Sunday, April 25, 2010

Leader Without a Label

Every team - every office, every committee, every workplace, every home, every family - needs a leader like Josh.

He was a blonde, blue-eyed, and anything but smooth-skating 9-year old defenceman who toiled with the now legendary Riverview Senators back in the early part of the 1990’s. You can find him seated in the front row of the team pic, second from right.

Josh was what you would call a "nice kid". Polite to a fault. While his hockey skills could be classified as "minimal", he more than compensated through hard-work and a cheery attitude. In fact, Josh was so short-changed in the talent department; no one who witnessed it, will ever forget the time he took a turn in net and earned the dubious distinction of being the only kid any of us ever saw, helplessly surrender an agonizingly slow-roller from about 170 feet away.

But, when you’re competing at the novice level in minor hockey, there are more important issues than winning games. And the coach of that Riverview Senator squad saw it as his role to instill certain values and principles that extended far beyond how to break out of your own zone, do crossovers or properly execute a tape-to-tape forward pass. Over the course of about a dozen years behind minor hockey benches, this coach had developed a "3-RULES" philosophy he hoped would serve Josh and all the kids well:

RULE #1. No matter the score, Senators don’t give up. Ever.

RULE #2. No Senator ever criticizes a team-mate. Ever.

RULE #3. Everyone will play – regardless of score and situation. Everyone.

The third guideline took some getting used to for some parents but once explained, the vast majority understood. The way the coach looked at it, if the Senators were down by a goal with a minute to play and someone like Josh was up next, then he was the one getting the next shift. Parents and players all knew going in that no kid would lose any ice time just so a so-called “star players” could take an extra shift or two in hopes of scoring a tying goal.

It could be argued, that would only be rewarding non-performance. Because, if a so-called “star player” really was that good, he or she should have already done their job by now. Furthermore, how does anyone know this isn’t the shift when a less talented player - like Josh - doesn’t bang one in with less than a minute to go? Perhaps that one moment could forever alter not only the scoreboard but, maybe his self-worth and belief in the kind of player he could be.

The way the coach saw it, giving 8 and 9-year olds equal opportunity to learn and acquire skills and confidence would take priority over merely winning and losing hockey games.

And so it came to pass in March of ’92, the Senators are battling arch rival Dieppe Voyageurs in a late-season game that held great importance at the time. Late in the third period - Sens are down by a goal - the action is fast and furious, up and down the ice. Great scoring chances and great saves at both ends. Senators’ goaltender Wally Fowler is like a latter-day Tony Esposito keeping us in there. Fans from both teams are loud and boisterous beyond belief. A cacophony of noise rattling to the point where you can barely hear yourself think.

Just over a minute remaining, the play is deep in our own end and one of the Senators newer players, Adam, has the puck behind the net. Adam has been coached many times on what to do in this situation but, in the heat of battle... he panics.

Adam sends a pass directly up the middle of the Senators own zone.

You can probably guess with stunning accuracy what happens next.

The puck is intercepted by the dreaded Voyageurs who promptly bury it behind a stunned Fowler guarding the Riverview cage.

“DAMN!”. (Followed by expletives under one's breath).

Dieppe up by two with less than a minute to go.

Air escapes from the Senators balloon – both on and off the ice.

“Well, guess its game over in River City”.

Even an optimist like the Senators head coach knows there’s not enough time on the clock to come back from a two-goal deficit. And everyone else in the building knows it as well. The Voyageurs are high-fiving and celebrating and in that instant the coach knows how important it is to maintain composure and play hard to the end. (See RULE #1). Walking towards the defencemen side of our bench, the coach notices Adam as he is heading off the ice, skating wearily toward the door.

The non-verbals say it all.

Head bowed.

Shoulders hunched.

And you can see it in Adam’s face that he is visibly upset, knowing his miscue had just cost his team any chance of coming back. Instantly you can tell Adam looks like a kid who just wants to curl up and hide somewhere under a rock.

Watching this human drama unfold, the coach’s thoughts are racing.

“Gotta be careful and say exactly the right thing so as not to upset Adam’s already delicate psyche. I mean one ill-advised word and this emotionally-fragile kid is going to be turning on the tear tap. Who knows how many years of psychotherapy he might require to recover from the damage inflicted by his minor hockey coach? But, as his coach, Adam needs to realize what has happened and forever learns the lesson afforded by this teachable moment”.

“Just need to come up with the right words”.

As the coach is strolling over while collecting his thoughts, Adam comes through the door at the Sens bench only to be greeted by Josh who is now standing, getting ready to take his place on the shift change.

And 9-year old Josh utters words still frozen in time.

“Don’t worry about it Adam. It’s OK. We all make mistakes. The coach just wants us to do better the next time”.

And just like that, Josh nonchalantly skates away to take his place on the blueline for the upcoming face off.

Adam nods and takes his seat. Looks at least slightly relieved. Like part of the weight has been lifted.

The coach is left speechless.

Slowly and silently, he turns away from Adam, walking back to the other side of the bench.

Nothing more need be said.

Within the next thirty seconds or so, the coach allows a smile while mentally patting himself on the back.

“Hey some of this coaching must have rubbed off. I must be a crackerjack coach for Josh to be able to pull off something like that. Josh just applied RULE # 2. Never criticize a team-mate".

And for about a decade, that’s the story this coach told himself.

That he was the next Scotty Bowman, Pat Riley and Vince Lombardi, all rolled up into one.

Until one day, after a long overdue “comeuppance” followed by a massive “a-ha" revelation, the coach stared into a metaphorical mirror, mirror on the wall and plainly saw he was far from the fairest of them all. For whatever reason, it finally began to dawn on the coach what had really taken place that day back in March of 92.

He hadn’t taught Josh a thing.

The 9-year old had been doing the teaching all along.

With a single phrase.

“Don’t worry about it Adam. It’s OK. We all make mistakes”

Reflecting on what had really happened in that Riverview rink, the coach finally recognized many lessons from the way a 9-year old reacted in a pressure situation.

You see, Josh was just that kind of kid.

Always respectful, well-mannered; brought up by Doug and Marie, to look you in the eye when he shook your hand. Josh would later excel at his chosen sport, basketball, playing at the national collegiate level while earning academic honours and many accolades along the way. Eventually he would graduate from Lambton College and Mount Allison University with a doctorate in English before becoming a university professor. As it turns out, Josh had been preparing to be a teacher his whole life.

What can be learned from his exchange on the bench with Adam?

For openers, Josh didn’t point fingers.

You know yourself that when things go wrong (as they inevitably do), what is the standard human response? But, how much more difficult is it to restrain those verbal daggers when you're in the thick of an ultra-competitive situation, intensified by the roar of screaming fans? How many of us at the age of 29, 39 or 49 can resist the natural, human urge to wield the knife of blame when our team-mates – at work or at home - screw up?

Josh also helped restore a shattered team-mates confidence.

What he really said to Adam with that one gesture is “Hey your slate is clean”.

Can you think of the last time one of your team-mates – at work or at home - had the courage to show confidence in you during those moments, when deep down, you knew you plain blew it, dropped the ball or even fucked up royally?

But, it’s hardly fair to ask for things we’re not prepared to give, so ask this question. When was the last time you helped restore someone’s confidence? Is there an Adam in your life that needs you to stand up, go out of your way and find the right words to help wipe their slate clean?

When the chips were down – on something truly more important that winning or losing –it was Josh, of all people, who stood up. Isn’t that interesting? The least talented kid – one without a title or label - is the one who steps up, saying what needs to be said.

When it comes to the required qualities for leadership where is it etched in stone that those skills have anything to do with title, talent or tenure?

Or is leadership defined more appropriately and accurately by the way we think ... and the way we act?

Could the actions of a remarkable 9-year old demonstrate what it takes to be a leader in any organization?

Is there a way for you to rise above “normal” human tendencies to assign blame, play the victim or procrastinate and wait around for someone else to lead?

Most people see leadership as the act of leading others.

But, what if real leadership is really the act of leading ourselves?

With or without the label.

“Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work”

P.S. ... I have a feeling Robin Sharma's new book has a few stories that reflect the qualities Josh brings to the table.


Heather Hindle said...

As a mother of two young hockey players (goalies) this hit an emotional chord with me. I see kids show exemplary leadership all the time and, you're right, it's in the subtle moments. Through their innocence, they don't even mean to do it, it's just this fierce, unmuddied soul that sees the good and not the bad.

Thanks for reminding me to listen and watch my kids more, and allow them to lead me.

JLandry said...

It is beautiful to hear of the goals of a great coach!! Go team go!

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