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  • Writer's pictureChris Smith

What the U11 Girls Taught Me About Leadership

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

Anybody who tells you they know everything they need to know about leadership is either lying or confused. There’s a technical term for this condition - it’s called “unhealthy.” These sorts of leaders tend to lead organizations that are also unhealthy. And in those organizations, you'll be sure to find people having unhealthy experiences. Leader learning never stops. Even as I am called upon by our clients to coach and advise leaders as the managing principal of ChangeSmith, I too continue to learn. And that might be my favorite part of what I do.

I have been a management consultant in the professional services industry for over 22 years. I have supported leaders in the Federal, commercial, and trade association spaces, and represented some of the best firms in the Washington, DC metro area. While my work has always been an effective way to support my family, I haven’t always loved what I do. In fact, about five years ago, I was ready to quit and walk away when my wife encouraged me [READ: kicked me in the butt] to pursue a dream of running my own firm.

Not one to impose herself, this was perhaps the second time my wife formally weighed in on my career. When she and I met, she was moving towards being a pediatric physical therapist supporting preemie patients in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). She loved and continues to love her work to the extent that I include her among my exemplars on the far right side of a spectrum from ‘having a job’ to ‘pursuing a passion’ alongside the likes of former Yankee shortstop and 5 time World Champion, Derek Jeter. Her advice from 17 years ago was simple, “find something you love and see if you can get paid to do it.” She’s not the first one who authored this advice, but she was the first one who suggested it might be available to me. For a former college soccer player, the application of this advice led to my career as a youth travel soccer coach in Arlington Soccer.

During my time with #TeamArlington, I have been responsible for a wide range of players born as early as 1993 and now as recently as 2013. In some cases, my work on the field has helped parents to get a child out of the house for an hour or so at a time, while in others I’ve contributed to several men’s and women’s college careers, and even to Arlington representation in the U20 and U23 US National Teams and our first alumnus to play professionally in MLS. Over this stretch, the group that I’ve coached most frequently has been the U11 Girls.

I can tell you this - the world would be a far kinder, safer, and fun place if the U11 Girls ran the show. Equal parts smart, sassy, technical, and ruthless, helping these young ladies pursue their passion for the game of soccer is one of the very best things I get to do. It has been while I am on the sidelines with them that I made the following observation:

There are two kinds of youth sports coaches: those who provide for all of the conditions that child athletes need to develop their passion for the game... and those who prioritize WINNING the games. When I first observed this, it hit me like a Julie Ertz shot to the gut. All of the lousy business leaders I’d observed over the years were trying to win the game. Whether it was their own ambitions or the metrics and models put in place by more senior leaders, those individuals who prioritized results over people consistently shared two important characteristics: their results were rarely sustainable and they always lost good people - two signs of failing organizational health.

Organizational Health can be described as the conditions and infrastructure enabled by leaders to allow for the very best possible experience of stakeholders in pursuing or advancing the shared purpose of the organization. According to Patrick Lencioni, among the authors of the term and concept, an organization has integrity – that is, IT IS HEALTHY – when it is whole, consistent, and complete. Management, operations, strategy, and culture fit together AND make sense. Too many modern leaders are willing to skimp on the culture piece, and in doing so, they dismiss the value of the people experience, and often the people themselves.

Most organizations are focused on being SMART, enabling strategy, marketing, finance, and technology. And these are important, but these are only half of the equation. HEALTH on the other hand is reflected by minimal politics and confusion, high degrees of morale and productivity, and very low turnover among good employees. Healthy organizations have PURPOSE. In 2019, almost everybody is smart. The very best organizations tend to leverage smart in order to be more healthy, as opposed to prioritize smart at the expense of health.

Providing for Organizational Health in an organization is about being the former of those two types of coaches. And while it would be easy to claim to be the former, it would be more accurate to self-assess as having the ambition of being the former. Organizational health is a discipline to which adherence is not easy. It’s like trying to keep the weight off. Our organizational health guidance is focused on behaviors as opposed to results so that our clients can sustain and improve upon their positive outcomes. When positive outcomes are an outcome of a remarkable people experience, those people want to do more of what they’re doing to repeat and exceed those outcomes. As a leader at ChangeSmith, I too find myself pursuing good health. We like to tell our clients, “we align your operations to your aspirations,” and I offer these three recommendations for empowering your aspirations as well:

Not black and white: Being healthy cannot happen if health is pursued at the expense of being smart. Absolutes are rarely the right approach. Healthy leaders recognize that while being smart is non-negotiable, the appropriate approach demands balance.

Need to practice: Being healthy is reflected in the commitments to always seek improvements and always be ready for change. If leaders and organizations only demonstrate these behaviors in the crucial moments, the cultures will never refine, mature, and correct enough to be a competitive advantage when those crucial moments happen.

Put people first: Being healthy is about always considering the stakeholder experience. As humans, we are attracted to positive experiences. Healthy leaders put in the effort and build infrastructure, especially around HR, to ensure that people are having remarkable experiences. But it must be real. When Seth Godin says, ‘People like us do things like this,’ he is referring to people who want to surround themselves with other people who value and appreciate the same sorts of things. This is where leaders build a following - both of employees and customers - and that is what makes a business successful. If it is intentional and authentic, the right experiences will ensure the right people are ready and willing at the right times.

On the field with the U11 Girls, anybody can crack a whip to achieve a result, but healthy leaders enable the behaviors from their players and teams that both improve and make outcomes sustainable, and leave stakeholders wanting more. This is the secret to how healthy leaders become the real winners. (Here's hoping that former U11 girl, World Cup Champion, and new president of USSF Cindy Parlow Cone sets a healthy example of leadership for all of us.)

Don’t forget, when we put people first, leaders are people too. It is okay to indulge your own ambitions for a remarkable experience. Too many operationally-focused leaders neglect how great it feels to put people first. I challenge you right now to think of a time when you selflessly helped another person.... I bet that felt good. Now go back to work and try to do that once a week, then once a day, and then see if you can consider giving yourself that good feeling with each interpersonal interaction you have. Parents and coaches understand these feelings well. Prioritize people as if you were guiding your own child or even coaching the U11 Girls, and you’ll be well on your way to healthier leadership and a more successful organization.

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