Jackson, my ten-year-old son, brought home a permission slip this week, and he wanted to enter a speech competition. Since this is pretty much what I do, you can imagine my excitement to jump in, help him, and then watch him succeed on stage under my brilliant tutelage. My brain was abuzz with all of the great things he could talk about, but I tried to restrain myself and not take over. I asked him the main questions: date it was due, length, who is his audience, etc. He calmly informed me he had one week to prepare a two to three-minute speech. His class would rank the speeches and then the best ones would move up to the school level, city, regional, state, and national in Washington, DC. He had already chosen the topic of baseball. This was a huge opportunity for him to exhibit all of the leadership characteristics I have been trying to teach both of my boys. It would be a great learning experience, and it could benefit him for years to come. I was thrilled!
I panicked a little bit at the topic choice, and the fact that he would be judged by other fourth graders in the beginning levels. I don’t know what fourth graders are going to identify as a good speech. Baseball is a huge topic with a million areas to talk about, and he is such a little boy. I really wanted him to succeed. I decided to try and find out why he chose baseball as his topic. I assumed (wrongly) that he just picked some recent thing that had been fun to him, and he had no idea how to carve this down to a speech topic. I asked him to go and write me between four and ten things he liked about baseball and thought other people should know. My plan was to discuss those things with him and help him get to three main points that would hopefully have a common thread. We could work from there. He came back within minutes, and to my surprise he had three points he felt were important for his audience, and he told me he only had three minutes to talk, so he didn’t think four to ten was a good idea. Hmmph.
Apparently he had put a lot of thought into this project, and he was already way ahead of me. My input was feeling somewhat unnecessary, but it was so important for me to see him succeed. I looked at his points skeptically, because he had come back way too quickly to have thought them out thoroughly.
On a paper, in very neat hand-writing it read:
How old baseball is
How it is exercising
I was stunned. Those are very good points for his audience and their parents. They are concise enough to fit into his three minutes. They are obviously important to him and a big part of his baseball experience. They are organized in a way that will make his speech flow nicely. This was a very, very good start, and still my input was seeming unnecessary.
As I contemplated how I was going to improve upon this project, he popped up and said he wanted to tell the story of how Babe Ruth used to swing the bat so hard he would sometimes fall down if he missed the ball. OK, there was his attention grabbing intro, and storytelling is a big part of any speech, so this could really work. “Way to go son, anything else?” Yes, he told me he wants to tell the story of when his little brother was trying so hard to listen to the coaches and follow directions that he actually reached down and touched home plate with his hand as he ran across it. Perfect, another story that fits perfectly in line with his main points. I started to think this speech was already written in his head, and my participation there was completely unnecessary. I am a professional at this, and my ego told me I was going to improve what he had, as this was necessary to ensure his success. I asked him to go into the other room, look at his three main ideas, and then create three more talking points under each of those. Once again he was back within minutes, and once again it was clear my assumptions were all wrong.
As I read through what he had written and followed the lines and arrows he had drawn connecting his points, I realized his speech about baseball was going to be entirely different than anything I might have written about baseball. I realized his point of view on baseball and my point of view on baseball are entirely different. I realized in his short life, his experience with baseball and what baseball meant to him was pure and enlightening and far better than anything I could have written. This speech was going to be a lot more interesting without my input.
With my ego somewhat bruised, and all of my leadership training begging to be recognized and acknowledged, I started some inner reflection. What I’ve learned over the last few minutes was exactly in line with what I’ve been learning and teaching for decades, but once again I had gotten in my own way. My kids don’t need much of my instruction or ideas; they just need my support. Each of us as parents and leaders have our own ideas, egos, excitement at new prospects, and our motivations are innocent enough. We truly want to help. We want to contribute to the success of others. We also want to see our own ideas brought to life. We want to be recognized for our contribution. We want to be right, but as leaders that is not our role.
As leaders it is our role to provide a safe environment where the ideas of others can flourish and grow. We have to provide subtle guidance and support which empowers others to contribute the lion’s share. I remember the old adage, “none of us is smarter than all of us.” We have to brush our own egos aside and celebrate the rich experiences and successes of those in our charge. While we may have a vision of what success looks like, it is those who we support that will make our shared vision a reality. In the end, when we ultimately achieve success as a team, it will be the team deserving of all the acknowledgement. If we have done our job correctly and efficiently, nobody from the inside or outside will realize we had any role in it at all. Successful leaders consistently find themselves at the helm of high-performing teams while maintaining the appearance they are just lucky recipients of such great teams.
Now, with my initial excitement and ego in check, my education and training were back in charge of this opportunity to help my son. He was going to have to succeed on his own merits, with his own ideas, so I read through his talking points again:
Baseball has been around a long time and used to not have any rules
Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson are two of my favorite players
Baseball strengthens arm muscles and leg muscles
Baseball teaches accuracy and coordination
Baseball is a fair sport
Baseball teaches kids to follow the rules to win
Baseball is competitive and fun
If I were going to sit down and write an essay about why parents should put their kids into an organized sport like baseball, I could not possibly have picked better points than those. If I were going to talk to a kid about why baseball is fun, and how they can benefit from playing it, I could not have picked better points than those. If I only had three minutes to talk about baseball, and I wanted to fit into those three minutes the monumental importance of a mere game, I imagine I would have to speak about the history of The Babe and Jackie Robinson. I would have to speak about team sports teaching sportsmanship. I would have to speak about focus, concentration, and improving mental acuity. I would certainly speak about gaining all the health benefits it has to offer. I would likely spend days and weeks attempting to create a list almost identical to the one above.
Tonight, a fourth grader, with only a few minutes of thought, taught me what is really important about speaking. You have to speak from the heart. You have to cut things down to their simplest core and then tell a story around them. You have to be assertive enough to get your thoughts out there when someone else is trying to take over.
I can’t wait to see him up on stage speaking in his own words, in a voice the fourth graders will connect with and the parents will appreciate. I can’t wait to hear about the important things he has experienced and learned through this sport, and I expect to walk away with a better appreciation of baseball, parenting, speaking, and leading others.
In all of this I learned that sometimes the most important skill a leader (or parent) can have is knowing when to get out of the way. It was especially moving to have received this special reminder and learning opportunity from my own son while watching the Cubs win game seven of the World Series in extra innings! It could not have been a better night. — Scott