Lead With the Heart

Before a long road trip, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson, used to give his players an assigned book to read. Jackson would select these books specifically for each player based on what he knew about them. He put a lot of thought into it.

Not a book I would suspect Michael Jordan would have a lot of interest in

Not a book I would suspect Michael Jordan to have a lot of interest in

For example, on one long West Coast trip he assigned “Song of Solomon” to Michael Jordan, “The Ways of White Folks” to Scottie Pippen, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to John Paxson, “On the Road” to Will Purdue, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” to B.J. Armstrong, and “Beavis and Butt-head: This Book Sucks” to Stacey King.

He had varying levels of success with this project. Some players got into it and always did their reading. Some never bothered to open their book to page one.

Say what you will about NBA players but they are not known as big literary types. But converting the Chicago Bulls into the Toni Morrison Book Club wasn’t Jackson’s goal. What he wanted to do was send a message to them – that he knew certain things about them, he took the time to recognize them as individuals, and he cared.

Basketball players make millions of dollars a year. Monetarily, they’re all set and most coaches would treat them as such. Caring is not part of the standard equation. But throughout his coaching career Jackson made sure his players knew he didn’t regard them as disposable, easily replaced cogs.


The player getting this recognition from the coach feels like a million dollars right now

Regardless of who you are, human beings universally like to be recognized as individuals. Although Jackson never became buddy-buddy with his players, because at some point he might have to cut or trade them, he treated each of them as individuals worthy of respect. He cared enough about them to give them a gift specially tailored to them. The players loved it and they responded by helping Jackson win 11 (11!) NBA championships.

Some critics might say “Oh yeah, coaching is easy when you’ve got Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant.” But NBA history is filled with stories of teams stocked with stars who ultimately underperformed. Michael Jordan never won a championship until Jackson came aboard. As soon as he did, they won six. The Lakers, who had both Shaq and Kobe, lost every year in the playoffs prior to Jackson’s arrival. That didn’t change until he became coach and they won it all in his first year.

Delivering value by caring – that something leaders do. The only reason it doesn’t happen more often is it requires a lot of effort and thought. Much easier to scream, bark orders, and reduce people’s value to a number on a balance sheet. But that’s a dumb method that only produces short term, if any, results. The long term solution for bringing out the best in your employees is caring and giving them respect.

The Boys in the Boat

Photo Credit: Bill Ilott

Photo Credit: Bill Ilott

Back when I worked in Harvard Square in Cambridge I used to ride my bike to the office from Brighton. Every morning I went over the same bridge and, over time, I fell into the habit of stopping there to watch the crew boats rowing up and down the Charles. It was a beautiful sight, a perfect balance of power and grace. I thought to myself, “I need to get into this sport.”

It took a number of years but eventually I did. I joined the program offered at CRI, learned the basics, worked my way up and made it onto the competitive team. In 2005 I rowed in an eight man boat in the Head of the Charles, the largest two day rowing regatta in the world. With that goal accomplished I retired from river rowing.

The very best rowers, like in any sport, make it look easy but I can tell you this is not in any way true. Rowing is one of the world’s most technical and difficult sports to master. The first thing I learned in rowing was the boats are very tippy. When the rowers are not in synch or balanced, the boat will flop to one side or the other. Balancing the boat requires awareness of your teammates tendencies, the coach’s direction, and how you fit into the bigger picture.


A rower using a rowing machine, known as an “erg.” The look on the guys’s face summarizes how much fun it is. Photo credit: Ben Bradshaw

Rowers often quantify their value by their erg score. The erg (short for ergometer) is a rowing machine that measures the rate and power of each stroke. It provides raw data with no hiding or excuses. As a result, rowers have a deep love/hate relationship with it.

Want to make a rower feel sick? Tell them today is erg test day. On erg test days, rowers go all out on this thing to the point of vomiting. It is a truly godawful experience. The only time you feel good is when it is over. But every rower knows their 2K erg score, either a source of shame or pride, and how it compares to every one else’s on the team.

This measurement should make it easy, right? Just put the strongest erg score guys in a boat together and watch them fly down the course. Wrong. Some rowers row the port side, some on starboard, and some can do either. Some rush the recovery, some are more patient and slow. Some guys are powerful but have bad technique (known as “rocks”). Some guys are the opposite – weak in power but have strong technique.

Because of this a boat is not the sum total of everyone’s erg scores. Putting together a fast boat is putting together complementary pieces. This guy holds his hands high, this one low – can you pair them together? There is no right and wrong measurement of a rower, as tempting as it is to reduce each rower’s value to an erg score.

In addition some rowers have lower erg scores but are just nice to be around – a positive presence. The fact is that waking up at 5 am to work out is a total drag. It was something I never enjoyed but it was a lot easier when I liked my teammates. Who would you rather row with – a guy with an amazing erg score who is a jerk or a guy who is a less skilled rower but a excellent person who makes his teammates better?

Because of the coordination required, I consider rowing the ultimate team sport. In football, basketball, baseball and hockey you may have a few superstars on the team who can make things happen all by themselves. In rowing a crew team is required to work together to make the boat move. In an ideal boat, eight rowers become one.

The best rowers realize this and know how to gel with their teammates. They don’t criticize them and insist that their way of rowing is the correct way. They are egoless because they know they have to work with others to make the boat move. They are generous, open-minded to new thinking, and flexible. Working together they make a balanced boat and a balanced boat is a fast boat that wins.

Letting Go

flattireOn a recent bike ride returning from Gloucester, thumb I popped a tire. It was late and I was about 10-15 miles from home. After a brief swearing fit I sat down, treatment thought “Okay, now what”, and considered my options.

They were not good. I had my cell phone but no one close to me was around. I also didn’t want to burden someone with a phone call of “Please help me.” I could get a cab but that would set me back a good $40-60.

After some thought I took a shot in the dark and posted on Facebook “Popped a tire and now I’m stranded in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Anyone around to pick me up? I will buy you pizza and beer. Serious!” Then I started walking.

After about 20 minutes I was just about to delete my post when a former co-worker responded “Still need a ride? I’m at [phone number].” It made me laugh. Isn’t it funny how help often comes when you least expect it? I bought him a six pack of beer and waited in the town common.

He and his wife showed up. They weren’t doing anything in particular that night so it was not a bother. We had talked about getting together before this anyway and our meeting was somewhat serendipitous. When we got to my place, I showed them around the house. The kids were with their mother that night so I broke out a few beers and we spent a long time in the backyard chatting and drinking.

What originally seemed a very bleak walk home turned out to be a very pleasant evening. I at least partially credit my training in Zen for this. Zen, for me, is about letting go of control and opening yourself up to possibility. Getting mad about my flat tire closed me off to considering other options. Getting mad is about saying “My way is the right way”, cursing the external situation and accepting no other options. In my case taking a step back to consider what to do instead worked much better.

child fall

There’s a photo of our youngest daughter floating around somewhere in digital world. In the photo L is very young – not even a year – and she’s smiling. I’m in the background with a concerned look on my face and my body is poised to jump.

It’s not clear in the picture but L is about to fall over backwards and I’m moving to rescue her. The fall was not serious. But the photo was taken when we were both new parents and didn’t have an accurate gauge on what was a real threat.

When you become a parent for the first time you suddenly becomes overly aware of potential threats and dangers. Cars, swimming pools, ladders – all take on a whole new meaning when you have children. I remember talking with a fellow parent and I could barely follow the conversation because I was too busy mentally mapping my rescue route if L fell from where she was standing.

Given the freedom to do so my daughter made a laptop all by herself

Left on her own, my daughter made a laptop

Eventually I started to relax. As time went on I got better at risk assessment and start to relinquish control. Now I look at my kids playing and think “That will hurt if they fall but they won’t break anything or die” and act accordingly.

I like giving my children that level of freedom – to bounce around without me monitoring their every move. It frees up my time and they learn much quicker without me instructing them on everything. As a rule I guide them loosely.

Some parents have a hard time with that. I see them following their kids everywhere on the playground – do this, do that, don’t do that, do it this way. They have almost a compulsive need to control and dictate exactly how their children should behave. These are known as helicopter parents. In their world, they know best and everyone else needs to be instructed on how they are wrong.

I try to not judge helicopter parents too harshly. It is an easy trap to fall into and their intentions are good. But they would be better served by letting go of control and opening themselves up to the possibility that their kids, teachers and fellow parents might have some good ideas on their own.

The writer William Arthur Ward once said, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” I like that line because it makes a teacher focus on their own behavior and not others. By focusing on controlling myself and not insisting that others obey my commands, I open up the possibility and give others the freedom to deliver.