During his interview at the NFL pre-season game between the Patriots and the Red Skins, quarterback Jason Campbell briefly explained how he’s learned to deal with the direct pressure the quarterback and the head coach receive when things aren’t going well. He spoke of staying focused despite all the negativity. Campbell’s comments made me think about the need for and effects of risk-taking on a leader’s life.
Risk is a carnival ride that can swing a leader on a pendulum’s path from the exhilaration of reward down through the gut-wrenching sweep to reproach.
When times are good, it’s all about being carried off the field held high on the shoulders of an appreciative team—doused in champagne as the boisterous noise bounces off the lockers and fills the room with a cacophony of happiness. When times are not so good, the unfortunate flipside is the relentless click of cameras in an otherwise quiet room at the press conference announcing the canceled contract—enduring the jeers and insults of angry fans, and the lonesome concern as the unknown future lays ahead.
Sometimes the drama in the business world can be just as hyperbolized as it is in the sports arena. I’ve never seen an executive doused with champagne, but I have seen company leaders accept awards as grateful employees stand to their feet cheering wildly. On the other side of the coin, the press is filled with coverage of fallen CEOs and scorned Board Members. Ultimately, no matter how public the deification or the demise, there comes that moment where the leader is left alone to either smile or scowl.
The majority of leadership triumphs and tragedies are played out every day in simpler ways and smaller venues. A manager and her team share shrimp teriyaki at the local Benihana in celebration of the project completed on-time and within budget. A toast at the local bar to honor the sales person who landed the big account. A director quietly empties out his desk following the third straight quarter of missed projections. A woman flushes with hurt and anger as she accidentally over hears her co-workers mocking her outspoken ideas for improving departmental productivity.
When people think about influence and leadership, they imagine the glory, the power, and the devoted followers. Rarely do people take the time to consider the vulnerability of leadership. Calculated or foolish, risk is risk. A risk pays off or it doesn’t meet expectations. Either way, it is the leader that made the go-no/go decision who is held accountable for the outcome. Stepping up to leadership requires strong character, applicable skills, credibility, trust, and a quality set of emotional “shoulder pads.”
Even with body armor though, sometimes the pain of failure still gets through. For example, in the Patriots-Redskins game, Tom Brady’s arm was twisted when he was tackled resulting in a sore shoulder. In most non-sports related cases, leaders aren’t physically sacked by opponents (we hope); but being proverbially pinned to the wall comes with its own level of discomfort. How well a person absorbs the blow of failure and rebounds speaks volumes about his or her worth as a leader. People are always watching and assessing. Everybody loves a winner. But winning often masks true character. Over the long run, people follow winners who also lose well. Effective leaders who take educated risks that pay off more often than not develop loyal followers not necessarily because of the leader’s win-ratio but rather because of how the leader handles the loses. The real winners, the people truly worth following, are the people who:
- Handle disappointment with dignity
- Hold themselves and others equally accountable
- Acknowledge and share lessons learned
- Come back stronger the next time
Though the upside to winning is attractive, it is the unsung reality of the downside to risk that either consciously or unconsciously holds people back from getting in the game. There is safety in watching from the stands or from a cozy chair in the den. Sports spectators have strong opinions. Yet most armchair quarterbacks don’t actually expect the head coach of their favorite team to call them up and ask for advice on the next set of downs. However in business, it’s common for people who have consistently shied away from leadership responsibility to be puzzled and dismayed that their suggestions aren’t taken seriously or that they aren’t as influential as they’d like to be. It’s unrealistic to expect a team to defend you on the line of scrimmage when you’re not willing to risk taking the snap. When it comes to leading, you have to be willing to persevere through the good and the bad. As you build your personal influence and take on more leadership responsibility, wear your shoulder pads.
React to the wins and the losses with equal amounts of humility and professionalism so that either way people feel good about following you.