The view was stunning, compensating for the bone-chilling cold that pushed through my light outer layer of clothing. As my son and I crested the small rise that lay before the downhill slope, I took a moment to appreciate the opportunity to spend this time with him. Life can get so busy and complicated – taking precious time to ski with Devon was a real treat. This particular day was special in other ways as well, I would soon learn.
The slope dropped off precipitously and soon I was looking down a very steep terrain. If this had moguls it would be a black diamond, I thought. Shucks. Devon is a beginner and this will really challenge him. I crossed my mental fingers and began to model a slow traverse across the slope. He turned his snow-plow skis downhill and picked up speed, a look of terror crossing his face. Then he just stopped and sat down. “I’m not doing this,” he told me point blank. A half hour later I was still pleading and using every tool in my tool kit to get him moving. His fear turned to negativity and the downhill slope became a metaphor for his positive attitude slipping away into the snowy distance. Nothing seemed to work and for the first time in a long time I felt helpless. I couldn’t leave him and I couldn’t get him moving. The nuclear option was to just remove our skis and walk or slide down the entire hill – a long way to defeat.
As my humbling moment began to sink in, I opened up to the possibility that this was a powerful learning moment for both of us. In this blog I would like to share some of the insights that I had that day which apply to leading in any team environment. Here they are, in no particular order of importance:
1. Guess what: It is not about you! Leading is about the other person and the quicker you realize that your needs are subordinate to your teammate’s needs, the quicker you will find your leadership stride. Devon did not really care how good a skier I was, or how well I could teach others. Bottom line, he was not moving until he could convince himself he wasn’t going to die on that slope.
2. Set reasonable expectations. Yes we want our teammates to knock the ball out of the park every time, and we know that they have the potential. But realistically they won’t. Learning any complex skill, like skiing, CrossFit or launching a new product is a long-term process with the victories interrupted by set-backs. Of course, how the set-backs are framed and turned into valuable learning moments is a defining skill of winners. It is the leader’s jobs to help them find that skill and not get attached to their performance at each turn. I needed to personally reframe Devon’s failure to perform in this moment and find victory for him (and me) in a new way.
3. Patience is not a virtue, it is an imperative. Success is often like a SEAL mission: Twenty three hours and fifty minutes of tedious, boring work…interrupted by ten minutes of adrenaline pumping intense activity leading to victory. The twenty three hours of preparation, planning and waiting are just as important as the ten minutes of blazing glory. When I finally got Devon moving it took us ten minutes to get to the bottom, victorious. But the real learning happened before the trip down.
4. Negativity has many sources. We speak of a negative, self-defeating attitude as if it were a learned behavior that can be overridden simply by shifting to positive self-talk. This is a gross oversimplification of negativity. I learned from Devon that not only can fear trigger negativity, but so can a lack of adequate fuel. This was a big aha moment because I work so hard to keep negativity from affecting my own attitude and I optimistically try to teach this concept to others. I do believe it is a key to peak performance and momentum building. Once I stopped telling Devon what to do and started to listen to how he was feeling, I learned that not only was he scared shitless but that he hadn’t eaten any breakfast. Acknowledging the fear was the first order of business; setting the short term goal of getting fuel in his belly the second. These steps were enough to get him out of his negative rut and face the prospect of getting down to eat! Once he had food in the belly he was a happy camper, and never looked back. Don’t underestimate the power of food to maintain positive attitudes, and conversely, if your team is sliding into negative territory consider that they may just be hungry.
5. It takes a team to teach. Whether it was my method or his “Dad filter,” Devon was not “getting it” from my expert instruction. But as we sat there pondering what was next, another Dad (who was part of our trip) cruised by and casually said: “Devon, you can do this…just lean into the ball of your foot in the direction you want to go. Your knees will turn in that direction and your skis will follow. Try it – it is easy.” To my astonishment, Devon slowly got up and started moving down the slope, leaning into his turns exactly as he was just coached. Eureka…breakthrough! And it came from an unexpected, but respected, source using a different set of words than mine. As a leader you may have expert skill and be a good teacher, but you may not be the one who can teach each of your teammates the skill. Learn to accept help from unlikely sources and to rely on the team to teach the team. Devon’s victory was my victory…and I had little to do with it!
6. Presence is magic. Ultimately, all the coaching, mentoring, cajoling, telling and motivating pales in comparison to even a few moments of total presence. When I finally let go of trying to teach my son, of trying to shift his attitude from negative to positive, of trying to convince him that he could do it…and just allowed him to feel what he was feeling and to understand his world…he stopped pushing back against me and began to sense that it was ok to be scared and to take his time. When I let go, he let go, and we both just sat in presence for some precious moments together. The opening this created allowed us both to accept new learning.
Leadership is a tricky skill that relies on trust and authenticity to work well. If we can lead well on the home front we can lead well anywhere. Often when parenting we strive to control our child’s learning while they push back, unwilling to abdicate control. This locks parent and child into a rigid pattern that diminishes energy and trust. Same goes for leading your team. Practicing presence allows you to let go of needing to control the outcome and just be in it together. Being present, patient, with reasonable expectations and making it about the team (and scheduling snack time) will open up the possibility for new learning to occur in surprising ways! Thanks Devon.