What kind of people do you want to be around? What kind of person motivates you to do your best? To become the best version of yourself? If you're like me, the simple answer is people who genuinely care about you. There are a lot of ways to show care, and lots of ways to describe it, but for simplicity, we can call it connection. This is why you should lead with connection. As I described in my last post on the 3 benefits of leading with connection, you're most effective when you start with connection, rather than competence. In addition, leading with connection means that relational connection should permeate your leadership. So, how then, do you lead with connection in this sense?
The Transformative Power of a Coach
I had a high school tennis coach who really connected with my teammates and me. He started my sophomore year and, in the span of one season, took a struggling team to one that was competitive against some of the best high school tennis teams in Southern California. Looking back, it was a remarkable feat. Here's an excerpt from a 1989 L.A. Times article about our team:
Redondo celebrated its first boys' league tennis championship since . . . well, since anyone can remember. "The last one was a long time ago," Coach Ted Atteberry said. "I know they had not won a championship while I've been at the school." Atteberry, who started teaching at Redondo in 1981, watched the Sea Hawks end the drought Wednesday with a 15-3 win over Mira Costa to clinch the Ocean League title with an 11-1 record. "We put in an awful lot of time on the courts," he said. "The kids that come out are not real experienced, but they're a very hard-working group and very coachable. There are no secrets. We just put in the hours."
We did put in the hours, but Coach Atteberry was being modest here. He connected in numerous ways that created a team that wanted to its best for him and for us. The root of our hard work and success was that we knew Coach Atteberry cared about us. I knew he cared about our team and each of us as individuals. Whether you're coaching a team, leading an organization, mentoring someone, or contributing individually to a group, these practices will help you make a positive impact by leading with connection within your sphere of influence.
1. Listen first. Coach Atteberry listened to us. He sought our input on the team line-up and the workouts. He was still in charge, but he genuinely valued our input. When someone felt frustrated or treated unfairly, Coach listened first to try understand his perspective. Particularly when there is conflict or confusion, listen first. Try to understand the other's perspective. What is their experience? What messages are they hearing from you—spoken and unspoken? What do they need you to hear now? True dialogue starts with listening first. That means you don't think about what you want to say next while the other person is talking.
2. Lead with story. Coach Atteberry observed each match, and our overall improvement and wove them into a story. At least once a week at practice, and after every match, he told us the story we were living out on the courts. It helped us to see who we were, and what we were capable of as a team. When we start to hear a story, we immediately sit up and tune in. We're naturally drawn in because we're pre-wired to understand meaning in a narrative form. Story captures the imagination more than rational thought. Story also activates people's emotions, which is what motivates people to action. So if you want to move people to action, lead with a story. Whether it's performance feedback, a new strategy, or an organizational restructuring, tell a story that conveys the process of how you arrived at where you are, and the why behind the direction. This will help people connect to what you're communicating on an emotional level and drive them to action.
3. Be present. Coach Atteberry was present each and every practice and match. He was present physically—always there on time—and always with us mentally and emotionally. He didn't make up the practice agenda on the spot. It was clear that he had thought through each component of every practice. He wasn't grading papers or off doing something else while we labored on the courts. He was with us. He observed closely and gave each player specific feedback in real time. And every once in awhile, Coach showed up to practice with his racquet and hit with us. The first time this happened, we all thought, "Oh, this oughta be good… He's probably really out of shape." Our middle-aged coach proceeded to kick our tails. He almost never missed a shot, and nobody could get a point on him. We watched in awe, as we realized this guy wasn't coaching just from theory. He knew what he was doing, and he was all in. He was present in lots of different ways because he cared. If you want to make a positive impact, you have to show up; you have to be present mentally and emotionally. This is required to truly listen. This means not being distracted, and being prepared and focused. Focus on what's in front of you, and who is in front of you. Give them your undivided attention. Observe. Encourage. Give feedback. Above all, show up.
4. Check in. Coach often checked in with us. He would ask me how school was going. When my play was off, he would ask me what was going on, listen to me, encourage me, and help me focus on the game. This doesn't have to be a huge conversation; just setting the tone by checking in with others can go a long way. And, of course you have to genuinely care. If you don't, people will sense it. If something is going on and the person needs to talk, you need to make time—either right then, or later. It means you put the other's humanity and needs first. It's best for them, and it's best for productivity as well. When you help create a secure base at work by doing this, people will be better able to focus on their work.
5. Be responsive. Because Coach Atteberry was present, he was also responsive. He saw when someone was struggling and he provided the encouragement needed for the moment. He saw when players weren't giving the intensity to their play that was needed and he provided the needed inspiration and discipline. When you're present and observing your team members, this sets you up to be responsive. Respond to people's practical needs and emotional needs to the extent you can in the context. Sometimes just noticing and acknowledging someone's need goes a long way.
6. Manage your emotions. Sometimes we didn't practice hard enough, or didn't pay attention to what Coach Atteberry was telling us. When this happened we heard about it. One time one of our top players was goofing off a little too much in a match. Coach pulled him aside and talked to him. The player didn't care and flipped the coach off as he walked back to the court. Coach had a serious talk with the entire team after that match. It was clear that he was angry, but he managed his emotions. He never flew off the handle. He focused on the issues and did it in a way that we were able to hear him. Whether you're leading a team or influencing as an individual contributor, you're going to experience lots of different emotions in the context of your work. Some of them will be very strong negative emotions. This isn't bad, but you need to manage them in order to have a positive influence. If you don't have internal space to do this, then you need to create external space. That means you need to know when you're on emotional overload and need to pull yourself out of discussion and come back to it. You need to know when to not hit send on that angry email response. In these cases, you may need to take some time to process your emotions. What is coming up and why? Try to have compassion on yourself and seek out someone you trust with whom you can talk. There are undoubtedly good reasons for your emotions, but that doesn't mean they are always productive. Recognizing that there are good reasons for them and feeling understood helps you get to a place where you can productively engage your emotions.
7. Be self-aware. Looking back, I think Coach Atteberry knew himself well. He knew his strengths, what he could handle physically and emotionally, and he designed our practices around this. He wasn't loud and boisterous. He was very focused and soft-spoken. He worked within his own personality to be highly effective in relating to us and helping us become better tennis players and better human beings. If you want to lead with connection, you need to be aware of your strengths, and your emotional and relational patterns. This is part of managing your emotions and giving your best to your team.
Questions to Ponder
Here are a few questions to consider:
- What kinds of activities drain you and require recharging?
- What kinds of situations bring up unresolved feelings that suggest it would be good for you to get input before making a decision?
- What relational patterns do you tend to repeat?
- What is your best contribution to your team?
I hope these tips help you, above all, to be connected to yourself and the people in your life. These practices will help you lead with connection more and more, inspiring those around you to become the best version of themselves and to make their greatest contribution. And that is one of the greatest contributions you can make.
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