“It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong person stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena…,”
Theodore Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in Paris, France on April 23, 1910.
The arena is where leadership work stumbles or takes flight, as Roosevelt acknowledges. The “Arena” is one of the three essential elements that form a sharply focused leadership development practice. The other two elements are the “Balcony” and “Divergent Views.” More on these two elements soon.
I’m starting with the Arena because it is here that all acts of leading can be observed, judged and scored. It is because the arena is so very public that people feel the anxiety of leading most profoundly. None of us like to fail, much less fail in public. We will avoid this experience at all costs.
The purpose of a leadership development practice is to “practice” the work of leading. The goal is to build the craft of leading. The outcome is to be prepared; not surprised. This is time intensive work. In my experience, the biggest challenge to development is making time to prepare and practice the craft of leading. In the absence of practice, all that is left is to wing it: winging it is the failure path.
There is a specific reason practicing the craft of leading is hard. It’s because there is no natural practice field or practice time. If you go to the opera, the symphony, ballet or a sporting event, you are watching performers practice their craft at a high level. If you saw any of these events on a Friday night, what we know is that on Saturday, those performers are back in the studio or practice field. They watch film or listen to their performance for mistakes and opportunities to improve. This is the feedback loop in action. It is also the development cycle on display: coaching, practice, action, feedback, repeat.
This process is also why performing arts and sports are such a poor metaphor for leading in organizations. It is so much easier to develop and lead in these arenas because of the time between playing the game in the Arena and the time to practice for that “scheduled” event. The players and performers have time to see what’s coming and prepare, therefore, minimizing surprise.
People who lead in organizations rarely have the luxury of practice time. Leadership moments come fast. These moments can hit a leader in the face hard. Leading in organizations is the most difficult platform for leading. Period. But hard is not a plausible excuse for being an average leader. There are too many people depending on you. It is a fact that leading well is not random, it is by design. It is a choice. It is a commitment of time and effort.
Let’s get to it. You probably lead in multiple roles: work, community and family, so any work you do on your leadership in one role, will build your craft for all the other leadership moments you face. What should you take into account when designing arena work as part of your leadership practice? Some criteria to consider.
Leading in the arena is ALWAYS a heat experience. When we talk about building leadership craft, in the arena it means building the capacity to absorb higher degrees of heat. A general truism: “How we do anything is how we are likely to do anything under pressure (heat).”
Start by using your current work and projects as the development field. Heat experiences disorient a leader’s capacity to think and have impact. They also provide the most effective development practice field if used effectively. The criteria for a heat experience needs one or more of the following conditions:
- It’s a first-time experience.
- Results matter.
- There is a chance of public success and failure.
- The people watching you matter.
- It’s uncomfortable.
- It calls on you to use both your head and your heart.
Use your daily routine and your calendar to locate times and occurrences where you can practice your development. You can see meetings and conversations coming on the calendar. Pick a couple of these events, identify and design how you want to lead to produce a successful outcome. Aim for small wins.
Three criteria for small wins:
- The small win is very concrete.
- The small win is realizable.
- The small win will be immediate.
Leading in the arena is hard work, but it is the most rewarding hard work. Design your arena work, stay with your practice and you will be more prepared and less surprised. Next week we will explore how to use The Balcony for wise interventions.