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What Aspiring Female Leaders Can Learn From the World of Sports

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There are many lessons aspiring women leaders can learn from sports coaches and managers. First, there's the importance of connecting with others to build a cohesive team, then there's using positive self-talk to enhance performance, and finally there is looking forward, rather than backward, when the opposition scores a goal. One critical lesson that is often overlooked is 'don't over explain'.

The Toronto Maple Leafs' new hockey coach, Mike Babcock, describes learning this lesson in his book, Leave No Doubt. It was 2008 and he was coaching the Detroit Red Wings during the Stanley Cup playoffs. He decided to replace Hall-of-Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek (nicknamed 'The Dominator') with Chris Osgood in net. Babcock describes this tough decision, saying, "I learned a couple of things from the Hasek situation. Get to the point and don't over explain it."

In his book, coach Babcock goes on to describe another equally difficult goaltending decision. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Team Canada, with Martin Brodeur in goal, had just lost to USA. Babcock made the decision to start Roberto Luongo in the next game against Germany.

It wasn't easy to approach one of the best goaltenders in the history of hockey with this message, but Babcock made his decision, accepting that it was his job to deliver the news. He went to Brodeur and simply told him that Lou was going to start against Germany. Brodeur answered just as simply: "Yup," he said, and that was it. Team Canada beat the Germans 8-2 in the next game and went on to win the gold medal.

A scene in the baseball movie Moneyball reiterated this sage advice. The Oakland Athletics General Manager, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), teaches assistant GM, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), how to tell a player he has been traded. "Don't give them fluff," he says, "just the facts." He makes his point by asking, "Would you rather have a bullet to the head or five to the chest and bleed to death?"

Then he has Brand tell first baseman Carlos Pene he is on his way to play for another team. Brand follows Beane's advice, keeps it simple, and it works. "That's all?" Pene asks. Brand replies, "Yes." Pene answers, "OK," and leaves the office. Brand looks almost stunned at how painless it was and then breaks into a big smile.

The beauty of these exchanges is that they got the job done by using fewer words. Too often women feel the need to fill in the space with a lot of explanation, which ends up being confusing. By the time we are finished justifying and defending, no one is quite sure of the message. Are they being traded or is there still an opportunity to stay because the kids are enrolled in school? The bottom line: when there are fewer words spoken there is more clarity, more direct communication, and a greater chance the listener hears and understands what is being said.

When you keep it simple, you have more opportunity to control your message. You step out of a dance. If you have trouble with this, it may be a confidence issue, since we use too many words when we are most unsure of ourselves. (Good negotiators know that during pressured moments the first person who talks weakens his/her position). An increase in verbiage doesn't improve the quality of the communication and it destabilizes our situation.

Whether you are at home or at the office, there is a place for this direct, declarative language. I watched one mother firmly tell her daughter she couldn't go to a weekend lake party. End of discussion. The mother was confident that her decision was the right one and felt no compunction to explain her reasoning. She didn't care if the daughter liked it or not. Seeing there was no opening, the daughter accepted it.

A second mother overthought the issue. She didn't want her daughter to be left out of her friendship group, and she didn't want bad feelings between them. As a result, she over explained, trying to get her daughter to see her position. By the time she finished justifying and defending, they were negotiating, which dissolved into the mother pleading for understanding. In the end, the daughter went to the lake party, leaving her mother feeling frustrated and ineffective.

Our natural communication style as women is designed to level the playing field. We build rapport by apologizing, complementing, and seeking approval. All of this opens the door to discussion and negotiation. That works well if we want to draw out others' opinions and reach a consensus, such as when establishing a set of corporate values, but it is ineffective when delivering a predetermined message.

When the decision has been made, and the news is going to hurt, it is best to deliver it simply with a minimum of explanation. You'll sound more confident and ultimately be more confident. It is a communication style that we equate with leaders, but it is something more. It is being true to yourself. Not only that, like these sports leaders you'll come across as honest, which garners respect. All in all, it is a winning strategy.


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