Updated: Mar 20, 2021
Tennis was the only hobby my brother and I shared growing up in our small town. Every summer day, my mom took us to the local courts where we’d have lessons, then stick around for hours to play, then go to the pool with friends to cool down. I was a good enough player to make the high school team. My brother was a good enough player to be top-seeded on the team and to rank nationally in the USTA with his then-doubles partner, the man I eventually married. My husband I now enjoy tennis together, and we have recently taken our two children to play and teach them the basics.
The first time we ventured onto the local courts – the same courts my brother and I used to play on thirty years ago – we taught them about groundstrokes like the forehand and backhand, and about how to position their bodies in relationship to the ball. Despite the fact that it is played within the confines of a box painted on asphalt, tennis is an all-body, high-intensity sport. When we were in full practice mode with the kids, we set up shots in a very predictable way so that they could practice the forehand stroke with consistency. Repetition makes for good muscle memory, so we hit level shots right to them as they hit the ball over and over again.
Then, the second time we went out, after some practice drills, we started volleying. Our oldest son and I played opposite our youngest son and my husband. The shots our kids had hit so well the day before during practice were gone. At best, they hit the ball, but it went sideways because they hit it with the frame, not the strings. At worst, they missed the ball entirely. What our practice rounds had failed to teach them that the game is dynamic. The ball usually doesn’t come right to you – you have to move yourself to meet it. This is called positioning and it requires a split-second assessment of the ball’s direction and speed so that you can determine where you need to get your body in order to return the ball well. Sometimes you’ll need to race backwards or sideways; other times, you’ll need to carefully step back and wait a moment longer than you want to. Keeping your feet exactly where they are, jutting your racket out to the side, and hoping the ball will meet it – that technique will work only once out of every 100 strokes.
For a while, we didn’t say anything. I was hoping they’d figure out after a few failed attempts that they might consider moving their actual bodies. They’ve played soccer and basketball and golf – surely they understand that your body needs to move to get in the right relationship with the ball? They clearly did not. One time, my youngest son swung so hard from his fixed position that had he hit the ball, it would have landed a mile away. But he didn’t hit the ball. I thought to myself: That boy looks like a statue with gusto. Such passion! (and zero impact, because he won’t move his feet.)
This image – a stone, fixed in time and space, but filled with passion and excitement – reminded me of some people I’ve met. Parents so committed to their way that they meet each problem with the same approach, whether it works or not. Social workers or physicians so glued to their own clinical authority that they fail to meet the problem where the client needs it to be most effective. Executives who excitedly roll out a new employee campaign only for it to fall flat and die.
Our scroll-savvy culture tends to promote passion over precision, and excitement over execution. That’s great for motivational videos or inspirational experiences, but leadership on a Tuesday morning at 10:25 am can be a bit lackluster. Leading well with the humans in the cubicle down the hall, in a way that sustainably solves problems, is like tennis: It requires us to privilege progress over position – and to ensure our energy is used for real impact.
Early in my executive career, a new CEO to an organization that had been in cultural peril, every day at work meant I was hastily picking up rocks and finding what crawled out from under them. The volume and intensity of the challenges I found was overwhelming and motivating. As I quickly observed and interpreted data to make the best decisions I could about how to intervene in the culture and strategy of this organization, most of my failures were failures of positioning. I was pretty good at getting in position to see the problems and understand what they were about at their core. I was less good at positioning myself around solutions. I felt an urgency (passion!) to quickly solve issues, to treat all matters as though they were crises. They certainly felt that way to me as a newcomer, and the pressure of being in the top seat made the intensity that much greater. I swung a lot, and I swung with gusto. And many of my great ideas never made it over the net, because I didn’t position them well to the problems or the people involved. I had really great ideas and really poor timing.
Positioning well requires an awareness that where we stand – philosophically, energetically, hierarchically, or politically – may not be ideal for the problem coming our way. It means temporarily giving up our footing, our stability, and our certainty in service to the vitality of continued engagement with the problem. It means being willing to leap, step, hold back, or change direction to meet problems exactly where they can be solved. If passionate leadership comes at the expense of hitting the ball, then we’re guaranteed a career of short matches we’ll lose every time.
What in you has to shift in order for you to meet the problems facing your organization today? Are you holding your ground on something at the detriment of progress?
Photo courtesy of Jim Sung via unsplash