Leadership Lessons in Real Life: Leading by Example

I’m a leadership junkie. Nothing fires me up quite like a good example of leadership, especially if it comes in the face of adversity.  It’s probably why I love so many cheesy sports movies like The Replacements and Hoosiers. They’re all chock full of leadership lessons. As art imitates life, it’s fitting this weekend I witnessed some truly profound leadership right in front of me at a soccer game.

Setting the Stage:

I play on an indoor soccer team as part of the Boston Ski and Sports Club. It’s nothing fancy and to the outside world, it’s pretty meaningless. But to those of us that play it has a lot of meaning. Many of us grew up playing sports and continued all through high school and college. There’s a void left by that only filled by finding a team sport to play even after school.

The team I’m on is pretty special. No egos. No dead weight. Just a bunch of athletes that enjoy playing with each other and find that perfect balance between hyper competitiveness and having fun.

That mix combined with a little luck found us in the championship game of our league this past Sunday. We were coming off one of our best performances of the year in our 5-3 semifinal victory, so we were pretty confident entering the game.  Things did not go as planned, but thanks to a great example of leadership in its purest form all was not lost.

Struggles and Setbacks:

In the first half we stumbled a bit to a 0-1 deficit. At halftime we all talked about how we just needed to finish a few opportunities and we’re in it. We were a little discouraged to have not scored yet, but confident in our abilities to have a solid second half.

Unfortunately, the second half started off very poorly. Within minutes of the half starting an errant play by me led to an own-goal. Seizing the momentum, just a minute after that, another goal was scored as our defense looked lost.

We hung our heads. Down 0-3 with 20 minutes left. But one of us refused to relent. Rob was more fired up than ever. He kept encouraging all of us to keep fighting. There was plenty of time to come back. He started chasing down every ball within range and ripping shots every chance he got.  The opponent’s momentum was stopped when Rob ripped his first goal to bring us within 2 goals.

Rob then subbed out after a lengthy shift and not long after a fourth goal came. down 1-4, just 15 minutes left. While the rest of us looked beaten and thought we were toast, Rob was more passionate than ever.  He ran down balls, beat defenders and kept pushing. At first the rest of the team didn’t respond. He was like a one man wrecking crew, but playing 1 on 5.

The Turning Point:

With Rob running around the field like a maniac for a few minutes finally another player on our team started making big plays too. Soon after another joined in and before we knew it, we had the whole team challenging every ball and pushing hard on goal.

Not long after, Rob got his second goal of the night. After the goal he ran right by our bench yelling at all of us to get fired up and get ready to come in and make a play too.

It worked. With 8 minutes left, down 2-4, Brandon dribbled hard into the defense and was taken down inside the box. Penalty kick. Like a man on fire, Rob convinced Brandon to let him take the shot, which he quickly buried in the back of the net. Now down by just 1 goal, Rob got a little crazy.

In outdoor soccer, when you’re down with little time left, you’ll often grab the ball after you score and bring it back to the mid line so the other team can’t stall waiting to kick off. Fired up after his goal and desperate to keep our momentum, Rob attempted to take the ball from our opponent and run it up. A near fight ensued that got our whole bench fired up and fortunately led to no penalties.

Completing the Comeback:

After the post-goal scuffle, there was no doubt that everyone on our team was ready to do whatever it took to tie the game. As a team we won every 50-50 ball in the open field and even took some 40-60 balls from them. We wanted it. Bad. Rob’s passion had infected the whole team and there was nothing our opponent could do about it.

With just 4 minutes left, a quick save by our keeper with a throw up the sideline led to a fast break. A quick give and go then led to a shot from the corner which Brandon buried in the back of the net. Tie game.

With all the momentum in our favor we pushed hard to try to win before time ran out, but unfortunately we were unable to settle it in regulation.

Overtime in our league means straight to Penalty Kicks (PKs). Leading the way once again, Rob scored our first PK, and went on to lead encouragement of our goalie and other shooters. A clutch save by our keeper and 3 straight goals made led us to a 3-2 victory in PKs.

The Moral of the Story:

Leadership is not about what happens when times are easy. It is what you do when the times are tough that matters. When the rest of the team was ready to give up, Rob refused to lose.  When no one else seemed to have any fight left in them, Rob continued to lead by example, challenging every ball, running hard on every play and encouraging everyone.  Eventually, he got others to join in and soon everyone was believing again and putting everything they had into the game.

No matter your challenge, realize that leadership means flying in the face of group think (the game is over) and being bold enough to stick with it long enough for others to join you and change your situation, whether that be a soccer comeback, your company on the ropes, or dancing on a hill (my favorite TED talk ever, below):