I was at a youth hockey game Tuesday night - with 3 kids playing hockey I spend a lot of hours at the arena – and was fascinated by what I saw unfolding on the ice. Two players for the Falcons, the good guys, were absolutely dominating the play. Both are centers and one played every other shift because of a short bench. For the sake of clarity let’s call the boys S & J.
The kids involved in the game are 10-12 years old, and it’s not unusual to see one or two with skills that are much more advanced than their peers. What is unusual about what I witnessed is that neither S or J fall into that category. In fact, if you saw either of them at the local rink you would never pick them as being part of an A level team. Both can skate, but there are many others who are faster, smoother and more graceful. Both can handle the puck, but there are others who do it with more finesse. Both can make and receive passes, but others do so with more accuracy and softer hands. Truth is, of the 30 players in the ice that night, S & J would rank in the bottom half in terms of skills.
What S & J have, that got them a combined 4 goals and 5 assists in a 9 -2 victory, is more drive, tenacity, aggressiveness and just plain hockey sense, than everyone else. The way they play the game is a coach’s dream – or perhaps a bosses dream?
It can be a wonderful thing to have a team filled with highly skilled individuals, but adding a couple with fewer skills who have a desire to learn, grow and achieve more than some thought possible can be the catalyst that takes a team from the pretty good to the upper ranks. And I’m no longer talking only about sports. The same is true in business. I’ve watched a lot of teams flounder because they are made up of the brightest of the bright. The problem is, when everyone is an all star, there’s no one left who’s working hard to show their stuff and move ahead. Yes, I’m generalizing here, but you get the point. Without S & J the Falcons would be an ordinary team.
With their presence, everyone’s level of play is elevated because no one wants to be seen as the weak link on the team. Especially when the ones doing the pushing look – at first glance – like those links.
I opened iTunes the other day and came across two of my favorite audio clips: the Crispin Day’s speech from Henry the V by Kenneth Branagh and Kurt Russell, as Herb Brooks in Miracle, giving his pregame talk to the team before the 1980 Olympic game against the Soviet Union.
Individually each is a great example of oratory skill, but together they illustrate the difficulty of defining leadership and what makes a great leader.
I’ll tell you straight out that I can’t define it – and I defy anyone to define to do so – but I do recognize it when I see it.
Leaders are defined as much by their styles as by the results of their work. The late great Herb Brooks built a gold medal-winning Olympic hockey team by giving his players a common enemy to hate, not the Soviet Union. Brooks took a bunch of kids, primarily from the Midwest and East, who came to the rink with built-in hatred for each other and brought them together by turning himself into the target of their anger. In time the regional divides came down and settling old scores didn’t matter any more. Brooks’ model of “hate me not each other” lead to the Miracle On Ice.
Brooks was famous for playing mind-games and hurling insults during the 18 months leading up to the game, the pep talk before the miracle game showed the confidence he had in the team. Gone was the talk of “playing worse and worse every day and now you’re playing like it’s next month.” He replaced it with the message that each and every member of that team deserved to be on the ice with the Soviets. Not only did they deserve it, they were born to be there. It was a real, and unexpected, turn around from what the players had grown accustomed to.
Contrast that with the clip from Henry the V. In it King Henry is rallying his troups to do battle with the French. The French are better armed, better fed, better rested and have far greater numbers, but Henry in undaunted. In response to his cousins who wishes for more men Henry says it is they, those not there, who will come to regret they did not join.
And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks that fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day.
It is a call to arms, but more than that, it is a call to brotherhood:
For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.
But Henry, in saying “shall be my brother”, tells his men that they are part of his family. The royal family.
It’s an amazing contrast. Herb consciously working to make his players hate him and Henry embracing his men,calling them brothers. Henry and Herb had dramatically different styles of leadership, but both were successful in a battle they had no business winning.
So how do you define leadership? I don’t know, but I know one when I see one.