Good Things Happen When you Swing the Bat

At a talk last week, new friend Petter Østberg told me an old story with a new twist. It takes a great sports metaphor for achievement – and steps it up a notch to leadership.

First, the metaphor at Level One.

If You Don’t Do A, You Can’t Get B

You’ve heard this one before as, “If you leave the putt short, you are 100% guaranteed to miss the putt; never leave it short of the hole.”

Or maybe you know The Great One, Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”  It’s not just about scoring percentage, in other words, it’s also – very much – about shots on goal.

You also know, “No pain, no gain.” “You’ve got to pay to play.” One of my favorites is the thundering voice from heaven that comes down to the whining loser who is kvetching about never winning the lottery: “Do me a favor – first, buy a ticket.”

All these metaphors remind us of the need to take risks. In our misguided efforts to avoid the risk of doing the wrong thing (call that Type 1 error), we end up not doing the right thing (call that Type 2 error). And in life, as in nearly every sport, it is that Type 2 error that ends up being the Big Bomb.

To not take a risk is the biggest risk of all.

Petter’s story started out this way. A deceased dear friend of his helped run the Little League programs in their town. One of the lessons he taught kids was, “Good things happen when you swing the bat.” If all you do is “take” the pitch, you’re likely to end up striking out.

(Apologies to the non-baseball countries out there, but you get the idea).

Good, good. The youngsters are being taught this Big Truth as well, all’s joy in Mudville.

Getting People to Take Risks

But as David Maister points out powerfully in Strategy and the Fat Smoker, the trick is not cognitive. Just realizing you’re fat and shouldn’t smoke doesn’t mean you’re going to stop gorging and emulating a chimney. Would that it were that simple.

The failure of most corporate training programs (not to mention the people who take them) is to believe that cognition implies action. Entire classes of professions (lawyers come to mind) believe that if they can simply understand something, they have acquired the only thing they need to act upon it.

When it comes to algebra, fair enough.  Maybe even learning a foreign language.

But when it comes to altering substantive human behavior, that belief is So – Not – True.

So it is with golf, hockey, baseball, and I’m sure with cricket and futbol. Armchair athletes from the business world nod sagely as they receive this wisdom from Tiger, the Great One, His Airness, you name it.

“Yup,” they say, “that’s just how it is in my world; you gotta take that risk.”

But they don’t. They really, really don’t.

So: how do you get people to take risks?

Leadership and Role Modeling are Key to Change

Answer: you do it through role-modeling, and you do it young.

Back to Petter’s story.

The Little League coach didn’t just encourage his team to swing the bat. He told the kids’ coaches and the kids’ parents to tell their kids to swing the bat, and with the passing of this dedicated coach just before this year’s baseball season, you now hear his mantra – “Good things happen when you swing the bat” – echoed on every playing field in his town.

The kids got the message, but here’s what he told the coaches:

Look, guys. I know you all mean well. But when a kid swings at a pitch a foot over his head, what do I hear you tell him?  “Lay off the high cheese,” you yell, gesturing with your hand high above your head, “wait for a good one – wait for your pitch. ”

And that is just wrong. These kids look up to you. You’re their leader. This is one of the few remaining times in their lives they’re going to listen to someone, and it’s you they’re listening to now.

These players are very young, and they’ll get more coordinated, that’s nature, but they won’t become better batters unless they swing the bat. There are plenty of other people who will teach them over and over the dangers of taking a swing; don’t you add to that.

Because if they wait for life to serve them up “their” pitch, they’ll lead wasted lives, waiting for that pitch. In life, that pitch rarely comes.

Don’t do that to them. Instead, teach them that if you swing, all things are possible. If you don’t, nothing is. Don’t you wish someone had taught you that?

I know I do. Thanks Petter for that story, and lesson.