating and supporting great performances from the people on your team.
- Remove barriers to success. If you lead, it is your job to eliminate distractions and remove roadblocks to success. Each day at the Olympic Games I spent the vast majority of my time thinking about how I could do exactly this. If we uncovered something that would be an impediment in any way, it was my job to try and make it disappear. In the business world, that might mean making a key phone call to solicit some additional support for someone on your team. Or it might mean quietly negotiating some consensus around a strategy with a skeptic who will get in the way. The key point here is that it is the leader’s job to eliminate problems.
- Live in the competitive moment. In the heat of the battle, don’t spend time talking about the long-term implications of success or failure. No one needs long-term pressure in the competitive moment. There will be plenty of time after the project deadline to do a full postmortem on what went right and what went wrong. But when you are in the moment, the essential leadership skill is to stay in the moment. Think about and work on the things that will help you and your team achieve success. It can be shockingly distracting to someone who is focused on a short-term goal to be subjected to long-term thinking. You can spend time thinking about long-term implications and what you will do differently in the future after the competitive moment has passed. Long-term thinking and planning matter, but as the leader it is your job to choose the correct moment to communicate these issues to your team. Choose carefully.
- Model a calm and cool demeanor. Your team will operate more efficiently and have more successful outcomes if they stay cool under pressure. Model that behavior yourself. I know very few athletes or competitive people who are at their best when they are feeling intense pressure and stress. Most people perform best when they are feeling confident and calm. Therefore, it is your job as the leader to facilitate a calm and cool culture within your team. Whether this makes you comfortable or not, the members on your team will follow your lead. They watch how you act, and many of them will do as you do. Display an outward confidence, no matter how you are feeling inside, and you will help your team perform better.
- Play the hand you have been dealt. We very rarely have the “perfect” team around us. I am not even sure there is a “perfect” team. It is likely that most of the time you will end up with a less-than-perfect team around you. Assuming this is the case, you will need strategies to succeed even when the players on the field are not all first rate. There is no benefit in wasting your energy thinking about how you wish you had something or someone else with you. That won’t help you in that critical competitive moment. Try to create maximum return and value on what you have, and then after the competitive rush is over, if a change needs to be made, make it.
- Practice servant leadership. The net result of everything I have written here is that the best leaders often think of themselves as being “of service” to their team, to their shareholders, or to their board of directors. The best leaders realize that their success will be tied to the success of the people around them, and therefore it is critical to facilitate great performance. And to do that, I firmly believe that you need to be “of service” to those around you. When they see you acting this way, they will adopt that behavior and will be “of service” to others as well. You will have created a culture of service and teamwork that will increase the chances for a successful outcome.
Great leadership is not about memorizing a script of steps that you will employ each and every time. Rather, great leadership requires an understanding of yourself, the people on your team, and the situation you face. In other words, consistently good leadership requires a flexible approach that can be adapted to different people, different teams and different situations.
Whether you are leading an Olympic Team or leading a project group in the workplace, your success depends on the success of those around you. Think about what they need and what you can do to facilitate success, and you will be well on your way to being a great leader.
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