Life is filled with emotion. Crowds are swayed by it and individuals get caught up and often don’t even know why. Leadership is required to navigate the storms of emotion well. One of the places that I have best learned this lesson is on the football field. In honor of Super Bowl 50, the timing of this post seems appropriate.
I have had the wonderful opportunity and privilege to officiate youth and high school football for 26 seasons. What started as a great time to spend with my dad has turned into a career avocation and led me to numerous All-Star and championship games over the years. I can recall many games filled with emotion due to rivalry, championship aspirations or even just frustrated fans.
What does this have to do with leadership? Whether you are a sports aficionado or not, there are many things I have learned on the football field that apply in leadership regardless of the context.
1 – be prepared. Leaders can only lead out of what they know. This is most often a combination of education and experience, but there is no excuse for a leader to not be as prepared as possible. I have studied the football rule book for 26 years, taken countless tests and learned how to hone my judgment through many mistakes, learning from mentors and growing with the game. Preparation allows me to execute my craft of officiating well.
2 – communicate. This starts with my crew for the night. We have pre-game, talk through potential scenarios and ensure that our signals all match. Communication then continues to coaches, players and fans as we strive for integrity on the field. A well called game that is communicated poorly will feel like a poor game. Communication is essential to effective leadership!
3 – establish your tone. As officials, we strive to work a game, keep players safe, ensure justice for both teams, and to walk off the field mostly unnoticed. At the same time, we determine how a game will go by what we allow. Late hit out of bounds not flagged? Get ready for fighting later in the game (most likely). We establish the boundaries of how players will play, how coaches will communicate (and complain), and how the overall tone will be for the night. Leadership sets the atmosphere for all contexts – what tone do you set with your team and for your projects?
4 – be consistent. One of the biggest complaints against officials is inconsistency. Whether real or perceived, this must be addressed. The best officials are consistent – coaches, players, fans and support personnel should know how a great official will work a game. It is the same wherever you lead. Be consistent in your style, your communication, your expectations and your encouragement. Consistency allows people to adjust and function well within prescribed boundaries.
5 – trust your judgment and instinct. Sometimes a situation occurs that is not explicitly covered within the text of the rule book. It is imperative that the referee make the right judgment at this point, whether it involves safety, sportsmanship or some other concern. I have called games early when the score is a blowout and kids are getting hurt due to size and strength discrepancies. All of the books, trainings, and mentor conversations become real when judgment is necessary. Trust all of these aspects and go with your gut! This is where the true test of leadership happens – how can you lead and influence people when there is not a perfect principle to follow.
While I know that not every enjoys sports, the lessons on the field apply across the board. Where do you have opportunity to function as an official in your leadership context? See how any of these ideas might add value to the leadership mantle you carry.