The Scenic Route: Leadership Lessons for My Younger Self
This feels slightly awkward, but first, let me say congratulations! I’m writing to you now from our desk in the Office of the Director of Athletics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. While the destination may surprise you (I know right now your sights are still set on becoming the first female General Manager in the NFL), rest assured that this is a job that you will truly treasure. It can be quite challenging at times, but helping student-athletes succeed in competition and in the classroom is rewarding beyond measure.
I have no doubt you’re wondering what’s in store for you that will compel you down this path, but I’m not going to tell you. To do so would be to cheat you out of having those rich experiences for yourself — the very moments with which life’s fabric is woven. Intentionally, this letter will actually reveal very little about what life has waiting for you over the next couple decades. Instead, what you will find in the words that follow is advice.Simple in description, these lessons are complex in implementation, so the sooner you start incorporating them, the better prepared you will be.
First lesson: Don’t worry about holding yourself to a strict timeline. To do so is to set yourself up for disappointment because the path through life is neither straight nor flat. It is a circuitous route riddled with detours and dead ends, and it is not impacted by how quickly you believe you should arrive at a particular destination. There will be times when you wish to go straight, only to be greeted by a new roadblock, and then, while selecting an alternate route, you are sure to get lost. When that happens — and it will — be grateful.
Those unexpected forks in the road, though they may delay your trip, will force you to answer the tough questions about yourself: How well do you respond to adversity? Are you calm and decisive under pressure? Can you solve problems creatively? Having a full and honest accounting of your strengths and weaknesses is critically important when you reach a leadership position and, realistically, the only way to do so is by finding out how you react when your well-laid plans go awry. In time, you’ll find that the more you know about yourself, the quicker and more adept you’ll be at anticipating roadblocks and adjusting your journey accordingly.
Think about it like this: It was once said, “(S)he who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk. … One cannot fly into flying.” So, when you start to feel like your professional life is unfolding in a manner inconsistent with what you envisioned, take a deep breath and enjoy the scenic route. It is providing you with everything you’ll need to fly.
The next lesson begins with a story. One day, in the not-too-distant future, you’re going to be tasked with negotiating a project between the University of Tennessee’s Head Women’s Basketball Coach Pat Summitt and Head Men’s Basketball Head Coach Bruce Pearl. And, Desiree, I regret to inform you that we take an L on this one. Before you get disappointed, keep in mind what I just explained about bumps in the road, and let me tell you my side of the story.
I was intimidated. It was Pat Summitt, who was already a legend a few times over, and an excitable Bruce Pearl to the mix, and the fact that I was the first woman to oversee a men’s basketball program in the SEC. To ease my anxiety, you probably already know what I did: I prepared. In fact, I over-prepared. I had every binder, every exhibit — I completely lawyered it out, but I knew I was prepared, so worst-case scenario, even if the meeting didn’t go well, at least I knew it wouldn’t be on me, right?
Nope. I failed miserably. They looked at me, and we got nowhere in record time. A couple days later, after I had beaten myself up about it to the point that I considered going back to practicing law, I ran into Coach Summitt, acknowledged I hadn’t done a good job and asked her to help me figure it out.
She said, “It’s really simple. People aren’t going to listen to you until they know that you care.”
It was perhaps the simplest yet most impactful lesson in leadership that I have learned to this day. Obviously, I cared very much, but I just wasn’t showing it. That meeting taught me that you can’t just out-prepare people. You have to demonstrate that you care and can’t just assume people know that you do. As an attorney, we can spot issues, but sometimes young attorneys – or at least this young attorney – needed to learn the important difference between listening to understand, not listening to win.
I learned a valuable lesson that day that caring and relationships are critical and one important way to demonstrate that you care is to listen–really listen. College athletics is a people business and your greatest source of energy, your greatest source of sorrow, your greatest source of frustration, and your greatest source of light are the people who work with and the student-athletes you are responsible for. Value them, teach them, learn from them, and continuously look for ways to demonstrate how much you care.
Which brings me to my final lesson: Embrace humility or this job will eat you alive. As a leader, once you have a firm grasp of your own strengths and weaknesses, it is your responsibility to surround yourself with talented individuals whose skills complement you. This will invariably mean that your team will be made up of a diverse group of colleagues whose unique life experiences will inform their equally diverse perspectives. Be open to all of them — that’s why you brought them on board. Never assume that it is your place to direc–and their place to fall in line.
It goes right back to Coach Summitt’s lesson of listening to build relationships. Let your team know that you care about their opinions. If your team members know they are being heard, they will be more receptive to your ideas and to those of other team members. This ensures that your organization is moving in concert towards a common objective. Furthermore, team members who feel heard will feel more empowered to share their ideas moving forward. It would be a cardinal sin if your department missed out on a good — or even great — idea because its originator didn’t feel it would be given serious consideration.
Finally,your horizons can never be broad enough and your mind can never be too open. Humbly accepting and considering ideas from your staff will remind you to never lose that spark which inspires you to be a lifelong learner. There is perhaps no better way to continue learning than to consider the positions of others, especially if they contrast with your own. Even if you end up disagreeing, this exercise of opening your mind and challenging your own knowledge will make you a better critical thinker. The more sides of an issue you are able to see, the more likely you are to addressit. So, be humble, be open and be patient. In the long run, that will be the fastest way to get where you are going.
In time, you will pass by me en route to the upcoming chapters of your life, and I look forward to benefiting from all that you learn along the way. Until then, enjoy the scenic route. It’s all worth it.
See you when you get here.