You Cannot Lead If People Do Not Understand You

What does it mean to lead? In simple terms, it means to get people to follow you.

Think about the people you follow. As an athlete, the first person that comes to mind is probably your coach. Successful coaches have a few things in common. First, they understand their players and have a vision of what the team can accomplish and how they are going to get there. Second, they communicate that vision in a way to get buy-in from the team. They get everyone to believe in the vision. Third, they create a culture of trust and an overall, “Yes we can” attitude. And finally, they create a team atmosphere where everyone understands that a team playing together, fighting toward the same goal, can accomplish far more than any individual.

A great example of this was legendary coach John Wooden.

John Wooden is widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest head coach of all-time.
John Wooden is widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest head coach of all-time.

Wooden won 10 NCAA Division I Tournament Championships and is a member of bot the College and National Basketball Hall of Fame. Back in the late 1960s, Wooden was coaching then Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at UCLA. He was the most dominant player in college basketball. At 7’2” he was unstoppable. The press asked coach Wooden why he didn’t just run his offense by passing the ball to him every time. His answer was, if he did that Alcindor would score 100 points per game, but we wouldn’t win a championship. Wooden knew that there were a few teams out there that could, if they only had to worry about Alcindor, defend him. Without a team around Alcindor, UCLA would win 20 games but not the championship. Coach Wooden truly understood the exponential power of the team over the individual, no matter how dominant the individual was.

The next step is the implementation of the vision.

Now, the leadership role is passed on to the captains or assistant coaches, and in many instances the communication switches to either verbal or physical signals. In baseball, it is usually the third base coach when the team is up at bat and the shortstop or catcher when the team is on defense. In football, it is the quarterback and usually one of the linebackers. In basketball, it is the point guard. In every sport, there are signals given to relay the coaches’ vision of how things should work to accomplish your goal of winning the game. Sometimes the execution isn’t perfect, but at least everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing.

Finally, there is the review. Watching the game tape, analyzing where the team succeeded and where they fell short and implementing changes based on past performance and the new competition ahead.

What many athletes don’t realize is this same formula works for business as well as sports. And as we examine the difference in business and sports, you come to realize that in both, most cases of failure can be traced to a breakdown in communication.

Communication in business is important because without it you cannot maintain momentum. In multi-location businesses, the “team” doesn’t meet and practice together every day. The team usually gets together once per quarter, discusses performance and concerns, comes up with a game plan to address the issues and then heads out to execute the plan out of sight of the coach (president).

There are a few things that can happen that can happen in this scenario.

First, you can never be sure the team captain (manager) can communicate the plan or vision as well as the president. Second, you can never be sure the communication is getting down to every level of the company. And finally, you can never be sure there is consistency of the message and implementation plan from one location to the next. The primary cause when these problems occur can usually be traced to poor communication somewhere along the line, and a lack of understanding of the plan and the implementation process.

Several years ago I was hired to run a $250 million family owned, multi-location business. We had six locations in four states, a general manager at each location and a small corporate office that consisted of me (president), an accounting department headed up by a controller, a human resource manager, a marketing manager and an operations manager.

The way things worked was that each general manager did their own thing, and the corporate office responded to their requests for information and supported each manager as best they could. What was evident right from the beginning was the lack of leadership. There was no game plan, and more concerning to me, limited communication between corporate functions and locations within the company. To their credit, the general managers did communicate among themselves, but it was limited to one on one conversations. Managers not on the call missed out on what could have been very useful information.

As a basketball coach looking at this situation, it would be as if you had five great players but no game plan and you just gave them the ball and said “go play the game.” Think about it. If things were not going well, how would you address them? What could you say?

Do better? Without a plan, how can you expect the players to execute? Without direction and goals how can you hold your team accountable? And, the longer this type of situation is allowed to go on, the harder it becomes to address. As long as this situation existed, the team (company) would never reach its potential. We were a mediocre company that did fine because our industry was strong. But beneath the surface, I knew we could do much better, and I also knew if there was a downturn, we would be in trouble because we would not be able to respond in a coordinated way. It would be every man for himself.

Ultimately, we did get the company to perform as a team but it didn’t happen overnight. As you can imagine, some personnel changes needed to be made and we went on a long journey to commitment.

Whether it is an athletic team or a business, and whether you realize it or not, you all go on a journey to commitment. Here are the steps to start yours:

  • Set a vision (what could be)
  • Communicate the vision
  • Identify obstacles
  • Team participation to suggest how to eliminate obstacles
  • Brainstorming possible solutions
  • Putting together a game plan
  • Communicating the vision and game plan
  • Getting the buy-in
  • Setting goals (with team)
  • Communicating the goals
  • Getting the buy-in
  • Setting a timetable and review process
  • Communicating the timetable and review process
  • Implementation
  • Follow-up – Review – Revisions
  • Hold everyone accountable (team)

This is the process successful managers and coaches go through. And, just like in sports, if players don’t buy-in to the vision or don’t perform at an acceptable level, they need to be replaced.

If you analyze the process and look closely at the steps, you begin to realize the importance of communication. More importantly, you realize the power of being understood. You can make a good presentation, be confident, speak well, look good but at the end, if everyone is left looking at each other thinking, “what did I just hear,” you have a problem.

Good coaches and managers speak in clear terms, don’t sugar coat information, back up what they say with concrete examples and keep at it until everyone understands what is being said, what needs to be done, how they are going to do it and what the end goal is. It takes practice and persistence, but if you can master the art of being understood, you have a leg up on the competition no matter what the challenge.

Why do many businesses covet athletes and coaches for potential leadership positions? Because they understand this process, they believe in the process, they recognize the benefits of operating as a team and they are not satisfied until the team  understands where they are going and how they are going to get there. And finally, they can communicate in such a way that instills confidence in their team, staff and teammates.

Mastering the art of being understood is one of the more important skills you can pursue to help you succeed in life after sports.

If you look at any of the technical disciplines; sciences, accounting, engineering, areas not thought of as “management” disciplines, and look at the people leading those companies, they not only possess the technical knowledge, they have the ability to communicate in a way that everyone can understand. This is what sets them apart from their peers. Look at Steve Jobs. He was brilliant but what we remember was his ability to take a complex machine and explain why we should have it and how it would make our life better. He made us understand the value of the computer as a personal tool as opposed to just a business tool. That is the power of being understood.

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