…prompted by Sally Jenkins’ fine piece this morning on the front page of the Washington Post, entitled, When it comes to leadership, Tebow’s an example to follow. You can find it online, with a different title, here.
Why seize on this? Isn’t Jenkins a sportswriter? Isn’t this just a football story?
Not exactly. To be sure, it starts with football. Tim Tebow, a star quarterback in college for the University of Florida, was widely considered by pros to lack the physical skill set required of successful NFL quarterbacks. He was nevertheless drafted by the Denver Broncos. He’d only played intermittently until this season. But after the Broncos began the year 1-4, the coaching staff made him their starter. Since then the Broncos have been 5-1. The games have been nail-biters. And the wins haven’t been pretty. The assessment by everyone – his own management, his teammates, other teams, the print and broadcast media – is that he helps the Broncos win not by having brilliant passing stats but by bringing leadership intangibles to the table.
But the story isn’t on page A1 of the Post for that reason. And it’s not just there because certain coaches in DC-area teams are struggling with the L-word, although that is a factor. [Sally Jenkins mentions two: Bruce Boudreau, recently released as coach of the Capitals NHL hockey team, and Randy Edsall, under fire for his record to date with the University of Maryland football team.]
Jenkins’ story made page 1 because DC is a town that’s all about leadership. It’s the city’s stock in trade, its major industry, if you will. Outside the Beltway, the city often suffers from negative stereotypes, but the plain fact is that the DC-area workforce, whether government or private-sector, comprises maybe half a million men and women who were told by Mom and Dad to amount to something and give back to society – to make the world a better place – and to lead. It’s a cohort of bright, high-minded, energetic people. There are probably more leaders per capita here than any other city in the United States. [Don’t look for this statistic anywhere, please. I’m making this up.]
And here’s another plain fact. DC is also a town of ambition. Most of those leaders not only want to make the world a better place; they believe a good first step would be to get themselves just one notch higher on the corporate or government ladder. They think…if they could only achieve that first step, then they could make a greater contribution, across a greater field of play. The ambition extends right up to the presidency…and even that pinnacle, the Oval Office, isn’t enough. The incumbent always wants a second term.
So the way to rivet people’s attention here in Washington? Provide useful advice on leadership. And since sports are a microcosm of life, they’re a great source of leadership examples. Tebow is the latest, and one of the better ones.
Jenkin’s article is spot on. She points out leadership is not about intimidation, or bullying. It’s not about yelling. It’s not even charisma. She emphasizes that leadership is actually more about the followers. Would-be leaders can’t force us to follow. When we do, we’re making our followership a free gift.
But she could have said more. She could have said that what the other players respond to, what gives Tebow this X-factor, are three other attributes: high-mindedness, selflessness, and integrity. From all the buzz, you and I come to learn that Tebow is about the team, and winning, not about Tim Tebow. And furthermore, he wasn’t saying, or doing anything different when he was just showing up for practice, and sitting on the bench. He was always, and continues to be, about making the team better. But he wasn’t whispering that the team would do better if he were the starter. He wasn’t sharing any such self-promotion off the record with the media. Like Gandhi, he simply embodied the change he wanted to see in the world. He didn’t adopt this as a façade. It’s the real Tim Tebow. If he were selling cars, or in the mission field (as he’s been from time to time), he’d be the same person, giving 100% to his work in a kind of thoughtless, joyous (emphasis on that word) abandon.
And what makes him a leader is that these attributes are infectious, aren’t they? When you and I see them in someone else, we both want to be more like that ourselves, and furthermore, we see being more like that as a very real possibility. We think – I can do this!
In my field…Earth observations, science, and services…working on the Earth as a resource, a victim, or a threat…it’s been my good fortune to come across a lot of people like Tim Tebow. Emergency managers. Climate scientists. Meteorologists. Congressional staffers. Agency policy officials. Corporate executives. People working for a cause bigger than themselves. Selfless people. Helping others, and helping their communities and their society.
Look around your place of work today, with fresh eyes. Take a moment. Ask yourself who the people are in your world like this.
More importantly, get in touch with that same potential inside you. As Thoreau said, “Go in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” The only barrier separating us from this? It’s not extra effort. It’s the opposite. It’s letting go of the more anxious, fretful, self-interested parts of our nature. And remember, in the connected, networked world of today, leadership is not confined to the top; each of us can exercise it, everywhere. We don’t have to be that next level up.
Have a good day. And thanks for your leadership.
Here’s another perspective on leadership, also evident in Sally Jenkins article: leadership is about talk and relationships. Leadership is inter-subjective, that is, it is what is happens between the leader and follower: what is said and the meanings that emerge from that discourse. Leadership can’t be faked because good leadership builds relationships and opens doors for shared understanding. As Gary Yukl pointed out in his studies of leadership, the best outcome for leaders is commitment, and the best way to get there is through the influential tactics of inspirational appeal and consultation. Both inspirational appeal and consultation require the leader know the followers; there is no better way to know people than to build relationships with them. Relationships are two-way streets built by discourse; followers get to know the leader. Leadership can’t be faked.
Good to hear from you, Quyen, and especially with such a thoughtful contribution. And a reminder that leadership is held in high regard in Norman, Oklahoma as well as Washington, DC. Gives me the chance to make an additional point. Part of “inspirational appeal” is modeling behavior. In football, much of the desired behavior involves physical courage in the face of likely physical pain. When players see Tim Tebow sacrifice his body on every play, it makes them more willing to do the same. Leadership in Earth observations, science, and services in times when so much of work is policy-relevant also requires self-discipline, restraint, courage, tolerance for pain. When you and I see that in our leaders, we respond. When they flinch or shy away, we think twice ourselves.