Leadership lessons for a 5th grade CEO: The Gable Way
Dear Izzy, Max, and Kate,
You woke up before mommy and I today. That’s rare. Last night was like Christmas Eve for you before bedtime. Today is your first day as a CEO at 5th grade “Biz Town”, Izzy. While we’re all proud of you, it’s also allowed you and I to have some good talks on our way school about what leadership really means.
I’ve read a few books on leadership over the years – and even participated in multi-week Leadership mentoring groups and multiday seminars. But the truth is that I’ve never really believed that leadership is a learned skill or something that a book, seminar, or process can teach you.
I believe leadership is an inherent ability afforded to certain people in very specific margins of their lives. Not because they’re lucky – nor because they read enough leadership material (though it helps these people continue to grow). But mostly because they are talented in that specific niche and continually practice the easiest principles. The greatest leaders I’ve known in my years, in business and in sport, have generally been people who didn’t even realize they were doing anything in particular that made them special.
There have been a few areas in my own life where I’ve had an opportunity to lead (and some where I haven’t). Most rewarding among them was my time as a head wrestling coach. Here are a select few principles I believe allowed me to turn a program with a losing record and a poor team culture into a winner that operated like a family. Part of being able to do that was inherent knowledge, but part of it was also lessons from my own coach and from former Iowa wrestling legend Dan Gable who I met back in the early 90s.
Here are the 3 principles that come to mind immediately:
Example – I never asked my wrestlers to do anything I wasn’t willing or able to do myself. I pushed my kids hard. To the breaking point mentally and physically. Tears and collapse weren’t unusual in our conditioning sessions. I learned that the from my coach Frank Simpson and believe to this day that in most areas of life, being better conditioned than everyone else for showtime, is the difference. My wrestlers may have hated me for the things I asked of them in the moment – if I hadn’t done those things along side of them. When they ran sprints I ran them too – usually faster, while yelling at them to keep up. When they wrestled “live” for conditioning I wrestled with them too, constantly pushing the pace. They saw me doing the things that made me successful as a wrestler years before and then emulated what they actually saw me doing – not just what I told them to do because I was in charge. Hard work. Period. Show them how.
Influence – I had very set in place rules for my kids. Don’t swear, don’t be late, don’t disrespect your teachers, don’t bully, don’t disrespect your female classmates, don’t let me hear of you smoking, drinking, or being in the wrong place with people who are. Those were non-negotiable. And then there were a few that were a little more flexible. I told the boys the importance of each of those rules, not only in their teenage lives, but in my life personally and in their lives in the future. Wrestling doesn’t last forever, but good character does. I hope my influence in those areas has stuck with my kids all these years later. A silly side note to influence – when I was coaching wrestling I was also racing triathlons pretty competitively, so my legs were shaved most of the time. My kids thought it was funny at first. But slowly I began to notice each of them showing up to practice with shaved legs. Influence run amok?
Empathy – The honor that comes with leading is also the hard part. When I was working with teenage boys there was at least one boy each day who would linger around my office after practice. “Coach, can I talk to you?” I listened to a lot of problems, ranging from divorcing parents, to girlfriend issues, to academic struggles, to bullying. I was the same coach who pushed them to exhaustion day in and day out, yelled at them to be stronger and be better – yet every day at least one kid per day would need me to be an empathetic ear. I earned their respect by listening, by not judging their tears in a private setting, and by offering help where I could provide it. Usually, just being available was enough. This made us a family and a team – not just a collection of individuals with our own agendas.
You may be wondering, what does coaching wrestling have to do with business leadership? Everything. Good leaders I’ve known or met, like Frank Simpson and Dan Gable, have impacted my life via example, influence, and being empathetic to the fact that we’re both just human. The good business leaders I’ve known have done the same. Add these principles to subject matter knowledge and you’ll succeed as a leader.
As a leader you can push your team to be better. To get the best of themselves. But only if you’re willing to do it yourself and show them how. To set expectations and explain why and live it out yourself. And you’ll only get the best from your team if you’re willing to be human, available, and willing to help.
I love you,
Sat: Swam 1000
Sun: Ran 17 miles
Mon: lifted weights / stretched
Tues: Ran 5 miles
Wed: Swam 1000
Thurs: planned 5 miles