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It Aint What You Do …………. It is the context you hold while doing it.
I am neither a big fan of soccer nor a fan of the French but the meltdown of the French World Cup team is a great primer on what happens when you allow yourself to take things personally and lose sight of the reasons why you are there in the first place.
As I understand it, a coach or trainer on the French team took offense to being called a “son of a bitch” by the team’s star player, the player was kicked off the team and then the team took offense to the coach siding with his staff and just refused to practice, which lead to the coach benching players in the team’s final game for voicing their opinion and taking a unified stand. (Whether he agreed with the action or not, the coach should have given the team credit for “acting” as a team.) Throughout the drama, coaches quit or were fired, players got benched, the president of France stepped into the fray to try to salvage things, the team eventually suffered a humiliating lose to South Africa and eventually the team plane was grounded and the French players — who were playing for the World Title in the 2006 World Cup — now had to fly home via coach with the rest of the general public.
The only thing I get as being rational in all that is the last act. Canceling the team plane and having the players get what it feels like to no longer be “special”. That is a context I can get behind. It is not a punishment but a reminder that the team was where they were because of their ability to excel, as a team. When they stopped pursuing that; all bets were off. If you are not going to act like a team, if you are not going to strive to be excellent, you are no different from anyone else looking to get back home from Johannesburg. The difference between punishment and a consequence is that the latter has no context other than, “these are the rules, break them and you will be made to suffer.” A consequence has a lesson tied to a context, it shifts the way something is heard, it provides a wake up call in the moment and a lesson that hopefully lingers long after the sting of the repercussions wears off.
Throwing a player off the team can be either a punishment or consequence. It all depends how it is delivered and to whom it is directed. It is an act that affects the team, yet the team was not involved in the decision. So they can only hear this as a punishment and react in kind. Again, rightly or wrongly, they acted as a team by refusing to practice. So the coach took the action not as the team taking a unite stand but he took it personally. If the intended message was, “we need to hold mutual respect for one another” that clearly got lost in the translation. If it was, “we are here to win” that got lost as well. Likewise if the message was, “no one is larger than the team.” Instead it became nothing more than a meaningless and embarrassing game of tit for tat.
Maybe the better way to make a point was to have the offending player attend practice and sit by the sideline holding a female dog (a real bitch) on a lease while his teammates practiced and then after awhile huddle the team together and announce the player can get back into practice so long as a teammate is prepared to hold the bitch’s leash while he plays. However, no team member can hold the leash for more than five minutes and at no time will practice stop. The act is symbolic, has some sheer stupidity to it – which serves as a reminder of how ludicrous the situation is in the first place — and can serve as a reminder that they are a team and need to rely on each other to be successful. Of course the team can refuse to rally behind their star which, in and of itself, is a strong and clear statement.
Jay Leno once said, “It is hard to stay angry at someone who is making you laugh.” Maybe this generation of Frenchmen has lost its connection to the nation’s reverence for Jerry Lewis and has forgotten how to laugh. However, the quickest way to defuse a situation that has become deeply personal is to get everyone to smile. A good leader will recognize that if the troops refuse to see the humor in the situation or to laugh at themselves, it is time to lead by example and laugh at yourself. It is impossible to intentionally humiliate yourself. Acting like an idiot is not the same as being an idiot. Acting the fool is a strategic choice to set a context that you are not bigger than the situation at hand. Humor is the great equalizer. Any great leader knows how and when to employ it. Then once everyone has cracked a smile and taken a breath remind them why they are there.