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Leadership Lessons From My Son

These past few weeks have been a true whirlwind of learning experiences full of eXposure and personal . My crazy travel schedule has offered me numerous opportunities to meet new people, be a student, be a teacher, and be a fan. On the business front I spent time in St. Louis, NY, and Canada (Aurora, ON) with senior leaders, peers, and direct reports. I engaged in rich dialogue about corporate vision, departmental strategy, and individual role clarity. I also facilitated a workshop on Leading Change to a group of mid-managers after learning about an enterprise change adoption strategy. Of course, in all of that I found many profound leadership messages that I could "tweet" :) and several that I could share with context with my team.

On the personal front however, I found my most proud and learning experience of the month. Traveling with my son's AAU 13 and Under basketball team, I was fortunate to spend my weekends in Atlantic City (NJ), Coatesville (PA), and several areas surrounding Canton (OH). While I was often exhausted due to the continual packing and unpacking of bags, the long drives, and the delays between games, I was an observer of my son's growth.

Not his growth as a basketball player, but instead his growth as a leader. No, he's not the star of team. No, he's not the captain. In fact, he's often one of the last players off the bench. And while he makes me proud when he gets in the game, I’m even more proud when I see him cheering in support of his teammates while he's on the bench. Why? Because he knows his role and recognizes what’s needed for his team’s success. Unfortunately for me as fan, sometimes that means for him to be on the bench. But that’s not the leadership lesson.

After their final loss in the tournament in Coatesville, the coach pulled the team into a huddle and tore into them for their sideline attitudes, hanging heads, and lack of support for one another during the games. The kids were blaming each other for mistakes, pestering the coach for more playing time, and talking behind one another’s backs. Remember these are 7th graders (for the most part). So with all the poor behavior the coach told them there would be tough practices in the coming week and that they needed to get their acts together.

That night, my son sat frustrated, tired, and flustered by the thought of being penalized for behavior that wasn’t his own. He wasn’t one with an attitude, he didn’t blame his teammates for mistakes, and he wasn’t hanging his head when they weren’t doing well. So why did he have to endure the tough practices ahead? He decided a players only, team meeting was needed. Here comes the lesson… He knew that he didn’t have the credibility and/or respect of his teammates to command a players only meeting. In addition to not being a star player, he’s one of the youngest, and he’s a bit of an outsider to the group. But he is good friends with the star player/captain. So he declares that he will influence his friend to call the meeting and let him know how unfair it is for everyone to pay the price for the misbehavior of a few.

Without going too much further into the story, the team had the meeting and the boys are doing better. But there are two great leadership lessons to extract from him:
1. Know who the players are – who are the decision makers, the influencers, the people with power and resources. Who can help get done what you ultimately need to get done? Knowing the players is critical the success or failure of your mission.
2. Address the problem head on – While his coach meant well, encouraging the players to take ownership for the poor behavior, he didn’t address the people with the problem specifically. He then risks the morale and engagement of the entire team by penalizing them all for the behavior of a few. Take the opportunity to be specific in resolving the issues.

At the end of the day these aren’t new lessons. Leadership is found in many places, stages, and ages. If we simply stop, look, and listen the messages are reinforced for us time and time again. Now all we need to do is take heed.