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Common Ground



A few months ago, I was having a coffee with a friend of a friend and during a pause in conversation he asked an unexpected question.

“Do you find people noticing you less and less as you get older?”

Because it took me by surprise, and because my mind was on other things, I blurted out a casual “No”. His face fell. I realised I’d been insensitive and tried backtracking and asking what he meant, but the damage was done. I couldn’t identify with his problem but I understood it. People notice us in different ways as we get older, and when people look at me today they see something different to what they would have seen, say, twenty years ago. That’s fine with me. Perhaps it helps if we don’t feel a pressing need to be “noticed”. If we’re lucky we reach a point in our lives where we know who we are, we know what we’ve done and that knowledge centres us and sustains us. It also makes us better leaders. But we don’t show leadership by flaunting our own confidence. We show it by fuelling the confidence of those around us. I failed a test that day. Unexpectedly or not, the person across the table was sharing something, making himself vulnerable, and my casual one-word dismissal wasn’t helpful. When I referred to this person as a friend of a friend it may have seemed like a nit-picking distinction but the detail matters because we can speak to our friends without ceremony, safe in the knowledge that they understand our meaning. Acquaintances, like employees, need a different approach.


They need us to find common ground.


If we can’t empathize – and a lot of the time we won’t fully understand how the person across the table feels – then we can sympathize and build on the bond that creates. Managers often have limited first-hand knowledge of what team members may be experiencing. How many times have you seen the top salesperson in a team promoted to management? Suddenly they’re responsible for the performance of people who struggle with things they themselves find easy. How will they adapt? Where will the meeting point be?


The qualities and attitude needed to become a high achiever often include elements of competitiveness and selfishness. Some people use those qualities to lead by example and unite a team against their competitors. Some change their spots and become entirely focused on the success and self-esteem of those around them. And some just crash and burn. There are useful analogies from the world of sport, and we’ll consider two of them here:


ASHES TO ASHES


With the latest England-Australia test series capturing headlines, cricket fans of a certain age will recall the summer of 1981, when Ian Botham’s heroics with bat and ball cemented his legacy. The summer didn’t start promisingly, though, for Botham or for his team. England’s finest player was made captain in 1980 and led England in twelve test matches. They didn’t win a single one. After being dismissed for two ducks against Australia at Lords, Botham resigned with his confidence and the team’s in tatters. The burden of captaincy was too great, and it later emerged that the biggest problem was Botham’s inability to understand the struggles of less talented team-mates. He was a natural cricketer who played on instinct. Those who didn’t share his gifts – ie every other player in the dressing room – had issues with technique and confidence that arise in all sports and most walks of life, and looked to their captain for advice. Botham couldn’t empathize and, faced for the first time in his life with a cricketing problem he couldn’t easily solve, he didn’t find a way to sympathize either. The result was individual and collective meltdown.

Botham’s replacement as captain was Mike Brearley, a slightly above-average cricketer, approaching 40 years of age, with a genius for motivation. In the four subsequent tests Brearley didn’t bowl a ball and scored only a handful of runs, but his ability to empathize and sympathize with his players sparked a dramatic turnaround. England won the Ashes and Botham, free of a burden that had threatened to torpedo his career, played his best cricket and became a national hero who now sits in the House of Lords. It was the approach of very different player and a very different man that made it possible. A man who listened, understood and led.


NOT SO EASY RYDER


The Ryder Cup asks professional golfers to go against their instincts and play with and for each other. The winning team isn’t always the strongest on paper. Some European and American teams have risen to the occasion and some have sunk like a stone. The performance of the captain is crucial. With six major wins, Nick Faldo is Europe’s most successful golfer of all time and at his peak he was the best player in the world. Any golf fan of the past half century asked to name someone who embodied single-minded competitiveness would include him on their shortlist. How well would that mindset serve him as a non-playing captain? In 2008 we found out. Europe went into the match unbeaten in the 21st century, and on the back of a series of crushing victories. For the first time in Ryder Cup history, the European team had a higher average world ranking and included more major champions. What could go wrong?


Quite a lot, as it turned out. Faldo the captain mirrored Faldo the player. At the opening ceremony he talked about himself and made jokes that only he found funny. In the team room he played music that only he liked and gave motivational advice that only he could relate to. Where other captains had spent every waking moment encouraging players to dig deep and seize the day, Faldo rode around the course on a buggy with his children and, at times, seemed to be treating the event as a family holiday. Nothing wrong with a man spending time with his kids, of course, but no one in the buggy was scoring any points for Europe.


Sadly, no one else was scoring many points for Europe either. The USA led after every session and won comfortably, a less accomplished group of sportsmen playing and winning as a team. The complete lack of interest in empathizing, sympathizing or finding common ground that had made Faldo such a fearsome opponent as a player made him a write-off as captain. The match was played at the Valhalla Course in Kentucky. Valhalla, in case your wondering, is a Norse word meaning “Hall of the Fallen”. Quite.


When we truly lead and inspire, we can help people achieve remarkable things. You don’t have to take a completely unselfish approach and take as much pride in their success as your own, but it’s not a bad place to start. You don’t have to fully understand their strengths, weaknesses, insecurities and motivations, but it’s not a bad idea to try. You don’t have to find common ground, but when you know where your people stand it will mean something to them to have you standing at their side. Give it a try. It may lead you somewhere good.

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