So, whatever you’re doing right now – right this minute – I want you stop. Just stop. There. Have you hit the pause button? Now, I want you to remember what it was like when you didn’t know how to do what you were just doing.
Working on presentation? There was a time you didn’t know PowerPoint. Planning a sales call? There was a time you didn’t have a clue how to structure a sales call. Designing a website? You did not pop out of the womb knowing how to do that. How did you get from where you were (ground zero) to where you are now (expert)?
Many people had to teach and guide you along the way – just as our parents did when we were learning to ride a bike. And yet, when we fell off our bike, our parents didn’t say, “What’s wrong with you? Everyone knows how to ride a bike.” They picked us up, brushed us off, and encouraged us to keep trying. “It will come with practice.”
EXPERTISE IS NOT A WEAPON
One common mistake that well-meaning leaders, managers, and coaches make is using expertise as a weapon. They have failed to remember to remember what it was like to not know something. This “knowledge amnesia” sometimes results in people like us, even with the best of intentions, crushing those still climbing the learning curve.
I will share two recent examples of this phenomena.
SURVIVAL FLIGHT TEAM
The first example comes to us courtesy of the Survival Flight Team from the University of Michigan (U of M). They have three helicopters and a jet that fly with the purpose of saving lives. U of M has a renowned medical system – they solve the medical emergencies that others cannot and they travel to hard to reach places to get those in need. I had the opportunity to meet on one of the chopper pilots recently. Captain Kim had flown the Survival Flight helicopter to a local 4th of July celebration and people flocked to admire the chopper and meet the crew. I was one of them.
I’m quiet around new people at first, but I was forced into conversation with Captain Kim when my brother, Marty (of Destination Unstoppable fame!) asked if I knew the purpose of a strange, pointy device attached to the front of the chopper. He knew I didn’t know. I knew he did know (it is used to cut power lines if the chopper hits them!) Captain Kim, the chopper pilot, grinned as we argued back and forth. From this auspicious starting point, Captain Kim and I moved to the topic of leadership (I am never shy when speaking about leadership). Before long, Marty had wandered off while Captain Kim and I solved all the world’s problems.
Captain Kim is an engineer and he’d flown choppers in the U.S. Marines and then the Coast Guard. We spoke about the challenge of building winning teams – those teams that unite to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. Captain Kim said had seen the importance of that process from his work in the military where the lives of those you lead are at stake. Then, the topic changed. We spoke about the “medical culture.” I have worked with some medical leadership teams, and Captain Kim had seen it all within his Survival Flight role.
We found common ground in the idea that medical teams, which must use information and experience as a foundation for success, sometimes use it inappropriately. Captain Kim spoke about a nurse who, “used her knowledge like a cudgel” with her subordinates. When leaders wield criticism like a buzz saw, that behavior creates fear and resentment. Fear and resentment undermine performance. Even if the nurse meant well, she undercut her own effectiveness. And frankly, what happened to the Hippocratic oath? First do no harm? Why isn’t that concept used like a cudgel by leaders? Try this approach:
- Kindness first.
- What do they need in this moment? Time? Information? Encouragement? Patience? Give it to them.
- Then guide, redirect, or inform.
As we marveled at the universal problem of adults failing to remember when they didn’t know something, my mind traveled back a just a few days to another powerful example.
MAKING IT PUBLIC MAKES IT WORSE
I enjoy attending vintage base ball games (base ball is spelled correctly in this context). It’s a joyful example of the sport played by the rules of 1867. Rules, umpiring, uniforms, and even language are from that time period. Most of the men have played for years, and they have names like Minnow, Painless (a dentist), Soap Dish, Trousers, Doc, Whistler, Razorback, Mad Dog, Moonlight, Giant, Tadpole, Beast, and a variety of other monikers (my Individualization strength loves it!) There are two home teams called the Lah-de-dah’s and the Nationals. They play at the historic Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. I enjoy the challenge of trying to capture the game’s perfect moments with my camera.
At a game on July 1, I watched a National player come up to bat. I had never seen him play before, and I knew something was up when I saw the anxious look on the young man’s face. He swallowed hard and took a few tentative practice swings. His teammates shouted a variety of instructions from the bench.
“Watch the ball, Barndoor!”
“Wait for your pitch!”
Barndoor swung high and missed. He swung low and missed. The Greek Chorus of guidance from his teammates increased in speed, density, and volume. He swung one last time, and…
Barndoor struck out.
I felt for him because people come from near and far, and pay a fee, to watch these vintage base ball players compete. Strike outs are rare. Barndoor looked miserable, the natural outcome from feeling publicly humiliated. He made his way back to the bench and sat silently.
The next time Barndoor came to bat, the Greek Chorus again provided well-intentioned guidance. For Barndoor, it was overwhelming. His face was a mixture of fear and determination. He swung and missed. I feared history repeating itself, and didn’t even want to shoot it.
And then, on the next pitch, he connected. It was an awesome hit.
Barndoor ran like the wind to first base. His team was very excited, and more advice came from the bench on what to do now that he was a runner. Long story short, he got to second and then third.
Now Barndoor was physically closer to his teammates, making it easier for the instructions to fly fast and free.
“If he hits it in the air, don’t move!”
“Wait to see if the ball lands!”
“Stay on base!”
Barndoor looked confused and worried. Then, everything changed.
One of his teammates, Stonewall, stepped forward. He positioned himself between Barndoor and the bench. His hands were on his hips, and he spoke in a calm, low voice. Stonewall explained what Barndoor should do if the ball was hit in the air, and what he should do if the ball were hit on the ground. Barndoor nodded.
The ball was hit in the air, and Barndoor stayed put. Stonewall provided additional instructions because now the situation had changed from one out to two outs. Barndoor nodded and gave him a big thumbs up.
I got so caught up in watching the magic of leadership unfold, that I don’t even know if Barndoor made it to home base or not. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Stonewall remembered – he remembered what it was like when he didn’t know the rules of the game. There was a time when he was not the expert that he is now. Stonewall intervened on behalf of his teammate, helping Barndoor handle a situation he didn’t have the knowledge to manage on his own in that moment.
Before something becomes second nature, it must become first nature. That is a process for which there are no short cuts. Time, repetition and experience are required. How many times did you fall off your bike before you successfully rode 100 yards?
WRESTLING WITH IMPATIENCE
There are many factors that drive all of us to forget (me included!) what it was like when we didn’t know, what we didn’t know. Work pressures, time pressures, a desire for excellence, and the need to win. Those factors are real and not bad unto themselves. The people you are working with are real and not bad unto themselves. The goal is to catch yourself when impatience flashes in the face of someone still learning. Why? We seek an effective outcome: you exemplify a great mentor/leader. They have a positive experience and they learn from you so that they can improve.
Every single interaction between two people – manager/employee, leader/follower, or teammate/teammate is either negative or positive. It is never neutral. Strive for positive. It feels better to everyone involved and it is infinitely more productive. In short, be like Stonewall.
Here’s to the men and women who lift others with knowledge and encouragement, who lead to serve. To those who remember to remember when they didn’t know it all. And go Lah-de-dah’s & Nationals! (Click Here for more info on the games and click here to see more photos!)
Maureen (Ideation | Strategic | Learner | Achiever | Individualization | Maximizer)
Maureen Monte is a team and leadership consultant and the author of “Destination Unstoppable: The Journey Of No Teammate Left Behind.”