Listen to the Hoot Owl

I met Hoot Owl (Jack) Hicks, Joe Namath’s close friend from the University of Alabama, many years ago on a football summer practice field. He was talking to a few of us who were counsellors at a camp and coaching some of the younger campers and he said the following:

You can’t coach what you don’t know just like you can’t come back from someplace you have never been to.”

These were unexpected words which took some time to sink in, but I carried them throughout my career. They are now more meaningful than ever and no different than what many of us have learned in the office: experience is everything. Great leaders teach… they coach and draw from their experiences – good and bad, narrow and broad, successes and mistakes, past and present. These leaders have resilience, agility, vision and empathy. This kind of leadership isn’t innate or bestowed. It’s learned and earned through experience.

Even in an ideal environment – and we are about as far from ideal as anyone can remember – leadership is complex, situational and ever-evolving. In our current phase, leaders will need to draw on their experience, think about the paths they’ve taken and commit to a strong leadership model that acknowledges where they are and charts a course for where they need to go.

Strong, effective leaders define the future – looking ahead, setting a strategy and ensuring executional excellence. Determine what winning looks like. Obviously, this is easier said than done. Companies and their leaders must now paint a future and vision even when that future is uncertain. They know to expect bumps and detours but set the right metrics in place and read signals. The signals will come from high visibility, purposeful communication and working with and listening to their teams and their organizations. Many of the most telling signals will come from those closest to the customer and the marketplace – focus on the front line.

Successful leaders can use this time to tell their own stories to capitalize on coachable moments and cast that leadership shadow. They’ll use this time for intake and give themselves time to pause so they and their team can move forward with speed. And they promote collaborative conflict, enabling diversity of experience and thinking without sacrificing decisive in decision making.

Take time now to learn from this unprecedented experience. Think through what you see as episodic, transformative or determinant and apply the situational leadership that is required now. Learning is not always what happened in assignments years ago or even the past year… it should happen daily and clearly now we are learning a lot every day about ourselves and teams.

Remember, successful leaders learn and coach and experience is everything. Listen to the Hoot Owl.