Like millions of Americans, I get drawn to March Madness to experience the hope of a David defeating a Goliath and to see individual displays of courage and leadership. Watching these talented student athletes compete reminds me that the greatest leadership lessons I learned came on the field of play.
Years ago, I was a football player at the University at Buffalo. While there I met coach Tucker Reddington. Each August while in the throes of our three-a-day practices, Tucker would walk up and down the rows of the players during stretching. He would take this time to “educate” us by saying “the game of life and the game of football are very much alike.
To succeed, you must master three things. First, be prepared for sudden change. Second, know where your help is. Finally, make your own sunshine.” Day in and day out, for years, we heard “Tucker’s Creed.” While I dismissed it at the time, little did I know it would become my guiding principle at work and in life.
Be prepared for sudden change
In sports as in business, change is a constant. As athletes, we spent each game week preparing for our opponents’ tendencies and trends. We created packages around certain personnel. While this preparation is key, things happen. Our opponents may change defenses, players may get hurt, and coaches may get fired. When this happens, one must be able to adapt.
If we cannot, we lose.
As I transitioned to the business world, I realized how invaluable this precept was. In the business world we face disruption on a regular basis. Budgets get cut, competition changes their approach, leaders come and leaders go. To be successful, we must deal with change and focus on the objective. While we may not like the “hand we are dealt,” we still must figure out the best way to play it. Flexibility as leaders becomes critical
to lead our people through change.
Know where your help is
One of the first lessons we learned as we prepared our game plan was where we had backup or a failsafe. Each person on the team has a role but also has accountability for secondary support. For example, cornerbacks knew if the safety was able to provide coverage support. In baseball and softball, outfielders are taught to throw to their cut-off person and who that person is based on ball location. Knowing where your help
is becomes key to winning plays.
Knowing where your help is in the workplace sounds simple but is often one precept that is often neglected. When I first became a leader, my ego took control and I took the attitude that “if it is to be, its up to me.” After all, isn’t that why I was chosen to be the leader?
As time went on and my scope increased, this mindset no longer worked. I couldn’t do it all and success was about getting it done, not getting it done alone. When faced with sudden change, do you know where your help is? Do you have a strong relationship with your business partners? Are your goals aligned? Are your platforms flexible enough to adapt to a change in strategy? Are there levers to pull that can optimize production in the face of budget cuts? Building a collaborative culture with key stakeholders becomes the key to knowing where your help is.
Make your own sunshine
The last pearl of wisdom Tucker gave us was this. His point was simple: your attitude will determine your altitude.
No one likes running sprints in the August heat and doing burpees until you want to pass out. The ability to
make a competition or game out of it made an undesirable situation fun.
As leaders, when we are dealt with a “bad hand to play,” we need to keep our teams motivated. Our attitude will permeate their performance. Create an environment where we recognize and celebrate success — little wins. First sale of the day, customer recognition, most improved. The ability to keep our people focused and away from distractions they cannot control is the key.
In a discussion on leadership, John Maxwell was quoted as saying, “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” I wonder if John and Tucker knew each other.
Karl Fischer is a Delaware-based consultant with experience at MBNA, Bank of America, Aetna, and MetLife. He focuses on business transformation by focusing on People, Partnerships, Process, Platform and Production.