On any given Friday night September thru March, I am typically at a rink watching a hockey game. It comes with the territory of marrying a Canadian, and apparently the sport of hockey. Despite the cold, and often crazy fans, I do love it. And I know I’ll miss it when it no longer occupies our time and conversations. 

Last week, things got ugly. This is not an uncommon occurrence. But this time, it was in the stands amongst the ‘fans’ (aka over zealous parents). There was some misunderstanding on the ice among the refs, the online system, and the coaches. Reminder: this is youth sports. High school hockey. No scholarships, NHL contracts, or awards are ever awarded. 

Two players who had been scratched the weekend before, were showing up in the system as ineligible to play. That was the miscommunication – they had served their suspension and were eligible to play. The system was down and not showing updated information. 

Given the reaction on the ice and in the stands, you would have thought a multi-million-dollar contract had been revoked. 

Watching what ensued reminded me that leaders have a choice in their responses, and there is always an effective way a leader can respond to outrageous behavior. 

The referees (underpaid former or current players spending their Friday nights skating amongst stinky and hormonal boys) made a decision with the information they were given and escorted two boys off the ice. The game continued. Parents started yelling, “You’re WRONG!”, “This is asinine!”, and the clincher, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING!”

The 2 boys stood just on the other side of the boards. As they waited, one boy turned to the stands, “Stop it Dad”. “Dad, PLEASE shut up!”, “DAD, STOP!”

At that point, this parent turned to another parent, a coach and President of the Board (we’ll call him Jack)  “YOU HAVE TO do something!” 

Did I mention, no money was being distributed that night?

The President, Jack, looked up from his phone – where he was trying to determine what had gone wrong in the system – and said, “They are not going to listen to me!” 

About 10 minutes later, with the perseverance of the team manager, the two boys were back in the game.  Jack, as President of the Board, was a resource, recommending who to call, where to look in the online system, and leading from behind. He was not talking to the refs or the coach.

I thought about this situation through the weekend. Was it Jack’s role to resolve it? Deescalating things before they get heated? Was he in attendance as a parent enjoying his son play a game they both loved? Or was it his role to solve this problem? Was it his responsibility to calm this over-irate parent?

And my conclusion is this. A leader is a leader no matter where she goes, and what she would rather be doing at the time. There are many distinctive styles of leadership, and the best leaders are those who know their strengths and preferences. And yet, there are times when we need to flex our behaviors or preferences to match the situation or the people involved.  

There are leaders who speak to think. What first comes out of their mouths is a draft. They are processing their thoughts and beliefs externally. And they may use many words to come to their final conclusion. These are your colleagues who stop by and ask if they can talk through something with you. We tend to describe these leaders as gregarious. 

And there are leaders who think to speak. What comes out of their mouths has been edited inside their brains. Their final conclusions have been reviewed before they speak. These are the people in meetings who don’t say much and then when they do speak, they have something brilliant and thoughtful to say. We tend to describe these leaders as introspective and quiet. 

Both behaviors are needed on a team, and in an organization. If everyone speaks to think, who is listening? 

Similarly, there are leaders who prevent conflict (as in Friday night’s game) by dropping suggestions and deescalating before things get heated. It is not that they avoid conflict, but rather do what they need to, to prevent it. We tend to describe them as peaceful and deliberate leaders. And there are leaders who do whatever they can to win, at all costs. They will address conflict immediately. We tend to describe them as driving. 

Both behaviors are needed on a team. If everyone has a driving personality, who will ask questions and build consensus to insure everyone is on the same page?

Friday night’s game demonstrated the need for a balance of both leadership styles. Ideally, a leader can do it all: assured the parent that she was working to get the situation figured out so his son could get back in the game; and address the situation immediately so tempers, anger, and the ugliness remained at a minimum. 

An effective leader needs to know what behavior to exhibit in the moment. It’s not an easy thing to do. And yet, the leaders we follow are those who do just that. At times, they go outside their comfort zone to ensure a situation doesn’t turn ugly. And other times, they stand firmly in their strengths to insure the job gets done, and the desired outcomes are reached. Often, they are doing both simultaneously.

What was needed Friday night? Balanced leadership – the manager who dissected the miscommunication, and then returned to the stands to share with parents what had happened. 

The boys came back into the game. The parents stopped yelling. And those of us who just want to enjoy their Friday nights asked why their boys didn’t play tennis. Or golf. Or swim. 

Who are you as a leader? What situation do you need to flex your behaviors to meet the needs of your audience/constituents? 

Curious about your strengths? Contact me. There is a simple, yet not simplistic, tool that in 15 minutes can reveal your brilliances and strengths.