There I was riding the stationary bike at the gym and being subjected to watching Sports Center as they were going down a list of what makes a great professional quarterback in the National Football League. Truthfully, I was half-listening and then I went back to the free weights with their list still ringing in my head. And as always when I am allowed some quiet moments to think, I began to extrapolate these concepts and ideas into universal truths that we can all abide by, as leaders.
1. Never pick the celebrity quarterback, go with the guy who can grind it out, day to day, without being the center of attention.
Quarterbacks get most of the attention simply because they are the most obvious player on the field. Nothing happens without them. Plays start with them and they direct the plays on the field. They have been referred to as “field generals,” even. It makes sense that this spotlight of attention might go to their head and that they may begin to believe their own press. Endorsements, interviews and even music videos. Some create a persona to which they are forced to live up, and when the inevitability of age, injury and younger competition comes along those twilight moments of their career are played out under a constant drone of talking heads wondering why they can’t run or throw as well as they did 15 years ago.
As a leader, when you choose to step out from the pack and lead, you will garner attention, both positive and negative. We love our egos and it feels good to listen to the positive over and against the negative. We want to believe the good press and tell ourselves that the bad press is coming from people who are just jealous and not as good as we are. That will always be true with some individuals in your world, but when you attempt to live up to the celebrity-status that others confer upon you, you will inevitably chase pleasing them, rather than the task of leadership, at hand. You will be left wondering what went wrong as you took your eyes off of the goal and put them on your image and yourself.
Be the kind of leader who takes criticism and praise with the exact same measure of introspective reservations. You are never as bad as they say…nor as good. Pride and shame are flip sides of the same coin, but as a leader you are simply obligated to remain sober in your view of yourself. Remember, a celebrity is someone who has given up the ability to define their own life, often who they should be and how they should act is governed by others who are all-too-ready to weigh in on why you don’t meet their expectations.
2. Have fun, but don’t be a clown.
I watched Comedy Central growing up and memorized the format for stand-up comedy. It has served me well in my profession. But one of the most memorable jokes I ever heard that created a very important distinction in how others perceive humor was:
“The difference between the class comedian and the class clown is this: the class clown streaks across the football field naked. The class comedian is the one who told him to do it.”
There are multiple levels of humor, bawdy slapstick to intelligent satire, and several in between. I realized that my need to be the center of attention (celebrity quarterback) was back-firing while Corie and I worked at Diamondbacks in Waco, TX. All the servers had nicknames, and as you were initiated they gave you a nickname. JR conferred on me one that I won’t forget, “One in Ten.” He explained that try as I might, only one in ten of my jokes ever landed. I laughed it off, but internalized some rejection in that moment. I realized that in seeking others’ approval (which I interpreted by how much they laughed at/with me) I was making a fool of myself quite often.
As a leader, you have the largest influence on the thermostat of the organization. Do people like coming to work? Is it a place of creative freedom, even during times of stress and anxiety? Do your coworkers know that you can find humor in most situations, but also trust your calm analysis as a leader? We can and need to have both in order make the journey happen in such a manner that people like to be along for the ride, but you cannot sacrifice one over or for the other.
3. Throw with your legs.
Now this may seem like a stretch…but follow me. As a former rock-climbing instructor the most important concept we taught was to climb with your legs, don’t rely solely on your arm or hand strength. Females have a much easier time grasping this concept, truthfully because they don’t spend most of their time in the gym trying to get massive biceps, like males usually do. Males default to pulling themselves up the rock and letting their legs simply follow. In doing so, though, they are ignoring the strongest and most enduring muscles in their body.
As leaders, we all have different areas of strength and weakness. What has so often been taught is that you can be totally strong, if you just improve your weaknesses enough. I find it odd that we sell that idea, and yet we are okay with adults choosing very specified fields of study for their vocation. We don’t expect the nuclear engineer to be able to dissect and rebuild the human psyche, nor the neurosurgeon to wax eloquently on the finer distinctions of Kant and Heidegger. Simply put, lean on your strengths. In the long run, it will end up being a longer run. Your strengths enable you to be more effective and efficient.
Also, start from the ground up. Know the essence of every job in your organization and ensure that everyone at every level in your organization has internalized the essential role which they play in the mission of your organization. Ensure they have caught your vision, added their special piece and own it. If I ignore my toes, because I don’t consciously know how much I need them for balance and dexterity, then I won’t understand why it is important that I protect them from falling objects and furniture corners. Build from the ground up. Have a solid base. Throw from your legs.
And so another leadership lesson comes to a close. And to think, it all started with two talking heads on Sports Center. Go forth and be that hard-working quarterback in the trenches of your office, your home and your community. Not a celebrity or a clown, but a fun-loving encourager who leads with strength.