Leadership and Pickup Games

I have been thinking about the Noble Cause idea presented in the book “Tribal Leadership” this last week. It pointed out to me the risk of all work relationships, (and goals for that matter): that we settle for less. When you look at companies like Amgen or Zappos and you ask them why they come to work their answers are big ones. They are not trying to be better than their competition through specific goals they are trying to make the world better.

I think about the goals of my previous jobs and although they were tangible, and we achieved some of them and some of them were even noteworthy, they tended to be ends in themselves. I wondered why employees ceased to get excited about them and people outside the organization were rarely impressed with our accomplishments. When I was running A/R and fraud the goals always involved reducing risk and expense. Not bad goals, but hardly anything that would make people get excited over the long hall. Every year bad debt and fraud got smaller and the goal got smaller and harder to achieve for a couple of reasons:

Diminishing Returns:

When I was at Sprint PCS we launched so fast and there was so much demand for our product that our focus in the back office was making sure our credit process did not impede our sales process. As sales began to be less insane, we had time to really analyze what was causing our bad debt. Truthfully, it was not difficult to make some really big improvements with relatively small changes in the beginning.  After all the easy stuff has been fixed, it took more and more time and money to devise ways to reduce the bad debt. Even when we adjusted the goal to account for this reality  trying to achieve a new version of the same goal was less impactful to the bottom line and therefore less cost-effective.  There was also something else working against the organization

Lack of Inspiration:

To put it bluntly, the team was trying to rally around a dollar figure, and although it worked for a while eventually everyone began to think that their job depended on the dollar figure. The driving force became fear. Sure it is motivational but it was not inspirational. We were not playing to win at this point we were playing not to lose. It affected the way we worked. Sometimes our competition was within our own company. Not exactly the thing that made people jump out of bed and hurry to work every day.

“Finding the Game”:

Gwendolyn Oxenham wrote a fascinating book called “Finding the Game” (there is also a documentary of it called “Pelada”). It is a chronicle of a three-year, 25 country journey where they searched out what we in the USA call “pickup” soccer games. Every country has a different term for it: In Trinidad it’s “taking a sweat.” In Brazil it’s “pelada” (literally “naked”). It’s the other side of soccer, those spontaneous matches played away from the bright lights and manicured fields—the game for anyone, anywhere. It captured for me the essence of ‘Stage 4’ companies; a level where the core values and a noble cause (something bigger than any one person) are clear and bought into by all employees.  I play in a geezer” soccer league and I also play in a regular bi-weekly pickup game for as well. In the “geezer” league, many people are playing to win and some players have not been able to let go of their individual dreams of past glory. Unfortunately, this brings out some of the most embarrassing human behavior and it is always someone making it about themselves. The pick-up game is different. Sure, we choose teams and keep score, but we make it as even as possible, all skill levels are welcome and participate, and nobody really cares who wins. It’s not about beating a specific opponent like in the “geezer” league. It is bigger than that. We come to play twice a week (even in the dead of winter). On any given day there may be as many as 15 countries represented on the field, but it does not inhibit the game. There are no referees and we never have to worry about fights or even harsh words.

Why do we do this?

The immediate answer might be for the exercise, but we could achieve this much more efficiently if we uncovered our treadmills and jogged at home. You might think it was for fellowship, but I do not even know the names of some of the regular players and some of them have cultural differences that would normally create tension in their respective countries, but not here.

‘Means’ and ‘Ends’:

The authors of “Tribal Leadership” estimate that only about 22% of companies operate at ‘Stage 4’;  To me these companies are successful because they don’t settle for selfish or short-sighted ends. They see their work as a means to a greater end. I am not sure that playing the game of soccer is a core value or a particularly noble cause for any of these guys. The game is a mechanism (process/tool if you like) that we use to pursue something greater. I am not even sure anyone would be able to find a noble cause of our pickup games, but  it is a concrete illustration of the satisfaction and liberation that come from participating in something bigger than each of us.  If such a diverse group of people can come together and operate this way twice a week for something as simple as a game, surely more companies can figure out a way to do this.

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Dan Clark

Dan Clark

Principal of Bowline Consulting, process designer/fixer, wireless telecom veteran, addicted pick up soccer player, fly fisher, backpacker, beer brewer, guitar player, choir singer, recovering bag piper

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