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Game Face January 6, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.

In the Autozone Liberty Bowl on January 2,  Arkansas and East Carolina University were locked in a 17-17 tie as the fourth quarter wound down. ECU’s kicker, Ben Hartman, missed two field goal attempts in the final few minutes that would have sealed a victory, and went on to miss a field goal attempt in overtime.  Arkansas then kicked a field goal to win.

My heart broke for this young man. Imagine missing not one, not two, but three field goals in five minutes, resulting in your team losing a bowl game. And no matter what words of condolence his teammates may offer him, I suspect Ben Hartman will blame himself for this loss for a long time.  The truth, of course, is that a football game is lost over the course of sixty minutes, not in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.

As much as I agonized watching the kicker struggle, I was amazed to see how his coach, Skip Holtz, handled the situation.  This would have been a big win for Holtz and his team.  I’m sure there was bonus money on the table, and big career implications.  And how did Holtz handle the tense closing moments of the game?

He laughed.  He joked with his kicker.  He kept the mood light, even after two missed kicks and an ice-the-kicker timeout from Arkansas.  Understanding the pressure this young man was under, Holtz maintained his composure and did everything he knew to help his kicker succeed. Even the announcers were wondering what Holtz could possibly be saying to relieve the stress on Hartman.

I don’t know what Holtz said, but it was a classic example of a leader maintaining his composure during a tough situation.  While very few of us will have to lead a football team to a bowl victory, we will certainly have to guide our teams through difficult times to achieve important goals.  Understanding the stress and finding ways to distract your people from it are important parts of good leadership.

This aspect of leadership is important in both immediate and long-term situations.  Sometimes, a sudden problem explodes.  How you handle yourself on the spur of the moment will go a long way in helping your team confront and quell the issue at hand.  A light mood, a firm decision, and an upbeat approach can make a big difference.

Other times, you are confronted with a long-term, difficult problem.  A high-risk project can last for months, wearing out your team.  A difficult business climate puts people under stress week after week.  No matter what the cause, being able to sustain the right attitude as a leader is crucial.  No matter your personal concerns or stress, you must put on your game face each day and provide unwavering support to your team.

Leaders need to be able to handle both the quick-hit and long-term problems.  Your people will look to you as they form their own reactions to a problem.  If you, like Skip Holtz, can manage a joke and a smile as kick after kick sails wide, you’ll be doing your people a huge favor.

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1. Robert Martin - January 6, 2010

That is just what I needed to read. Wow! That puts it in perspective! I would put that on the start page for Google id I could. This is what can get all of our businesses out of the weeds mentally and back on the track.

2. Eric D. Brown - January 6, 2010

Great post!

Having the ability to remain calm in situations like this is key. Skip Holtz handled it well and many other managers need to learn from him.

Thanks for sharing!

3. Brian Willson - January 6, 2010

I enjoy your posts and agree with the larger point you make. While watching the game, I first said ‘what a great leader and what a great example of trying to take the heat off someone under a lot of pressure’. Then, as he kept on talking to him, I thought about myself as a college athlete (baseball) back in the day. If my coach came out to the mound cracking jokes while I was getting ready to throw a full-count pitch with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th of a one run ball game, my concentration would’ve been shot. That’s just how I was. My coach or catcher could do that to me in other situations (say after walking 2 batters in a row in the middle of a game) but not with the game on the line. What I took from it is making sure you know what your team or person needs at that moment.

Some people, sometimes, just need to be left alone in the middle of the field. That’s what gets them focused. I sat there and wondered if Hartman was thinking to himself ‘just get away from me and let me do my thing’. We’ll never know.

As for Hartman…

If I was him, I would blame myself for the loss. That doesn’t mean I would be 100% correct, but taking accountability is a big step for any growing leader. Hartman’s gaining incredible experience that will serve him very well in his future. One day, he might even look back and think he’s glad that happened. Okay, that might be a stretch, but it will serve him well anyway.

It’s a great case study for a leadership discussion. Great post, Chuck.

4. Marc Sirkin - January 7, 2010

As usual, great post Chuck. Great story and example. It’s a great reminder for me as a manager and as someone who has a boss of what great leadership looks like in crucial moments.

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