Hard Not Harsh

I was privileged to watch a college basketball practice recently.  The team is close to the beginning of their season and their practice was ragged.  It happens.  The energy was uneven – swinging from under-energetic to desperately urgent. I watched as the coaching staff abandoned their original practice plan to focus on the team’s concentration, stamina, and heart.

These are the moments I get so glad to have the opportunity to witness.  This was a time the coaches had to be nimble to meet the players where they were – to get the most out of a practice that was going a little south, diagnose underlying problems, and address them with helpful learning.

It can be a tough assignment because the leaders are in the middle of their own preseason stresses.  They gave me a perfect opportunity to watch for self-awareness and self-control from the coaches.

*I would like to acknowledge Coach Raegan Pebley, Women’s Basketball Head Coach, TCU, Fort Worth. Thanks for letting me watch, even when it was a challenging time. You are the type of leader people want to follow!
*I would like to acknowledge Coach Raegan Pebley, Women’s Basketball Head Coach, TCU, Fort Worth. Thanks for letting me watch, even when it was a challenging time. You are the type of leader people want to follow!

The head coach was a rock star.  She seemed disappointed in what she saw, but she never belittled the players as she pushed them to work harder.  In fact, she explained to them the need for stamina and conditioning – reminded them of the challenges they would face when they began the combination of traveling, playing and going to classes.

She made the purpose of the challenging practice very clear.  And then she stayed.  Some of the players had more running than others at the very end – it’s the cost of not thoroughly completing some of the required exercises.  The coach stayed.

She was hard…the point was well made.  But she wasn’t harsh. She didn’t get angry, frustrated, or disgusted with the players.  When the last player finished the extra rounds, she too was congratulated and encouraged –  with the same sincerity given the others.

Here’s the lesson.  The head coach didn’t give into her own frustrations – frustrations are emotional traps that can make a leader defensive and cruel.  Frustration can lead a good person to fly off the handle, insult, and bully others.  This coach held the balance between the hard work that needed to be done and the humanity of her players.   She was hard, but not harsh.  It was elegant leadership.

Questions are NOT Created Equal


I teach coaches to ask great questions of their student athletes.  It allows the players to grow into world-class athletes and mature adults.  The first lesson is that not all questions are created equal.   The meaning of questions can be found in 3 places: in the words, the intent of the question, and tone.  Imagine with me – your athlete (or employee) comes off the field, court, or out of a meeting having just made a mistake.  There is a big difference between, “Did you see what you just did?” And “what did you notice?”

It’s not much of a stretch to hear disappointment – maybe anger – in the first question. Depending on the coach’s tone, it could feel pretty threatening.  Now, on top of dealing with his mistake, the player now feels attacked by the coach – the person who is supposed to be on his side.  It creates what is called in emotional intelligence, an “amygdala hijack.”  That’s when a question is perceived as an attack and the body is triggered in to a full ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response.

When that happens, the logic part of the brain gives way to the brain’s emotional control center.  Thinking is impaired. What that means is that at the very time you want a kid to listen to you and remember what they’ve been taught, they are paralyzed by stress.  My guess is the “did you see what you just did?” question is intended to help and in fact, quite often has the opposite affect.

Let’s replace the stress-inducing question with a different one – “What did you notice?” If you read it out loud, you’ll feel its simplicity and power.  It is open-ended, short enough that there aren’t any embedded assumptions, and it’s curious. Asking, “what do you notice” is like standing shoulder to shoulder with your athlete to look at their performance and help them discover what there is to learn.  No amygdala hijack, no accusations, just the opportunity for them to uncover what was going on so you can get on with the job of teaching and developing them.


The myth is debunked: they CAN see you in the balcony

First in a series of the “rules of leadership have changed.”Balcony with child looking in

For anyone who has ever attended a church where there is a balcony, you know the myth. Usually it’s teenagers who believe it most strongly – but it can be anyone. What’s the myth? When I’m up here, people can’t see me.

I sat in a church service last night – the sanctuary was full of preachers. It’s the annual Brite Divinity School Ministers week. I was in the balcony because Paul was recording. Down the row from me was a group of young people. Recently minted ministers, I suppose. They believed in the myth. They thought they were invisible. At least they acted as though they were invisible. Unfortunate. Their coats hung on the balcony rail, there was chatting and a more than usual tendency to get up and walk around.  They failed to notice how often they drew attention to themselves…because they were ‘invisible.’

And I began to ponder – what are those times when I think I’M invisible? It certainly isn’t when I’m blogging, or tweeting or posting on Facebook. Visibility, in this age of over–information, is ubiquitous. As leaders, consultants, coaches, teachers, parents and all those other things we are – we are visible.

The rules have changed for leaders. Marshall Goldsmith got it right when he titled his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” He was talking mostly about behaviors – moving from being an individual contributor to being a leader, manager or executive. I would take it a step further and say that statement applies our perception of what a leader should be.  And that’s because the world we are leading in has changed so radically.

So the first rule of leadership that has changed is the rule of visibility. The best approach is to believe, “I can ALWAYS be seen.” We will spend more time on the changing rules of leadership and how to be effective in this new world. Come along for the ride, it should be fun. In fact, feel free to join the conversation – guaranteed it will change!