As a leader, you cannot be gun-shy. You must be willing to mix it up with your people. Even to the point of trading blows with them. If you ever watch mixed martial arts or boxing, they almost always talk about each person's reach. It is at the end of their reach where the punch is most damaging. When you lead people and an organization, and if you maintain a distance from your people, you risk lingering right in the sweet spot of where they can land the most devastating blows. Or, you can dive in close and trade blows with them.
I know you might be saying WHAT?! Let me share a lesson I learned that may help you understand. It was a lesson that, at the time, was unaware that I was learning.
I once had a martial arts instructor who, unknowingly at the time, taught me something about leadership, while at the same time beating me up during a martial arts testing session. When he was my instructor he was 6'3, 220 Lbs, and a black belt, and I was 5'10, 150 Lbs, and trying to earn my green belt. He was a Navy Corpsman who volunteered to train myself and my fellow officers while at our MOS school (where we learned the specific job skills we would have in the Marines) at Camp Lejeune, NC. We all would meet at the end of each day, and he would train us. Before leaving to report to our duty stations, we had the opportunity to test an earn our green belts, and the test we had to pass was to fight three rounds against our instructor. We were required to continuously press the action as we fought him.
ROUND #1, LESSON #1 - After doing a bunch of push-ups and pull-ups, and while wearing head gear and boxing gloves, we had to step into the pit and fight our instructor. I was some what fresh, and hyped up, so I started throwing punches. My instructor, with his size and experience, just covered up, played rope-a-dope and waited until I tired myself out. When he could tell I was spent, he proceeded to unload on me. His reach was long. My instincts were telling me to stay away from his blows, but I soon realized I was taking some pretty hard hits. I quickly realized that I needed to dive in close and limit his reach, and therefore, reduce the power of his blows. I tried staying as close as I could, and tried delivering blows when I could to stay inside his reach and survive that first round. It was a quick and abrupt lesson to learn.
The leadership lesson was that distance will bring more pain than what you are trying to avoid. Some leaders believe that if they remain detached, they reduce the risk of getting hurt or disappointment. The results are quite the opposite. By staying detached from your people, you risk losing them, both mentally, emotionally, and physically. They can also inflict greater pain upon you. That pain comes in diminished productivity, loyalty, and trust. The blows that your people can inflict can land quite square and hard when they are at the full extent of their reach. By the way, their reach is longer, because there are more of them. Not only are they long, they come from multiple angles. So, lesson one is to get close with you people. You will still receive your fair share of blows, but you will find your self in a better position than remaining a far.
ROUND #2, LESSON #2 - Now that my instructor has had some rest, and I continued to do push-ups, pull-up, and other exercises, I am even more tired. As soon as we start, I dove right back in close. This time I was trying to land punches with close in strikes, but he remained covered up, letting me tire out. My arms were dead. I could barely keep them up to protect myself while trying to deliver my blows. When he sensed I was tired and I was struggling to keep my guard up, he opened up to unleash his fury. All I could do was remain close and try to trade blows the best I could. I could tell that by staying close was frustrating him because he could not get away enough to land with all his power.
The leadership lesson here was when I let my guard down, and my instructor opened up, he knew I was vulnerable, He knew he could open himself up to engage me. Showing your people that you are human and that you are vulnerable enables them to trust that they can open up and share with you their thoughts and ideas. We all have experienced situations when we shared thoughts and ideas with our leaders, who then criticized or dismissed our ideas. How likely were we to open up and share after that? Not very likely. If you are a leader, your power for growth comes from your people. Their ideas and creativity can be the difference in sustainable growth, or a struggle to keep the doors open. Get close to your people. Let your guard down, and allow them to unload on you. You may very well take some hits, but they will be worth it.
ROUND #3, LESSON #3 - The final round. After more sets of push-ups, pull-up, etc..., I was completely spent, and I had to complete one more round with my instructor. This time I had learned lessons from the first two rounds. I knew I had to stay close to reduce the power of his blows, and secondly, I had to get him to open up to let me in, but at the same time have enough gas in the tank to effectively land my own blow(s). I started in close and started punching. This time a pretended to fade quickly, while I still had some gas (pulling my own rope-a-dope). He saw me drop my guard, and I saw him open up to start throwing his blows. Just as I saw my window of opportunity, I hit him with everything I had. I staggered him for a moment. I had landed a better hit than any of his many hits he had landed on me, thus far. Realizing that I had just baited him to be able to land an effective punch, this black belt instructor who out weighed me by 70 Lbs proceeded to abandon all conservative strategies and lay it all into me. I still continued to press close, which now he had no intentions of covering up. He was determined to get one good punch in, as I just did. I was able to land a few more strikes on him from close range. He, of course got plenty of licks in, but he never was able to regain the distance he wanted to land that devastating blow. The round ended and I achieved a larger victory than I anticipated, my instructor's respect. We shook hands. He then explained how he was frustrated by my persistence to stay close and not allow him to land big punches. He also said that he respected my strategy that got him open up and allow me to get that one good punch in. He said he was ticked that I accomplished that.
The leadership lesson from this entire experience was this. Stay close to your people. Connect with your people. You will take some hits, and they will sting from time to time. I promise you that you will gain their respect and trust. The hits you receive from in close help you and your culture grow strong. The hits you take from a far will bring your organization and culture down.
Closing note: I had a commanding officer, a colonel, who instead of maintaining his distance form the young Marines, moved in close. The Marines were working on a Saturday to get trucks ready for our deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Most colonels would have been at home, but not him. He showed up in coveralls, Climbed under the trucks with the young enlisted Marines, and turned wrenches with them all day. He told me he learned more that day about the Marines, the conditions at the barracks, and their families then he ever could by keeping his distance. Those very Marines communicated to me that they would follow him to the gates of hell just from spending a Saturday shoulder to shoulder them.
TRADE BLOWS WITH YOUR PEOPLE. YOU WILL FIND AN UNBELIEVABLE CONNECTION.
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