I love leadership maxims. I use them all the time. And anyone who knows me in real life can probably tell you about too many of them.
But there are some maxims I don’t use as a leader to encourage my team, some are just reminders to me to drive forward. One of my favorites of this group comes from a silly place – the 2000 film “The Replacements” starring Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves. There is a scene in the film where Mr Reeves, playing a replacement quarterback during a professional football player strike, is afraid to run a play because he thinks he will get sacked. His substitute play does not succeed and the team loses the game. Mr. Hackman, as the head coach who believes in him, is quite upset and says “Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line.”
It’s a devastating moment for the quarterback because he knows the coach saw his fear. We all have those moments when we, as leaders, think we’re going to take our lumps and there might be an easier way through tough times. The thing I love about this quote is not just a call to courage when facing challenging moments, it is a reminder that we must believe success is possible and want to be the ones who step up. All of us can “course correct” and summon courage when we’re scared, the more difficult challenge is to see ourselves as winners who can overcome challenges and help our teams see themselves that way.
The most important thing is to remember that defeat is not a certainty when we’re afraid. We don’t need courage to rally ourselves into the valley of death, we need leadership to think through ways to get to the right outcome for our institutions, our colleagues, and our teams. This doesn’t mean we are perfect and will always win. It means we always want to lead and we always seek to inspire our teams. By being confident and optimistic and having faith in our people we can create that inspiration. The goal is to be the kind of coach Mr. Hackman plays in the film.
We’re seldom in the kinds of dramatic straits created by the current pandemic. This is a unique moment when our leadership should make a real difference. Our teams need to see a path to success. One where we acknowledge the difficulties and challenges of this moment, but one where things can get better. They need to see themselves as a member of a team that can rise to meet the challenges of the moment, which can care for each other and create solutions that may not yet be imagined. They need us to show them that we have faith in ourselves and in them in these challenging moments.