Leadership Lessons from Hockey

I will proudly proclaim that I am a hockey fan. It is definitely my favorite sport to watch or to play...and I've literally watched thousands of games in my lifetime (while maybe only playing hundreds).

As October commenced this year I admit that I was missing something, and that something was NHL hockey. The NHL team owners and players were having a difficult time playing nicely with one another and sharing their toys (dump trucks full of money), so they all decided to take a break from one another for awhile (enter the lockout).

Well, that while has finally ceased and they are about to begin a new NHL season...finally.

Mere days away from the beginning of this new season, my favorite team (the Toronto Mapleleafs) decided to fire their General Manager. Now I'm not writing about this to get into the details of why something like this would happen, nor is it my desire to evaluate any of the uniqueness’s around this situation including timing. Instead, I want to share what I'm learning about leadership as a result of this particular set of circumstances. Here are my three takeaways from this past week:

1. Just because we think it might be a good idea, doesn't really mean that it is. Our former general manager, Brian Burke, was known to possess a larger than life personality. He was brash, borderline arrogant and sometimes intolerant of others. Toronto has long since claimed to be the center of Canadian culture, and their hockey team has generated a significant following of fans. The media coverage of the sport in the city is second to none, and the franchise itself is said to be the most profitable and valuable in the entire NHL. 

It sounds as though an individual who possessed great confidence, desire and willingness to lead would be a perfect fit as GM of a hockey team in this type of environment. While initially all indicators may have been in agreement, it became evident that the aforementioned idea of a "fit" between personality and circumstance was incorrect.

All signs pointed to this being a perfect solution. We have a larger than life environment and a larger than life personality...it's a good idea for them to co-exist isn't it?

What I've learned about this happenstance is that even though my idea might seem like the best fit, I should first ensure that I've examined other possibilities instead of simply enduring the most obvious of solutions. Sometimes my good ideas are actually hindering the great idea that is waiting to bring forth the best possible solution for the challenge that I'm dealing with. Will I have the courage and discipline to refine my dreams, or simply run with the first "fresh" idea that comes my way?

2. Bigger isn't always better. I've been told over the course of my leadership career about the many deficiencies that I possess as a leader. It's great to be self-aware, but self-awareness always needs to be held in balance with self-confidence. Personally speaking, I do not possess a larger than life persona; I hate the idea of marketing myself as a brand. There are times when my unwillingness to engage in the creation of this persona has limited my leadership opportunities and times when other opportunities have been enhanced. The lesson that I've learned through this all is to be myself. Doesn't sound like rocket science does it? The truth about leadership is that all different kinds of personalities, opinions and gifts are needed to create momentum and vision for long-lasting change. It's important for me as a leader to celebrate what I am and not necessarily what I'm not. Yes, I should be aware of my deficiencies, but they do not define me, nor does the success or failure of other leadership styles and types mean that I am the prototypical leader. There is room for great diversity in leadership. Am I confident in whom I've been created to be in order to lead according to my own personal convictions? A great leader is someone who knows who they are while knowing when it's appropriate to risk and when it's appropriate to ask for help.

3. When you know something doesn't fit, stop trying to change it. The most impressive part about this entire situation regarding the dismissal of a leader from my favorite hockey team is this: the timing. There is a lot to be said about having the courage and tenacity to admit a mistake and correct it immediately. Often times we know that something isn't working but due to a lack of discipline or an unwillingness to embrace being uncomfortable for a season, we simply endure the situation until something more catastrophic occurs...we become unwilling to be led or to lead...we become stuck. If we have a vehicle that isn't working properly, we fix it, don't we? The same should be said of our leadership. If there is a habit or environment that isn't working, we need to fix it...and sometimes fixing means removing it. If your vehicle is rusting you have three choices: 
1. Pretend the rust isn't happening 
2. Paint over it
3. Cut it out, weld in a new piece of metal and paint over it. 
Only one of these three solutions will actually deal with the problem on a more permanent basis.

Sometimes we as leaders need to tinker with different things like systems, environments and habits. Other times we need to stop trying to fix it and just get rid of it. Leaders have the ability to wisely discern which response is required at the appropriate time.

The NHL may be back, but all of the issues that caused them to fight in the first place have not been solved. There will always be a need for great leadership. Keep fighting, keep hoping and keep stewarding every moment with great confidence, commitment and consistency. Who knows when you may be given the opportunity to lead, so you might as well be prepared.

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