A Short Leadership Lesson

As a youngster I loved sports and playing outdoors.  Baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey, skateboarding, and any other game we could drum up in the neighborhood.  Most of the time, only the veil of darkness and the ring of the dinner bell got us in from the streets.  It was during this time that BMX racing and riding grabbed my attention.  In a big way.

A group of us kids started congregating in a vacant field next to the local 7-11 to ride.  It became a daily ritual.  And each day the number of riders grew.  As our group of riders grew and changed, so did that vacant field.  We transformed that vacant field into our very own BMX wonderland.  We created a track.  We built jumps.  And we practiced.  And practiced.  And practiced.  We were focused.  Constantly pushing each other to outdo what the last person just pulled off.  It was great.  Incredible.  What was once a group of ten, now was pushing thirty to fifty riders each day.

It kept us out of trouble.  Just a bunch of kids doing it themselves and having a great time.

And as the group of riders grew, so did the amount of parents coming to “watch” and “observe” what we had created in that little vacant field.

Which was where it all started and eventually ended.  It began with a one dad.  One who started coming out to the field to add uniformity to our races.  He brought a stop watch.  He set up groups.  He told us when to race.  He told us how to race.

What was one dad, became two, then three, then five, and so on.  Pretty soon we were having schedules provided to us on which days we would be racing and who would race against who.  We were put into age brackets.  Ability brackets.  We were even informed that rules were being initiated on how and when you could ride on the track.

Before we could even wrap our heads around the rules and regulations that those “observing” parents had initiated – the city had stepped in to provide control and oversight to the proceedings.  It was their responsibility to ensure that everyone was safe.  And the more the “observing” parents and the city stepped in – the more rules and regulations that were implemented.  The more rules and regulations that were implemented, the more our original group of riders began to drop off and disappear.  Daily.  Day after day.  Until, finally no one came around to that vacant lot next to the 7-11 to ride anymore.  And the vacant lot, once transformed, went back to being that vacant lot.

Which, looking back, provides great lessons for leaders and leadership…

As leaders, we often want to step in on something when it starts going good.  We want to provide oversight and take control of the situation.  And in doing so, we can sometimes crush the spirit and enthusiasm for the work.  For example, we talk about the importance of collaboration and teamwork in 21st century organizations.  Yet, we often put so many parameters around and incorporate such heavy handed requirements that people avoid the collaborative process.  Parameters and requirements that squeeze the most important part of the process right out of the process.  Killing enthusiasm.  Killing the work.  Making people tired.  Pushing people right back to status quo.

The leadership lesson to take from this is that we sometimes have to step back.  We sometimes have to remove ourselves from the process.  Understanding that our zeal to be involved can often be the undoing of the process.  Of the work.  As leaders, we have to understand where our efforts are needed, required, and to what level. Which is why leadership is as much an art as it is a science.

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