Leading Through Uncertainty Part 2 – What We Can Learn from the Best Sports Coaches

Trying to figure out the best play to call

The current situation with COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike anything we have experienced previously.  With sports seasons suspended, I began to think about some comparisons between the best sports coaches and the best leaders in the current environment of uncertainty.

Here are 8 things you can learn from the best sports coaches:

  1. Be willing to call an audible.  The best coaches call audibles when their game plan is no longer working.  Even though you may have prepared what you thought was a strong strategic plan, when circumstances change, recognize that it’s time to call an audible and change the plan.  When external factors are changing this rapidly, you will likely need to implement changes quickly.  Be willing to change the course and adapt.
  2. Know your players and the depth of your bench.  Good coaches know the strengths of every player, even those who spend much of their time on the bench.  Great players are hard to replace when they must come out of the game.  The best coaches know the hidden strengths of all the players and can find the magic combination of players to overcome the loss of that one great player.  A real-life example of this is if your production supervisor must stay home since schools are closed, who else can help identify and implement changes in efficiency and processes?  If you know the hidden strengths of your team, you may recognize that your shipping clerk has created efficient processes in their department that indicate an innate strength that could be applied to other areas of the business.
  3. Recognize that losing one game does not mean the season is over.  The best coaches help their teams get over the loss as soon as possible in order to focus on the next game and the long-term vision for the season.  They inspire confidence in their players and motivate them to think positively.  As painful as it may be in the short term, recognize that the current challenges we are facing may just be a blip in the long season of your business.  Do your best to get through it, understanding that there may be some short-term, painful losses along the way.  If you can keep your team focused on your long-term vision, you are likely to succeed in the long term.
  4. Believe in yourself.  The best coaches believe in themselves and have the confidence that they can overcome adversity.  That type of confidence is contagious – the players can feel it.  Even when the players start to doubt their own abilities, the best coaches overcome that doubt by inspiring confidence and showing that they believe in their team.  And we learn the most about ourselves and our teams when we face adversity.
  5. Remain calm.  In my opinion, the best coaches remain calm in tough times.  Even when games become emotional, if the coach keeps his or her own emotions in check, he or she is often able to get the team to refocus on what they need to do.  Think about it – if you are in a critical situation, who do you want to follow?  A leader who is frantic and crazed, upset and out of control?  Or one who is calm and using the highest functioning portion of their brain because they are not in “fight or flight” mode?  If you tend to become emotional under stress, then self-care is important.  Getting enough exercise and sleep, eating healthy, and using mindfulness practices can help, even in small doses.
  6. Seek input from your best players.  The best coaches trust their team leaders to provide input on what could be done differently.  As leaders, we don’t have to have all the answers.  Our job is to hire the best and allow them to help us lead more effectively.  They will likely see things differently in the middle of the game than we see from the sidelines, and that perspective can be invaluable when making decisions.
  7. Focus on opportunities.  The best coaches watch for mismatches between the teams, then take advantage of the opportunities that appear in the moment.  For example, if you have been struggling to hire workers for the second shift, perhaps now is the time to seek out those who worked at the bars that are now closed.  If you have unused trucks, could they be leased to companies who are struggling to keep grocery stores stocked?  Is now an opportunity to partner with a competitor, or to make that acquisition that would enable you to provide a more comprehensive service to your customers? 
  8. Think about next season.  When things are not going as well as planned for the current season, the best coaches start to think ahead to the next season.  Internally, where are the gaps in talent on the team?  Which players are just not a good fit with the current game plan or culture?  Do some players just need a bit more development in order to reach their full potential?  Externally, will any rules of the game change next season?  How might your industry be different when the pandemic has ended?  Will your products and services still be relevant?  How can you be less reliant on one supply chain?  How can you handle more work virtually? 

What other attributes have you observed in the best sports coaches that could be applied during this time of uncertainty?

The Best Players Have Coaches – Do You?

Coaching session

The best players in the world have coaches.  In addition to trainers who help them learn how to play with less risk of injury, they have coaches who help with their mindset.  Even the best players have bad days where the game or match doesn’t go as planned.  If they are not careful, that one bad day can lead to another and result in a downward cycle. 

A good coach can help them put things into perspective.  One bad game or match does not mean that they are no longer an elite player.  One bad game just means they are human.  A good coach can get them to learn from their mistakes and help them overcome any negative self-talk.  They can help them reframe the situation and then focus on their strengths and the goals they want to achieve.

The best leaders have coaches, too.  As a CEO or business owner, you regularly make decisions that impact your business and your employees’ future.  Have you ever made a decision you later regretted?  Of course you have!  When you make a poor decision that has negative consequences, how do you react?  Does negative self-talk kick in, such as “That was so stupid”, or “I’m not good enough”?  Do you start to question your ability to lead?   Do you procrastinate making decisions because you are afraid the decision will be wrong again?  How do you get yourself back on track before you fall into a downward spiral?

If you have a good coach, they can provide an objective perspective and help you reframe the situation to overcome the negative self-talk.  They will hold you accountable for what you said you would do and remind you of the goals you previously set.  They will challenge your assumptions to help you see things from a different perspective.  And most importantly, they will encourage you and help you become the best leader you can be. 

The best players have coaches – do you?

When is it Time to Replace Yourself as the CEO of Your Company?

I was recently asked this question by an entrepreneur who had grown his business to a certain point and felt stuck.  Someone had suggested to him that perhaps he was not the right guy to take his business to the next level, which made him wonder if he was holding his company back by continuing as the CEO.  He wondered if it was time to hire a “professional CEO” to run the business.  In my experience, the answer to this question depends on the individual and how hard they are willing to work on themselves. 

This concept was reinforced by Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” when he spoke at our Vistage ChairWorld conference last week.  From his perspective, every entrepreneur has the potential to scale their business as long as they are willing to develop themselves.  He cited the example of Steve Jobs, who after being fired by Apple, later returned to Apple as a different type of leader.  Collins called him Steve Jobs 2.0, and felt that he was a much better leader the second time around.

People who are willing to change and develop themselves are able to accomplish amazing things.  The key is the desire to learn and grow.  If you are unwilling to change, then go ahead and hire that professional CEO to replace you when you feel stuck.  If you are willing to do the hard work involved in creating your version of YOU 2.0, then let’s get started!

Is Your Large Project Like a Pregnancy?

Is Your Large Project Like a Pregnancy?

As some of my Vistage member CEOs updated me in the past few weeks on large projects underway at their companies, I was struck by the thought that the situations they were experiencing are like a pregnancy.  (Even if you have never been pregnant, I’m sure you are familiar with these concepts):

Planned vs. unplanned – Some projects are planned long in advance, while others are last minute due to unanticipated factors.

Morning sickness – Early in the project, upheaval and internal rumblings are often present in the organization as people try to get used to dealing with the project in addition to their normal workload.  Sometimes these rumblings die down as the project progresses past the first few months.  Other times, the rumblings last for most of the project.

Regular doctor visits – Large projects are often led by experts or consultants who have dealt with these types of projects before.  It’s important to have regular visits from the consultant to ensure the project is on schedule.  Sometimes the visits are quick and painless because the project is on track.  Sometimes, the consultant will recommend a change that is unexpectedly challenging.  (During my pregnancy, I knew I had to give up caffeine, but was caught off guard when the doctor told me I also had to give up chocolate.  Since I was craving chocolate, that was a big challenge!)

Preparing the nursery – After the initial hurdles have been overcome, it’s time to focus externally.  What impact will the project have on other departments within the organization?  Will customers or vendors be impacted?  How will you ready them for the upcoming changes?  It’s important to be prepared for the project to launch successfully.

Feeling the baby kick and the last trimester – The first time the baby kicks, you often feel excited.  When the project is closer to completion, excitement starts to build.  Then the kicks become more frequent, everything aches, you can’t sleep, and you start to tire of the situation.  Additionally, just as I did not realize that pregnancy really lasts 10 months (not 9!), projects often take longer than expected.   You may begin to wonder if this will ever be over.

Labor and delivery – “Going live” with your project can often be more painful than expected.  Others may warn you about the potential pain, yet it’s hard to comprehend until you experience it for yourself.  Launching a project can be a very intense time for all involved.

After the baby is born – Once the project has been launched, it may need your close attention and nurturing for a while.  Eventually, things settle into a routine.

That is, until the terrible twos!


Photo by:  Qsimple, Memories For The Future Photography via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA



Indavertent Leadership

Gosling fleet
Inadvertent Leadershipjonasflanken / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

I participate in a small group that meets once a month to share insights and wisdom. This particular group reminds me of stimulating intellectual conversations I used to have with my cousin’s family. Today’s discussion was on the topic of leadership. As the conversation unfolded, I realized that I was an inadvertent leader as a child. I didn’t grow up thinking that I wanted to be a leader. Rather, I was the kid who was entrusted by parents to carry the glass casserole across the street, and to walk other children to school, even though I was not the oldest. I did not give a thought to the fact that I was being perceived as a leader at the ripe young age of 4. I believe I was chosen as a leader because I exhibited responsible behavior and elicited trust from others. Those same qualities have contributed to my success as a leader throughout my career.

Someone else mentioned this morning that they learned how to be a leader from their military training. Others likely learned leadership from books, seminars, or mentors. However you learned to be a leader, the bigger question is how effective is your leadership in your business? The best leaders know when to take charge and lead, and when to step back and be an observer while letting someone else take the lead. When the business moves past your ability to be an effective leader, it is time to either increase your leadership skill or more likely, to bring in someone else to take the business to the next level. Are you an inadvertent leader? Or an intentional leader?

Is Your “Busyness” Negatively Impacting Your Business?

Shopping - Race to the Checkout

Are you a busy leader?  Welcome to the crowd!  All of the leaders I coach are busy.  As a matter of fact, if I come across a leader who says they aren’t busy, I view them with a bit of skepticism!

It seems as if people are getting busier than ever.  Just look at kids today vs. 40 years ago.  It’s common now for kids to have activities almost every night of the week as well as on weekends.  I sometimes wonder if kids are getting enough rest and relaxation.  When I was young, there seemed to be more time to just lie in the grass, stare at the clouds and daydream.  I have fond memories of being completely relaxed, letting my imagination run wild.

It’s not just kids who seem to be constantly busy.  If you are a leader who spends most of your time running from meeting to meeting and performing tasks that you can check off your lengthy to-do list, beware!  Your busyness may be negatively impacting your business.

When are you taking the time to dream about the possibilities?  To think about the future and how to create the future you desire?  To look at the horizon and see what new technologies, competitors and opportunities will be appearing in the next few days, months and years?  To make sure that all of the tasks and meetings are taking you in the right direction?

The most successful leaders schedule regular time on their calendar for a “meeting with themselves”.  They clear their desks and their minds from distraction, and allow the creative and strategic ideas to flow.  The top 1% also encourages their management team to do the same.  By making the time for creativity and vision, you will ensure that you are heading in the right direction.


Photo by:  David Blackwell. / Foter / CC BY-ND

A Culture of Kindness

A woman came up to me in a restroom at a Chamber of Commerce building recently and, with tears in her eyes, asked if I could spare 92 cents.  She seemed very sincere when she explained that her daughter had called and told her she needed her since she was very sick.  The woman hopped on her bicycle and was trying to travel the 30 miles to her daughter’s house when she realized she could not make it the entire way.  She was 92 cents short of having enough bus fare to get to her daughter.  My heart went out to her, and I handed her a dollar.  She practically fell to the floor in relief and thanked me profusely through her tears.  I felt terrific the rest of the day.

Please be aware that I do not typically give handouts to strangers.  I see people on the streets asking for help almost every day, and rarely do anything about it.  Maybe it’s because those situations seem less random, or because I generally prefer to give to organizations rather than individuals.  Whatever the reason, this particular situation was unique.

Have you ever given or received a random act of kindness?  How did it make you feel?  My experience with the woman made me wonder what could happen if a company implemented an act of kindness week.  What if each and every employee was asked to perform a kind act for a vendor, a customer or a co-worker every day for a full week?  What if you praised or rewarded some of the kindest acts in front of the team?  Do you think that might encourage more of that behavior?  Just imagine the potential positive impact!  If those acts of kindness became a habit and part of your company culture, do you think your company might prosper?  Why not give it a try and let me know how it goes?

photo by:

Jeff Kubina

Leadership Lessons Learned From a Great White Egret


One Saturday morning, we discovered that a great white egret was stuck in one of our large oak trees, forty feet up.  Its leg was caught on a limb and it was struggling mightily to free itself.  We called every organization that could possibly help, and late in the day, finally located a tree trimmer who was willing to attempt a rescue using ropes and harnesses.  Sadly it was too late for the magnificent bird.

Leadership lessons:

  1. Nonchalance – How often do you take routine tasks for granted?  Had the bird paid closer attention to its landing, it may not have gotten its foot caught.
  2. Impatience – Do you sometimes push ahead and try to fix a problem quickly on your own, only to discover that you made matters worse?  By trying to free its leg, the bird ended up getting the other leg caught as well.
  3. Pride – Many leaders think they can solve problems on their own.  Even when others offer assistance, they turn it down.  The results are often less than ideal.
  4. Independence – Our bird was alone, even though egrets often roost together.  Perhaps another egret could have used its beak to help free the foot.  Often a team approach works best.
  5. Mentor – Sometimes you get stuck.  Who can you call for advice and assistance?

Great leaders are always growing.  What lessons are you learning from your experiences?