Who is in the arena with you?

“A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance. The problem is, when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hurt by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

Brene Brown

I heard this quote referenced by someone that I really respect yesterday and had to go look it up. Specifically the quote that she referenced was: “if you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” I love that last sentence but I think I appreciate the wisdom in the prior lines just as much.

It is so easy for people to get in the arena and feel that they have the right to criticize and attack simply because they are present. Don’t believe this is true? Sit in any football stadium in America and listen to the fans around you. You will hear things like “that referee is blind,”“the quarterback missed a wide open receiver, he can’t throw the ball,” and “the coaches don’t know what they are doing.” Are the fans right? Maybe sometimes they are. But they aren’t the ones on the field. They don’t have the pressure of having to perform in front of others, they can simply sit there and offer input without having had to invest any blood, sweat or tears. Now I have been guilty of doing this plenty of times myself and unfortunately it isn’t just when I have been at a sporting event…

I believe that the most beautiful wisdom in the quote is contained in the lines right before the part about getting your ass kicked: “The problem is, when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hurt by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives.

Who are you letting into your life? Who are you giving permission to provide feedback that truly matters and is meaningful? Are those people in the arena with you?

There are really two ways a person can be in the arena. They can be there in the literal sense, side by side in the fight. Or they can be there with you in spirit fighting alongside you and supporting your struggle. The key is that they are fighting with you, not attacking you. They are on your side. If they aren’t then they truly aren’t in the arena with you, or perhaps they are, they are just on the other side of the sword…

The arena quote that Brene is pulling from is one of my all time favorites and I have a copy of it on a plaque in my office that I reference regularly. Here it is in it’s entirety:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt

Care greatly…

“A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”

John Wooden

What is the defining characteristic of a coach who can deliver correction in this way? Feedback can come from anyone, but without a key attribute, it can cause resentment, distrust and have the exact opposite of the intended effect. What is this critical variable?

The feedback has to come from a place of genuine care and concern in the coach towards the person that will be receiving the correction. The great coaches are giving the correction because they deeply care about YOU, not about themselves, not about winning at all costs, but because you need to hear something in order to live up to your potential. They care enough about you to ensure that you receive candid and honest input. The great coaches are always seeking to build you up so you can be the best possible version of yourself.

This type of relationship doesn’t happen overnight and it isn’t based on words or promises. It is based on actions demonstrated by the coach showing that their #1 focus is to help you become successful and they will serve that promise faithfully, even when it hurts.

I have had the fortune and privilege to work with, and see in action, both great coaches and horrible coaches. Without fail, all of the great ones shared the trait mentioned above. The very best of them could deliver the fiercest feedback and leave one both chagrined and hungry for more at the same time. When I was on the receiving end I always knew they had my best interests at heart and they weren’t going to let me get in my own way. The worst ones? Well, that is fodder for another day.

If you want to be a great coach, start by cultivating the relationships with those that you serve and ensure that they know you care greatly about their success. If you can’t do this, don’t fake it. They will know and your feedback won’t be very effective in the long-term. In fact, I would say that if you can’t coach with genuine care for those that you serve you should consider a career change. Great coaches care greatly. Period.

Start with a good breakfast…

“Critical feedback is the breakfast of champions. Defensiveness is the dinner of losers.”

Dharmesh Shah

Why are people defensive? Is it because they don’t want to be wrong? Perhaps their own identity or self-worth is so wrapped up in something that anything that doesn’t align with their thinking is taken as a personal indictment? Regardless of why anyone might be defensive it is easy to see that there is very little positive that can come from a defensive mindset.

The best athletes are always looking for critical feedback in order to improve their game. They watch film, they solicit input from trusted coaches, they look for ways to remove flaws from their performance in order to get better. You can’t do that if you have a defensive mindset. You can’t be focused on growing and improving if you aren’t willing to see flaws as opportunities.

Some of the most impactful feedback I have ever received has come at times and places in life that it would have been easy for me to say “I don’t care what you say or think, this is who I am. I am right…” If I had taken that approach I would have missed the opportunity to learn, grow and improve. I wouldn’t have seen the “flaws in my game” and then found ways to address those flaws and hopefully improve my performance. Self-improvement is a continual and ongoing process and I know I have many more opportunities to get better by seeking out candid and critical feedback.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Make sure that you start with a good one by embracing any critical feedback offered.

Embrace criticism…

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

Norman Vincent Peale

I don’t often repeat quotes within a relatively recent time period (after sending a quote for over 20 years there is bound to be some repetition…) but I was reminded of this quote after a conversation with a colleague yesterday.

“Criticism” carries with it a negative connotation in our language. The dictionary defines it as “the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.”  But I prefer to think of it differently, as positive and enhancing, not negative. If you don’t get real feedback how can you ever improve and grow?

If you play baseball and all you hear is praise you are never going to reach your full potential. If you hit a home run everyone will clap and cheer and that is great. But if you start dropping your back shoulder, and no one tells you, you won’t be hitting home runs for long.

Embrace the feedback, any feedback, regardless of the intent of the person providing it. The key for the receiver is to ensure that we have the intent to use it to grow and get better.

If you are interested here is the blog post from the last time I used this quote.

Listening is power…

“Leaders who refuse to listen, will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing helpful to say”

Andy Stanley

I once heard someone say that if you want to be a more effective leader you have to be more interested, than interesting.  This was followed with with what I believe is some of the best advice I have ever received.  That as a leader, in order for you to really be effective, that the number of questions you ask must outweigh the number of statements that you make. This has always been incredibly convicting for me and is something that I continually work on improving.  

The dangers of talking more than listening seem obvious, but why do so few people actually practice the true art of listening?  Is it because they like the sound of their own voice?  That they believe what they have to say is the most important thing?  Or perhaps, they just don’t understand that the best way to impact and influence others comes through listening and seeking first to to understand BEFORE being understood.  

If you aren’t really listening, then as Andy says, you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by people who only tell you what you want to hear….  

I have met the enemy…

“Incompetent leaders spend too much time evaluating others and not enough evaluating their own leadership.”

Unknown

Well snap. And I don’t mean in a “snap, crackle, pop” rice krispies kind of way either. Yes, I fully recognize that I am not demographically qualified to use the term “snap.” I validate that by knowing that Snap, Crackle and Pop are the names of the gnomic elves that pitched Rice Krispies for decades. Don’t believe me?  Check this out. Hmm, now I’m not sure where to go from here. Oh yes, incompetent leaders…

snap crackle popPerhaps real leadership only exists when self leadership is there first? How much easier is it to say “it was their fault” or “they are a horrible leader” than it is to ask the question “how can I improve my leadership?” If it is their fault then I have nothing to worry about right?  WRONG.  I speak from experience.  If I “snap” and excuse it because “they” did it, deserved it, or earned it, then then I’m an incompetent leader.  Period. Thank goodness leadership growth is a journey.  Leave the snap for the cereal.

Right between the eyes…

“No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So for me, the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.” 

Jim Yong Kim

Someone once told me that as soon as soon as you profess “I am humble” you have ceased to be so in any way.  Humility is hard.  We all want to be good.  Heck with that, we want to be great!  But what does it mean to be great?  Is it all about doing it for me?  For I?  For the ego?  The self?  The pursuit of selfish endeavors or selfish gains?  That is the opposite of humility!  For me humility is the recognition that I still yet have a lot to learn.  That I will always have more to learn and that everyone can teach me something.

My Dad (who by the way is one of the greatest influences in my life from both a leadership and human character perspective) taught me when I was very young that the value of a person wasn’t measured in the car that they drove or the clothes that they wore.  Instead, the value of another man was measured entirely in how they treated other people.  Interesting right?!  The value of a human being measured not in what they have, but in what they give.  Respect.  Honor.  Dignity.  Compassion.  Service.  These are just some of the gifts that the greats give, regardless of the size of their bank account or their station in life.

So, for today’s quote this is one lesson that I hope I never forget.  Ask for feedback.  LISTEN to the response.  Get better.  Period.  The day you think you have arrived your journey has ended.  Leadership is learning and growing.  I am a better leader today than I was one year ago and I hope that what I am today is a pale shadow compared to what I have become a year from now based on really listening, learning, and growing.

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