It is fitting that on my gym’s anniversary of opening USA Gymnastics has just announced the hiring of a new CEO/President. Ms. Kerry J. Perry will have some serious issues to face and have a great deal of things to catch up on. As always, I will do what ever I can to further gymnastics in the USA and support USA Gymnastics. (Here is my letter I wrote to the new CEO back in July. Before a candidate was chosen)
What I feel is important for ANY leader to remember is that leadership comes from below. Dictatorship comes from above. USA Gymnastics must remain a membership driven organization. Remember why we were created and what our purpose is.
In our industry as in politics, we most often act as part of a group. In our current political environment understanding group dynamics and its relationship to leadership is a topic very much on my mind these days.
I consider myself an educator. I spend most of my time working with gymnastics professionals (coaches and business owners) as well as gymnasts all over the world. Whether I am in a gym or in a conference room this allows me to observe group behavior. I have found certain consistent behaviors among the hundreds of groups I have instructed or worked with over the years.
In the United States, when a group does not have a person designated as leader by virtue of title or position, group members have a very strong bias towards adopting majority rule as their decision-making paradigm. I consistently see this regardless of the group members’ age, income, education or other demographic attributes. Absent a clear leader, group members most often consult with each other and then assemble a majority vote to support a decision. These groups tend to get driven to the middle.
A Title Doesn’t Make the Leader. A Leader Makes the Title
Interestingly, while groups are driven to find common ground and make decisions through majority rule, they are also very willing to be led. But only if they are comfortable with who leads them. Left to their own to act, groups find their leaders through questioning or conduct to identify special expertise, a job title that carries authority, or other indicia of authority. Then, they follow the leaders they choose.
Understanding the contradictory impulses of majority rule and a willingness to be led is essential for effective leadership. The grant of leadership is always contingent. Groups may be willing to be led, but only if the leaders consistently demonstrate that they are competent to lead, that their decision making is sound and that they give credence to the opinions of those whom they lead.
What happens when a leader proves not to be worthy of continued leadership? Groups and their members become frustrated and look to reassert their power to decide. And if the leader does not cede authority back to the group or to a leader the group prefers, the group gets more frustrated.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this group dynamic for yourself. Perhaps it was when you were a new coach your boss gave a poorly qualified coach a higher level group over more qualified coach because they were friends. Or, when a team is adversely affected by one of the older gymnasts that does nothing but complain without offering any solutions. It could have been when a CEO appears to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment while espousing a corporate culture of inclusion. In each case, there was a group that experienced the delegation of authority and the frustration and anger that followed when the leader proved unworthy of following.
In our sport- Everyone needs to know that his or her opinion matters. Every group expects deference and acknowledgement from its leaders.
This is something every leader must understand to be successful. The best leaders take the time to remain in touch with their employees. In gymnastics Ms Perry is going to have to reach out to all the professional members and participants. Let them know that their voice counts. Protect the athletes as well as the professionals. Work to keep our national teams at the top of the sport world wide and continue with educational courses to ensure the next generation of coaches and athletes continue to love the sport. Indeed, the entirety of best practices in management and leadership rests on understanding the needs of the group and on individuals participating in forming the group consensus.
Which brings me (inevitably) to the world of politics and policy. Too many political leaders seem to have forgotten that they owe their leadership roles to the individuals and groups that delegated authority to them. They no longer treat them as if their opinions matter. A leader that ignores the well-being of the employees would surely be fired. Why shouldn’t political leaders be evaluated by the same standard?
Don’t let the noise of current events confuse or dissuade you. Leadership is not taken. It is earned. No one should be a leader without honoring that fundamental truth. What is true in business should also be true for politics and in our sport.
As a life long gymnast, coach and educator I will work tirelessly to see USA Gymnastics Succeed. I will help in any way possible to continue to make USA Gymnastics better. To protect the athletes; to educate coaches and athletes and to pass on my love of the sport to the next generation.
Here is a edited version from a blog post I wrote back in July.
Dear Ms Perry, July 17, 2017 (edited November 7, 2017)
In August I attended my first advisory board meeting. The federation has faced a terrible few months and there are still rocky roads ahead. The growth of registered athletes, despite the recent scandal speaks well of the overall feeling inside and outside the gymnastics community. On the whole, I think we can safely assume we’ve weathered the current storm. However, while we can all be grateful for the recent signs of an upturn in our performance, I suspect the next year or two will hold many challenges.
Indeed, the stabilization of our situation offers only a brief reprieve, if any at all. Many of the clubs in the country are still on fragile ground. We operate in an industry that still has many needs. The needs of the gymnasts, parents, coaches, and club owners. The need to perform exceptionally well at international competitions, the need to continue to develop new talent in all the disciplines and build a place where they can train successful and safely. The need to market each discipline. The need to secure sponsors and Television contracts. All this AND we going to be embroiled in lawsuits for at least the immediate future. In short, you’ll have your hands full indefinitely.
The pressure of achieving results: Meeting targets of any kind can cause immense pressure. As CEO, you will be constantly conscious of these targets…in fact, they will almost consume you.
Solution: Set realistic targets for yourself, for people in the office and for our teams. Assess what’s doable and what’s not. Have a core group of people you can rely on but involve everyone in the plans from day one, so that they are on the same page, and aware of what needs to be done. You will need to deploy a diverse set of people with different competencies to achieve the targets… Successful gymnastics clubs always have individuals with complementary competencies and skills, rather than similar ones, not only does that make a well rounded program in the gym but they are also then able to view and solve problems with a different approach. You will need to get people “on the ground” involved. It can be a motivating force moving toward a shared vision, and not just a gold medal or number
The pressure of always being right: As CEO you will be constantly looked upon as a role model, someone who will not err or fumble, someone who is fair and looks at a problem from different angles. This pressure will often put you in doubt — doubt about the direction the federation is moving in, the decisions you’re taking, and your own capabilities and worth as a leader. ‘To be or not to be’ was not just a dilemma for Hamlet…it’s a dilemma every coach goes through. You may even feel reluctant to continue in your position…
Solution: Realize that all the burden of responsibility is not your own. As CEO, you are largely a facilitator, and you should focus instead on growing your teams, rather than doing everything yourself. It is not essential for you to know and direct on every detail of every aspect … All you need to do is focus on the vision set out, and then nurture great teams to execute them. The more you empower those around you, the less stress you will feel.
Grow a circle of advisors who you can reach out to when in doubt. These should be your confidantes…those you can pour your heart out to, and share your problems with. Take ideas and solutions from them and find strength from their support.
Many people have called for USAG to become more Transparent. What is Transparency? Can you have it without accountability? Too often, leaders don’t know what accountability looks like, much less how to implement accountability in an organization. In order to set the team at USAG on the path to greater accountability and greater results there are a few things that I have found have helped me in my businesses.
Set clear expectations.
Achieving results requires clarity around expectations and outcomes–so it’s on you as a leader to affirm (and reaffirm) that everyone understands what they need to do to achieve success.
Be realistic about what people in the office or out in the field can handle. Avoid overburdening them just to get the results you want, when you want them.
Measure and report progress.
Doc Massimo told me that all my goals as an athlete and as a coach should be clear and measurable. If I can’t measure them, they shouldn’t be a goal. You will need to be transparent and open when measuring and reporting progress. The board may need to be reminded that a change in priorities may mean a change in the Key Results in the short term that will define success for the organization in the long term.
Give and receive feedback.
Keeping the feedback loop open is crucial to great leadership. In my gyms I do not want “Yes men”. I need people around me who can give and take feedback. I have a policy of “catch them doing something right”. It’s easy to fall into the trap of giving feedback only when something goes wrong, but that conditions employees to associate feedback with failure or punishment. And always ask for feedback as often as you give it.
Encourage risk taking.
Collaboration and innovation is fostered in an environment where risk-taking is encouraged–even when a project or action isn’t guaranteed to succeed. I have written many articles on Failure being a prerequisite for success. In too many organizations, the fear of punishment strongly deters risk-taking. Sometimes the only way to achieve success is to take risks along the way. Build a culture of trust, collaboration, and transparency by letting those in the National office or in the field take risks and learn from failures. Encourage people to engage in creative problem-solving so they can learn what it feels like to overcome obstacles together.
Inspire gymnastics professionals to take ownership.
Accountability is all about ownership. Right now I think about 80% of the coaches out there want the National office to swoop in and fix all the problems. When the office does make a decision all they do is complain. There needs to be accountability through out the gymnastics community. A professional who skirts their responsibilities, expecting others pick up the slack, does little to encourage a proactive, dynamic culture. Everyone must be focused by ensuring that everyone is on board with the federations objectives.
These are just a few of my ideas to help you keep your balance and beat the pressures you will face daily as CEO. Of course there will be many more, as the leadership role is vast…
Today’s times are rightly described as VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. These factors will play havoc in the life of the leader too.
But as CEO, if you decide to face these situations with calm and equanimity you will be an inspiration to many.