In sports, our eyes are on the players who win the games and are often the leaders of their teams. They are the ones who “want the ball” when the pressure is on.
In New England we have our favorites – Tom Brady, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Bobby Orr, and Pedro Martinez. Today, everyone is watching LeBron James. What we don’t see, or even think about, is what these team leaders and others do during the 99 percent of the time they don’t have “the ball.”
For all of us outside of sports “the ball” can be a metaphor for an operational task, a critical decision or inflexion point, or a crisis. I think what leaders do without the ball says a great deal about them as leaders.
What are Things Leaders Should Do Without the Ball? I've always been amazed at how professional basketball players miss so many free throws, especially when the game is on the line. Larry Bird holds the number four record for all-time free-throw percentage in a playoff game for Hall of Fame players. How did he do it? His practice regimen included shooting between 500 and 1,000 free throws a day. Who did his teammates and fans want at the free throw line when the game was on the line? His teammates respected his work ethic and preparation; this was a form of leadership without the ball.
There are many important things leaders can do without “the ball.” Here are five things I try to do:
- Be prepared so when I have “the ball” I add value. This includes practicing, simulating, and planning ahead for certain situations.
- Learn from others because that will help me, and others around me, be prepared.
- Communicate effectively so that I, and others, can perform better when we have “the ball.”
- Collaborate with others so if difficult situations arise, my developed relationships help minimize side effects and more serious problems.
- Influence others when I should. I do this when I see opportunities to either improve a situation or prepare for a future opportunity or crisis.
By holding myself accountable for these actions away from “the ball,” I believe our team is stronger. Think about how you lead when you don’t have “the ball.” What are five things you can do now and how does that help lead your team?
A Political Observation -- Presidential Leadership Without the Ball. Like many of you, I have always been intrigued with U.S. history and especially U.S. presidents. The presidents everyone remembers, however, are those who performed exceptionally well when they had “the ball” – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt are examples. What fascinates me is how often we’ve elected poor leaders, who have been especially poor leaders without “the ball.”
When I reflect back on the 24 years between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, I note we had eight presidents. (Six in just 10 years between 1841 and 1851, imagine that!) None of these presidents led our country in a direction that would result in unity; several actually contributed to the problem. When we finally elected a person who could really lead us, Abraham Lincoln, the problem had expanded so much that a civil war sadly became the solution.
Over the last 24 years, since 1988, we have had only four presidents. Our country has been more stable than the period I mentioned in the 1800s. However, like the period leading up to our Civil War, none of these presidents have shown leadership without “the ball”, and each has contributed to enlarging the current problem – a growing fiscal crisis.
Most everyone agrees we are now headed toward a future crisis that will require a painful solution - not a Civil War, but an “uncivil war” between those relying on government payments and those paying taxes. Our country is likely to be split apart again. I’m afraid we’re going to have to wait for a real crisis for our next presidential leader to emerge – not a very comforting thought.