One evening, author and leadership consultant John Maxwell was having dinner with Olympic athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Until last year, Joyner-Kersee was the most decorated U.S. woman in Olympic track and field history.

As they were chatting, Maxwell decided to have a little fun with the athlete. He sat his fork down on his plate, looked Joyner-Kersee straight in the eye, leaned forward and said, “I bet that I can beat you in a 100-yard dash.” Joyner-Kersee stopped in mid-bite, and searched John’s face for any hint of whether he was joking or serious. This was the first woman ever to break 7,000 points in the heptathlon, a 2-day, 7-event contest consisting of the 100 meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meter dash, long jump, javelin throw and the 800 meter run.

Maxwell let a moment or two pass, then said, “Actually, now that I think about it, if you give me a 10-yard head start, I bet that I can beat you in a 100-yard dash.” Over the course of the next few minutes, Maxwell continued to stretch his need for a head start until he settled on, “Yes! If you give me a 90-yard head start, I’m 100% confident that I can beat you in a 100-yard dash!”

Maxwell’s 100-yard dash dinner story serves as a reminder to leaders. Whether you’re trying to implement a new process, orchestrate innovation, or mold a culture, you have to meet your team where they are before you can get them to where you want them to go.

If you’re leading a team, chances are, you’re far ahead of the rest of the group from Day 1. You may have more years of experience, and less fear of calculated risk. You probably have more data and background information that led to the decision that change is necessary. You have a better grasp of the ideal outcome. That’s the equivalent of a 90-yard advantage, and a major team de-motivator. Think about the last time you gave your team a new project, and ask yourself these three questions:

1. Did I take the time to lay the proper groundwork, or did I jump straight to the end?

2. Did I give the team time to ask questions, or did I do most of the talking?

3. Did I help the team understand what “there” looks like, or did talk mostly about what’s not working today?

In a Harvard Business Review series on The Secret of Great Teams, an effective team was defined as “a group of people who do collective work and are mutually committed to a common team purpose and challenging goals related to that purpose.” As a leader, it’s your responsibility to give your team what they need to truly succeed.

Another truism of Maxwell’s is this: leaders who complain that “it’s lonely at the top” aren’t really leading people anywhere – they’re just taking a hike. Make sure you give them context, allow plenty of time for their questions, and give them a roadmap to success.

Question: What tools do you use to make sure you’re not leaving your team in the dust?

 

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