Don’t Play a Leader… BE a Leader


I got out to play some shinny hockey this morning (I’m a goalie) and the two hour session could best be described as a tale of two halves. I played on Monday and had a great session, was seeing the puck well, and seemed to be able to stop almost everything. Today when I got started I wasn’t seeing the puck at all and everything seemed to be going in. Being an analytical type I decided to think about what was different between Monday and today and see if I could change how things were going.

Then it hit me… today I was trying to hard to “play” goal while on Monday I was just being a goalie. It’s a subtle difference, but when I realized it my play immediately improved and I was even better today than I was on Monday (frustrating the heck out of the other team in the process).

So what’s the difference? When we “play” a position in hockey or “play” the role of a leader in business we are constantly thinking our way through the game. Trying to “think” ourselves one step ahead of the play and constantly “analyzing” every decision we make against the principles of the role. Should I drop or stay up, poke-check? Should I recognize my team member, share a personal story, or roll up my sleeves? By the time we actually take action the opportunity has often passed (and most likely the puck is in the net behind you).

Instead if we simply are a goalie or a leader we allow our instinct, training, and experience guide us and the results are remarkably better. Our decisions get quicker based on what we’ve seen in the past, the effort to make a save or to make a good (or any) decision in business becomes significantly less, and we don’t miss the opportunities. Cue the shut-out.

Now don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting we can just simply stop thinking and leadership will come to us, we still need to reflect and learn from decisions we’ve made, practice and learn new ideas and concepts, and gain experience through our decisions (both good and bad ones), but when we’re in the moment and the game is on the line we need to trust our instincts and simply BE a leader.

In my mind there are a few things you need to do to be successful with this approach (both in goal on the ice and in business as a leader):

  • Constantly learn and grow – you need to fill your arsenal with tools and knowledge that will help you to make good decisions when the moment of truth comes. Watch the skaters when they aren’t shooting, what is their skill level, drive, effort etc. Watch your defensemen and learn what you can about where their shortcomings might be and where you may need to jump in a little more aggressively to help. You can do the same in business by watching and reflecting on your leaders, your team, and your competition – learn and absorb to give you a good basis of knowledge to let your instinct take over from.
  • Practice new things when the stakes are low. There is a time to practice new ideas, approaches, and styles, and that’s not at the moment of a key decision. Take the time to warm up, practice where the odds or negative outcomes of failure are low, and give yourself the opportunity to push the boundaries of your comfort zone. That experience will give you further basis for your instinct to pull out the right tool or approach at the right time, when the game is on the line.
  • Relax. The more you go into the game or business with stress or anxiety about your performance the more likely you’ll revert to the “thinking” or “play” approach and the less you’ll trust your instincts and go with the play. Relax and trust your learning and your experience to guide you to the right decision and you’ll have a much easier time getting there.

Even when you are successful with the BE vs. play approach it doesn’t mean you won’t still make mistakes and get scored on. Some of those goals or decisions will be significant ones – you’ll lose a key series or game, you’ll lose a key employee, or you’ll lose a bunch of money on business deal. But that just provides more experience for you to draw on next time you’re called on to make the big play.

Stop “playing” the leadership role and start BEing a leader. Your team will thank you for it.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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