Play Harder

Originally published on on July 25, 2015 By Ron Feathers
Play Harder
The other day, my 8 year old and I were kicking a soccer ball at the park. His mom and brother were practicing badminton. It was a beautiful Sunday; a little overcast, a slight breeze, and we had nowhere else to be. On the other side of the grass, a couple of boys about the same age as Connor (my 8 year old) were kicking a ball as well. They had a younger boy (maybe 5 or so) standing in as the “goalie”. That’s in quotes because it was pretty clear that this was merely their way of including him (an apparent requirement of The Mom), but not really having to engage with him. Clever boys. At some point, their ball had escaped over to where we were playing, and I proudly watched Connor boot it back to them. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was the audition. Connor must have impressed them as they immediately came over asked if he could play with them. “You know, to make the teams even”. As any dad would be, I was thrilled to have him go off and make friends at the park. Besides, that gave me the opportunity to sit down for a bit. Because, you know – kids have all the energy.
My reprieve lasted only a short time, though. My 6 year old now wanted to kick the ball … but I kinda knew where this was going. He had seen what transpired, and I think he wanted to play, too. After about another 10 minutes or so the two boys from the other side of the park were back. Their little group had been joined by their sisters and in total they were now a group of 6. Apparently, it still wasn’t even. These two were much better than the rest of the kids (even my Connor) and the teams were currently: the two of them on one side of the ball, and everyone else on the other. And the dynamic duo was winning. They now wanted not only my 6-year old, but also they wanted me to play.
So – there I was, on the pitch with a group of about 7 kids, trying to figure out how to make sure everyone was included, having a good time and appropriately challenged. But the two original boys were still tromping us. “Mister” said the elder of the two as we passed by each other about mid-field, “don’t go easy on us – we like the challenge.” I smiled. I was holding back (a little), but these kids craved challenge, they needed the push. They were competitors. Gladiators. They were anything but the typical 8 year old kids I’d wrapped them up as in my head. These guys were driven and I needed to step up and challenge them. I needed to play harder with them than I did with the other kids.
For the first couple of minutes, I took up the gauntlet. I stole the ball, charged to the other end of the field, towards the now unprotected goal and scored one for the team! I turned around to celebrate and saw 5 kids standing back by our goal. Just standing there. Not really having a good time. Not exercising. Not learning. Just, standing there watching. I dropped my head in shame. I had momentarily become “typical”. I had focused only on the two super-athletic kids – the squeaky wheels. The ones who actively sought out the challenge. And in so doing, I was leaving the others behind. I needed to change my approach and figure out how to help everyone have a good time, play the game, and feel like they were contributing. Growing. I needed to stop trying to be the star player and get back into leader-mode.
The approach I needed was, of course, different for each member of my team. Some needed me to pass them the ball at the goal so they could kick it in and score. Some needed me to give them a high-five every couple of minutes, regardless of the situation. One merely needed know what the score was, at any given time. And some needed me to push, and push, and push and keep challenging them. On either side of the ball, they each had something to contribute, and my job was to figure out what that was, and to provide the opportunity. Nothing more, and most certainly nothing less. Sometimes, we need to play harder.
This comes back to the office, of course. Each of our unique personalities is best interacted with in an equally unique way. The quiet, yet opinionated engineer who wants to bend your ear with everything that’s currently wrong in the company requires a different interaction model than the gregarious sales person who has been out entertaining clients each and every of the last 200 days. Everyone is a little (or in some cases, quite a lot) different. We all have our unique way of interacting, and as leaders our job is not merely to identify our own strengths (I’m a Activator/Maximizer according to Gallup’s Strengths Finder) but also to take this knowledge and apply it across the board to figure out how to best lead and interact with each and every individual person within our Circle of Influence.
To be an effective leader, one must act in many ways like a chameleon and adapt to our surroundings, all the while maintaining our own unique, individual style; our identity. We need to figure out how to not only have a thousand faces, but also how to quickly, effortlessly, and inconspicuously choose the right one to put on at any given time and yet still be honest to others and ourselves. This is a difficult task, but it’s easy to distinguish those who are great at it: they’re the ones who always play harder.