David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

October 25, 2011: Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

I have had an epiphany over the last several days.  This came about because of some challenging situations regarding leadership decisions (my own) and questions (from others).  And the epiphany was born out of the some of the tritest parts of our society:  sports commentary.

For years I have never really understood how great athletes "slow the game down" when they make great plays.  Intuitively, I can comprehend the general concept whenever I watch a great quarterback (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, so forth) or a great goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury, Martin Brodeur, for example) simply dominate a game.  Where I got lost was in trying to fathom what these athletes' minds were doing in the 2-3 seconds available in which to make a great play.

I suppose the trick is that the brain has the capacity to register many, many situations and scenarios from experience and studying, which can be isolated and retrieved almost spontaneously.  I have to admit that only now, after pondering the complete context of this blog, did I even do any quick research to see if I could confirm my hypothesis.  And for the most part, I did, as shown, in one relatively superficial article from San Diego Sports Psychology.

Thus, for me, at least, great leadership comes from developing the same awareness and processing of scenarios in a matter of seconds so that volatile situations are defused, tense situations are lightened, aimless situations are given direction, and important moments are recognized.  Allow me to provide a couple of examples:

1) You are called into a conversation between two angry co-workers.  You can attempt to jump in and settle it, which is probably the equivalent of the rookie quarterback throwing to his star receiver even though the receiver is in double coverage.  It might work, but the odds are that it will fail.  The dispute might not be settled and all you've done is impose a solution on two people.

So, perhaps, the best plan of attack is to lighten the mood with a joke. Without experience and trust in your intuition, the joke may simply make the matter worse, further angering the co-workers.  Compare this to the rookie quarterback who has seen great quarterbacks throw on the run, but not having perfected that pass, ends up missing the receiver badly. Intentions were good, but application needs work.

What might the "slow the situation down" leader do?  As a general rule, you might simply allow the co-workers to continue their conversation, trying to keep the conversation from turning into a screaming match, and occasionally pushing one or both to an understanding of what the other is saying.  After about five or ten minutes, there is a very good chance that the argument is settled by them--because you were able to focus them.  To continue with the football argument, this is the mentality of sticking with the run or the short pass, knowing that at some point you can go for the long pass with little risk of interception.

2) You are in a meeting that wasn't called by you.  The conversation is getting off track and no one seems to know the direction the conversation should go.  You can simply take over the meeting, angering the committee head, even though some of the committee members may thank you profusely for doing so.  Without the cache of experience, you will appear to the committee head much like the rookie quarterback appears to the head coach when he changes the play at the line of scrimmage and makes a great gain.  Short term benefit; long-term detriment.

Perhaps, you can allow the meeting leader to flounder, knowing that after the fact, you can determine any number of actions that might benefit both you and the organization. For instance, you might go to the meeting leader and say that you have some ideas that might help him or her next time. You might go to other members of the committee and speak about how horrible that meeting was.  You might even go to a superior to complain about the poorly run meeting.  All of these are the equivalent of the quarterback being the true arm-chair quarterback, speaking up after it's too late.

Ideally, during the meeting, you might feed the Chair suggestions that he or she can easily pull into the discussion.  This can be done gently, even with some flattery, such as saying, "Bill, I'm sure you're about ready to suggest this, but perhaps we can start discussing a timeline."  This equates to Tom Brady on the sideline talking to his coaches during the game, recommending alternatives and options.  The first few times he did that, you have to assume that the coaches were a little uncomfortable, but with his increased success, the collaboration was welcome.

I know these two examples are tame, but to me they are examples of processing a situation in just a few seconds and coming up with a plan that sometimes you haven't even fully played out.  And occasionally your decision may be a mistake.  And I have made mistakes.  Even the best quarterbacks throw a few interceptions each year.  That doesn't mean they weren't making the best decision at the time they threw the ball.  And if a leader slows down the "situation" in these scenarios, he or she is more likely to slow down even more tense situations.