This past winter I helped coach a recreational league high school basketball team for my son. I am always up for the challenge of coaching a youth sport for our town. Over the years, I have coached lacrosse, soccer, baseball, and most recently basketball. There are many challenges to a successful season, and at this level success isn’t always defined as how many wins a team can get. It sure helps with morale, but the most important gauge of success is that a player has become a better player playing for the team I coached. That being said, I find myself pulling from my Project Management background in so many areas. Utilizing the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing the work has helped tremendously in making the whole experience for the other coaches, the players, and the parents a smooth and enjoyable one. I thought it would be fun to look at the areas that I have pulled from.
Initiating can be hectic. Luckily, most of the parents and other coaches also realize that the number of wins isn’t the only way to have a successful season. This all starts way before a team is actually put together. We need to meet with the full league, secure gym time, set up a way for players to sign up, and figuring out and coordinating the practice and game schedules.
Planning, for me, is the fun part. We finally are ready with lists of players and it’s time for tryouts. Similarly to hiring an employee that you are going to work with on projects, we always focus on how coachable the kids are. This doesn’t mean that they are the best at the sport, but it means that they are ready and willing to learn. The same goes for business. If everyone focused on all stars for projects, we may do well on that one project, but it is important to also train other players for other projects and for the future. A good project team is a blend of experienced, motivated individuals with multiple skills. On a basketball team, we want everyone to come to practice with an open mind. Sure, it helps to have teammates who can shoot and score, but it sure helps having someone that may be good at defense, or great at bench morale. These all make for a great team and a fun experience.
Executing comes in many forms, especially during a season. Each game requires execution; from the players and the coaches. On a project team, executing well allows the team to succeed at their ultimate goal of successfully finishing the project on time and on budget. Executing plays is what is required of the players, while figuring out player matchups and what the other team may be throwing at us is what is required of the coaches.
Controlling in terms of a sports team can be broken down in a couple of different parts. Off the field, there are a lot of moving parts, most of which are coordinating various schedules, vacations, carpooling, and the occasional sicknesses… making sure that we have enough players to play in each game. On the field, or court in the case of basketball, we as coaches must look at the players as individual parts of the team. We need to ensure that they are not getting worn out, not getting into foul trouble, and, ideally, trying to control the other team enough to win the game. I did mention that winning isn’t everything, but it sure is part of a competitive sport.
Closing the season out can be in the form of a playoff run. But, more than that, it is important to make sure that the team’s goals have been satisfied and hopefully a handful of them are willing to come back for another season. Having a team that has been together for one year can drastically help ease startup of the next season. On a project team, there will be turnover due to promotions, change of job, retirement, etc… but making sure that they are all motivated to be successful again on another new project is the ultimate goal.
In conclusion, project management practices help me make my personal and professional lives much easier to handle. If anything, from coaching a sport or being part of a project management team, it has allowed me to break down a sometimes daunting task to one that is much more manageable and enjoyable. Applied in judicious amounts, I believe project management practices will also help you: at work, in the community and at home.
There is an old saying in the Medical world - “There are no healthy individuals in the world. The ones that pretend to be must have been insufficiently examined for physical and/or psychological issues”. And, for the latter, the “usual” split is between “neurotics and persons with character disorders”.
Neurotics are individuals who assume too much responsibility and, when in conflict, they always blame themselves. Their speeches are full of phrases like: “I ought to”, “I should/shouldn’t” - illustrating their assumed “inferiority” doubled always by (what they feel that are) wrong decisions. Au contraire, individuals with character disorders run away from responsibility and, in conflict, they always blame “the world”. The speech of an individual with character disorder will rely on “I can’t/couldn’t” or “I have/had to”, always accusing “no power of choice” and the external forces that act beyond his or her control. There is also a combination - called “character neurotics” - describing individuals who fail to find the balance in assuming responsibility in different situations.
In fact, the whole classification is built around responsibility and the pain and effort that this might bring. Assuming it too much and at a wrong time can bring a lot of bad consequences (and associated pain). Running away from it in crucial moments can ruin everything - results, relationships etc. Finding the right balance constitutes one of the most difficult problems of our lives.
And, unfortunately, nowadays, existing environments don’t make it easier for us. All around us, there are forces that exert pressure and these forces are getting bigger and bigger: tighter deadlines, higher payments, greater expectations etc. We start to feel psychologically unsafe and either attempt to pass the responsibility to other individuals/organisations or assume too much, get too exposed and burn out quickly in a huge amount of stress.
Responsibility has become the “tiger in the room”. We either run like hell from it or jump in front of it, waiting to be eaten. As soon as we no longer have the instruments - the whip and chair - to tame the tiger and to show our power, we run and hide or expose and accept the fate. Instead, we should use our authority and try to cope, dominate and even, love the “tiger”.
In this last case, the effort is huge. It requires discipline, a lot less ego and more emotion than rationality. We suffer more and gratification is delayed. However, this way our self-growth will get a boost and, most importantly, as leaders, we will be ready to help and nurture our team members’ growth/development.
Let me recap: use authority instead of power, delay gratification to obtain a more sustainable result, less ego (other-focused), more emotion and feelings and, most of all, loving that “tiger” - knowing when/what is your responsibility and when/how to let it go and trust your team, your peers, your colleagues. For me (at least), this sounds a lot like Servant Leadership.
How about you - Are you ready to take responsibility and “love the tiger”?
The word “servant” triggers (in many situations) goose-bumps on individuals aspiring to be leaders. We are wired to perceive it as a “status-reducing” label, as a way to mark the limits for a second-class role (or, even worse, an individual). Associating it with strong, powerful noun - like leadership or leader - doesn’t make it better.
In fact, in this case - servant leadership or servant leader - the term “servant” (officially, a noun) is perceived more like an adjective, diminishing the force of its more famous associate. I always look at people’s faces when this topic is brought to the table. I actually started a little experiment. When asked about what I am most passionate about and what my favourite speaking topic is, I answer first with “I am really into [or] I really like to speak about leadership…”. My conversational partner’s face lights up (“Oh, another one…” - he might be thinking) and he asks - ready to share and engage in a small debate - “What kind of leadership?”.
As soon as the “infamous” association - servant leadership - leaves my mouth, the just-created magic disappears. I can see disorientation and confusion in my interlocutor’s eyes. The comfortable smile is replaced by a suspicious scowl and, most probably, questions start popping into his or her mind - “What the hell is this? You are either a servant, or a leader. Are you mocking me?”
The reduction-effect of “servant” upon “leadership” - which I described earlier - is almost instantaneously present. Everybody loves Leadership and are willing to talk about this “amazing, sensible and always up-to date” topic. We need leaders and leadership. They are vital for our success, for our well-being, for our society. But...Servant Leadership? Servant Leaders? It seems to degrade the powerful noun.... leadership - as we were wired to perceive it.
We put our leaders on a really high pedestal. Even if they don’t want to be there, we elevate them. In many situations, this is the only way we can see (as in “perceive”) them as leaders. We need to see them at any moment, to have them in front, (literally) leading the way. Our leaders have to pull us and help us achieve a strong pace to the target. Otherwise, they are not the leaders we expected, the leaders who can take us there no matter what. How can we trust a leader who is actually behind us, gently pushing, not pulling and, most of all, serving us?
The way I see it, this sorry situation is triggered by two main factors:
As I recall, coming back to my little experiment, no conversation about Servant Leadership ends up in a dull, boring way. The majority of my interlocutors smile politely and either change the subject or excuse themselves, leave or engage in another conversation. I get it - we might not be ready for this. Re-wiring our brains can be hard and takes a long time.
However, I have seen individuals (it’s true, just a small percent) who were stirred and intrigued by the whole idea. Something sparked behind their eyes - maybe just enough to kick-off an internal revolution. This kind of “inception” is the one I am counting on. This is the one bringing more selflessness and less selfishness, more trust, more community and less individuality, more authority and so on and so forth.
Have you seen the last scene of “Zorba the Greek” movie?
If not, spoiler alert: two grown men, after witnessing the biggest failure of their only project, start to… dance. Actually, to be more precise, the boss (who invested all his money in the project that failed) asks his one and only employee (who was more like a project manager) to teach him to dance. No reproaches, no arguments, no unnecessary discussions – they just start dancing, with the boss following the moves of the employee. The dance is their way to connect in order to be able to express their feelings and to discuss objectively and freely about what just happened.
Dancing has several characteristics that facilitate an invisible powerful bonding between people that makes for a beautiful performance. Two of these characteristics really amaze me:
Of course, these are not the only bonding and performance characteristics of dancing. We need the right music, the right environment, the right partner and so on. However, as soon as we have the two mentioned above, more than 50% of the “job” is done. The dance becomes interesting, our performance is a good one and, most importantly, we enjoy it while connecting with our dance partner.
I think leadership should follow the same “recipe”. It should favour listening over speaking, willingness over forcing/pushing, authority over power. And, most importantly, it should create the right connection between the leader and the follower, a connection that allows both to express freely their feelings, concerns and ideas in order for both of them to grow and achieve success. Do you know of a leadership approach that can do all of this?
Spoiler alert (again): Servant Leadership is the “dance” we can perform every day, whether we are the leader or the follower.
OK - put on your ballroom best - ...1,2,3...Let’s dance!
European Soccer Championship ended recently. Leaving aside the flashy shows and the mediocre organisation, I was really puzzled by the difference in several teams’ behaviors. And this is not about their (sometimes boring) technical performance. This is, actually, related more to the (so-called) soft, human side of their achievements.
Let me tell a short story. More than 15 years ago during another European Championship, one of the qualified team was excluded (the name is not important) due to some political issues. . Officials replaced them with a runner up team from the qualifying stages. These guys were already on vacation, enjoying (literally) a really hot summer at the beach. They managed to get together in an unbelievably short period of time. But, their main goal for the Championship was basically to not make a fool of themselves. They had almost no training, they barely assembled a team of twenty young and not so famous players and, at the same time, they were tired after a very long season.
The first match was a disaster. They were butchered by the opposing team and showed a lot of weaknesses. Everybody was laughing and gave them no chances of winning even one game. But, they actually did it: they won the next one. And the next one. And the next one. And so the pattern continued.. They made it into the finals and...won the Championship! I repeat - with almost no training or practice games, with the smallest team of all teams in the competition and, most surprisingly, with young and obscure players. They managed to go against many odds and beat teams with a lot of notorious and famous members.
Many experts dissected and tried to explain this unforeseen success. Motivation, team spirit, strong desire - these were a few of the critical factors that were pushed as the foundation of the outsiders’ winning strategy. However, for me, something was missed or, at least, less explored. It’s related again to motivation and I saw it againat the recently-ended Championship.
The specialists credit as favorites for winning the tournament the teams with the biggest number of famous, skilled players. As soon as a national team has a lot of well-known, valuable players who won many international competitions (with their club team), it is automatically considered powerful and ready to win. Still, nobody is wondering if the team members can still be motivated and engaged.
They have everything - money, fame, prizes. They even won (take Spain example) a European and a World Championship. Even more, they come after long seasons, they want vacation and a large part of them are almost at the end of their prestigious career.
What strategy should the coach use in order to make that interior “engine” run one more time? “Money and fame” means little to these players. Transferring to another team? 90% of them already play or played at the biggest soccer clubs around the world. So, is there anything that can move them?
I could find only one answer - servant leadership. Helping others to grow, inspiring people, becoming appreciated and caring leaders - these might be (probably) the only triggers that would work in this situation. For mature, great players, the possibility of being servant leaders would ignite a big internal “fire”. They already have the tangible. They need the inner, intangible push in order to feel motivated. Hailing their authority (and not the power) will bring the desired thirst for fighting and winning every match again.
It might not be the only solution. But, we definitely should try it. I am pretty confident that we will move from “I need to be here” to “I want to be here” attitude. And then, for sure, we will have a more interesting tournament. Do you agree?