One of the essential characteristics of positive leaders is a non-negotiable commitment to mission and purpose. It is something we all know and yet leaders lose sight of mission and purpose almost as a matter of routine. When we begin to lose sight of our mission, we begin to make decisions that are counter-productive and serve secondary agendas rather than our primary mission and purpose. Inevitably, outcomes are adversely affected. What follows is a true story and example of how easy it is to lose focus on purpose.
I am a passionate baseball fan. I love to watch baseball and coach baseball and, when I was young, I loved to play the game. Some of my most memorable lessons in positive leadership were learned while coaching Little League Baseball®.
One season, during the all-star tournament, which is the path to Williamsport and the Little League Baseball® World Series, I was honored to manage our league’s all-star team of thirteen 12-year-old ball players. While we did not advance beyond our district tournament, it was a special opportunity and memory.
While scouting a game that would determine our next opponent, I observed another league’s manager, a fine gentleman I am sure, get so wrapped up in the heat of competition that he lost focus on his purpose. In an elimination game, his team was trailing by a run in the last inning and the tying and winning runs were on base with two outs. At bat was his team’s best hitter.
I was standing at the end of the dugout where I could hear every word. The coach called his player over, a strapping twelve-year old, and said, “We need you buddy! It’s all up to you! Don’t let us down, the whole team is counting on you!”
I was astonished to hear those words come out of a coach’s mouth in any kind of youth sports’ activity.
The young man walked to the plate full of determination and proceeded to pop up to end the game—an exciting victory for the other team. The 12-year-old batter walked back to the dugout with his head hanging. His manager put his arm around the boy and said, “Forget it! You did your best.”
But, of course, it was too late. As his coach’s had directed, the boy carried the burden of success or failure for his team, and he had let them down. It was the kind of outcome that may be the only thing that young man will remember from what was a stellar baseball season. In his mind, in the most important at-bat of the year, he was a failure and a loser. All I could do was shake my head. Little did I know I would be confronted with a similar opportunity.
My team played the next evening and we went into the bottom of the last inning trailing by two runs. Our best hitter was due at the plate, there were two outs, and the bases were loaded.
The words that popped up into my head were, “We need you buddy! It’s all up to you! Don’t let us down, the whole team is counting on you.” Fortunately, I realized what I was thinking. I shook myself by the scruff of my neck and was thankful I had an opportunity to learn from another leader’s mistake.
When I called my best hitter over for a quick pep talk, my approach was different from what I witnessed twenty-four hours earlier. I put my hands on his shoulders and smiled at him.
“This is the at-bat you’ve been dreaming about for as long as you can remember. I want you to relax and take a deep breath.” I gave his shoulders a playful shake and continued, “Now, enjoy this moment! Give it your best effort and whatever happens, I’m proud of you.”
My story has a different ending, as well. The young boy responded with a grand slam home run for a dramatic win—the kind of which dreams are made.
Did my message make a difference? You may draw your own conclusions, but I believe it did. It helped the child approach the situation as an opportunity to succeed using his talents and abilities, and all the hours he had devoted to practice. When we eliminate the fear of failure, even when it is a possible outcome, children and adults are able to give their best effort.
The most important lesson has to do with one’s focus on one’s mission. My purpose was not to win baseball games rather to provide young boys and girls with an opportunity to learn to play the game of baseball; to experience the thrill of competition and the value of teamwork; and, to develop their athletic potential and self-discipline. My job was to teach my players to give their best effort without fear of failure. This particular game was just one of what will be a life time of opportunities for this boy to excel at something he loves to do. I was only an instrument.
Because of his success, I was able to share the celebration of it. Had the outcome been different, my job would have been to encourage him to keep striving, as nobody “bats a thousand.” As an instructor in another sport once said, “if we are not falling down once-in-a-while we are not really skiing.”
My counterpart had been focused on his own needs, his own desire to win a game. On this one occasion he viewed the child as an instrument of his own objectives. It was not that his desire to win was inappropriate rather that it was not his job. It was one example of the many secondary agendas that so often distracts us from our primary purpose.
In education, where our stated purpose is to help kids learn, a secondary agenda is when, to achieve operational efficiency, we attach more importance to keeping pace with an arbitrary calendar or schedule than we do to giving students the time they need to learn each lesson.