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The PeopleCap Playbook

Timely insights and actionable people strategies for leaders.

Get in the Rink

I can’t roller skate. Never learned. While roller skating isn’t a skill I need regularly at this point in my life, the reason I can’t roller skate is important.

When growing up, it seemed like every birthday party was at Skateland. Every. Single. One. I couldn’t skate; and so every time, I sat at the tables outside of the rink and watched everyone make fools of themselves – slipping and falling. Some kids were so bad, they had to have a walker to hold them up. I wasn’t about to make a fool out of myself, and I stayed safely on the outside.

I had plenty of company. Lots of kids didn’t know how to skate and weren’t getting out there. But then as the parties continued, my company dwindled as more kids decided to try. Over time, those ridiculous, flopping kids from the first parties learned how to skate. Now, I told myself I couldn’t get out there because if I messed up, I would REALLY look silly. So, to this day, almost 40 years later, I don’t know how to roller skate.

As leaders, we often sit outside the rink – scared of looking silly, scared of doing it wrong, or scared of people seeing that we don’t have it all together. We avoid tough conversations. We default to command and control management to avoid being vulnerable. We know others have feedback that could make us better leaders, but we don’t ask because it may hurt. We avoid 360 evaluations for the leadership team – and organizational assessments – because someone may say we could improve on something. We don’t ask for help – professionally or personally – because we tell ourselves that everyone will think we are weak or don’t know what we’re doing.

The thing is – nobody’s got it figured out. The same people we’re worried will figure out that we don’t have it figured out, don’t have it figured out either. And they are so concerned that someone will figure out, that they don’t have it figured out, that they could care less whether we have it figured out.

Our assumptions and self-concocted fears about how people might react keep us from being the leaders we want to be – the leaders we can be – the leaders we need to be to have the impact we want to have. By sitting outside the rink scared of what people may think, we not only hurt ourselves, but also selfishly reduce others in our minds to being so small that they are unable to act in any way differently than we assume they will.

The first time I presented to an executive team, I was so worried they thought I was too young to know anything valuable that I rushed through my presentation, qualified everything, and ended the meeting abruptly. The first time I spoke at a large conference, I got so nervous that I turned completely around, my back to the audience, and read my power point slides to the screen. The first time I asked for candid feedback, I hijacked the conversation before they could share any. The first time I coached little league baseball, a parent came onto the field during the first practice because he could tell I was lost.

But every one of these things was important to me, and so I stayed with it. As a result, I have enjoyed years of incredible executive team meetings and retreats, conference presentations and panels, feedback and coaching sessions, and baseball and softball seasons. Most, if not all, of the success is owed to my friends, colleagues, and mentors who coached and taught me along the way – particularly the one who shared Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Well said, but easier said than done.  If you’re sitting on the outside of the rink when it comes to leading your team, putting tough issues on the table, being radically candid, or developing your people because you don’t yet know how to skate in those areas, please reach out.  I will be happy to share some tips and tactics to help you get in the rink and unlock your full potential as a leader.