Three Assists

Cultivating a Culture of We

On that day, I saw things happen long before everyone else did. I was operating on a different level, and although it didn’t happen often, when it did, man it was sweet.

It didn’t take me, or my parents, long to recognize that sports were going to be a major part of my life. By 6 or 7, I knew that I loved to play anything that involved a ball or puck; by 8 or 9, I knew that I was pretty good; by 13, I was a twelve-month, three-sport athlete. At 42, I still play baseball eight months a year, and I ain’t stopping unless my wife or a doctor tells me it’s time to hang ‘em up.

But this isn’t about athletic glory days. It’s about an indelible memory, with soccer as the backdrop, that has shaped my leadership philosophy.

Most athletes call it “the zone.” That fleeting but powerful expanse of time during which we simply cannot be stopped. It can manifest itself in any number of ways: a triple-double, a 12- strikeout shutout, a hat trick. Of course, the elite athletes live there while the rest of us only rent property at the far end of town a couple of times a year.

By halftime, we were up 3-0. All three goals were majestic, tic-tac-toe setups to three different scorers. I know because I was the player who set them up. As we huddled on the sideline, scarfing down orange wedges in between gulps of water, I uttered the question that led to this post.

32 years later.

Do I get credit for those three assists?

Though I can’t explain why I asked because I knew the answer, I can explain why this memory has stayed with me: the answer.

Well, the whole team does.

Our coach was the father of our best player, Shawn, who would go on to become one of the best player’s in our high school’s history. A stern, mustached, no-nonsense guy, Tom put me in my 10-year old place without humiliating me or making an example of me. He was right. I was on a team, we were up 3-0, and we were all responsible for the team’s success.

The exchange probably took five seconds. The impact is perpetual.

As the leader of an incredibly gifted staff, a perfect blend of veteran leadership and youthful energy, I receive emails and calls of praise weekly. Sometimes those compliments are specific to a particular teacher or experience; sometimes they are broad and overarching. Each time, my response is the same.

Thank you so much. We have an amazing staff. I’ll make sure to share this with them.

And then I do share it with them. Whether through a forwarded email or quick, early morning conversation, I provide the assist to the person who should get the credit. Then, I shut up about it already.

During my first ever principal evaluation, I purposely steered the conversation back to my teachers. When my superintendent asked about our scores, I referred to our teachers’ work ethic. When he asked about my transition to principal, I referred to the handful of teachers who made a conscious decision to support me through overt kindness and well-timed advice. When we finished, I reminded him how fortunate I am to work with this group of teachers.

Right now, I’m back in that zone I talked about earlier. Only this time, I won’t be fishing for compliments or checking the stat sheet at the end of the game. I don’t need or deserve the credit.

The whole team does.