A Simple Leadership Truth

If you want people to give great performance and if you want people to push themselves, then do not punish failure, false starts, or a mistake or two along the way. Showing kindness, fostering forgiveness, and offering some latitude to stretch can result in an organizational ecosystem that encourages high performance.


A bad example…

I was an assistant coach for a championship high school football team. An important game with our cross-town rivals began brilliantly. We scored on our first two drives. It looked like the game would be an easy win. Then, momentum shifted. At the most inopportune time, our team made a series of mistakes. A mishandled snap near our own 20 yard line, a sequence of missed blocking assignments, and then a blocked punt, left our team in a bad position and defending on our own 5 yard line. Two plays later our rivals had easily scored. What was once clear momentum for us abruptly turned into momentum for the other team.

When the other team scored our head coach got angry. In what he probably thought would be a motivational speech, he got into the face of one of our star players and said some hurtful words using a great deal of passion and fire in his voice. As he yelled, threatened, and made our best players feel like fools, I saw something go out of their eyes. One player in particular, a very important player to our team, simply turned off – I saw his eyes go glossy and he started to shut down.

I knew then that we would lose the game if we didn’t get our players back into a mental place where they wanted to push themselves and felt free to just be great players.

I pulled the coach aside and started to tell him he needed to relax, but then he began to yell at me in the same way he yelled at the players. I quickly cut him off and told him he could yell at me as long and as hard as he wanted, but if he wanted to win this game he’d better stop treating the players the way he was. I said,

 “They’ve quit on you – I can see it. They won’t be able to muster the will to win unless you recapture their hearts.”

He was angry with me and stormed off. But, I noticed he worked hard to fix the mistake and together we were able to get the players back into a mental state where they were willing to work hard, take risks, and use their great athletic talents. We ultimately won the game.


Competitive environments are stressful.

Working hard in a competitive environment means that there will be mistakes, problems, errors, temporary setbacks, and missed opportunities. The outcome of high energy is not always high success. But a mistake or two along the way is not the end of the world, and if handled well by the leader, mistakes can actually open the door for greater innovation.

Leaders must make it safe for people to experience and learn from both successful and unsuccessful events in high pressure situations. Handle the pressure well and high performance results. Handle it poorly, and at best you will only get moderate performance. Usually, moderate performance isn’t enough to consistently win at anything.


How to make it safe – 4 steps.

  1. Train – train – train. U. S. Marine Corps General A.A. Vandegrift said, “battles are won during the training period.” He is right. When you face a situation in a live competition you cannot train or change people in that moment. You must expose people to the possibilities before hand, and then let them work with their talents and instincts during the “battle.”
  1. Let them perform. Many leaders get too involved in the minor struggles of their subordinates and overreact to failure and underreact to success. Make sure to see the whole picture and let your team have a chance to perform. Evaluate and adjust after a fair chance has been given. I coach my son in golf. I let him hit 10-20 balls on the range before I consider making adjustments. Some leaders want to jump in right away to fix mistakes. But, I want to see the real pattern emerge before I make adjustments. I want to see the most important issues surface and if I react too quickly, I might not get the most important problem identified. When a leader reacts too quickly, they end up addressing anomalies, frustrate their people, and show a lack of faith, which causes their people to shut down.
  1. Praise in public, correct in private. This is a very old, but too often ignored adage. We see leaders of countries, leaders of companies, and leaders of highly visible athletic teams all publically criticizing their people. Public criticism never won anybody’s heart. It might shame them into doing something, but it will also send a signal that you and they are not really on the same team. A good leader absorbs the pain of failure and deals with performance issues in a private manner. Attempts at negative public motivation do not work.
  1. Be loyal. Seek to foster relationships that endure beyond executing the business plan or game plan. Loyalty between team and leader helps make it safe for people to extend into a realm of risk taking. When your players take healthy risks, when they feel they can innovate, when they know there is trust and loyalty, then high performance has a great chance to incubate.