I use quotes sometimes when I conduct workshops, give keynote presentations and even when I’m coaching leaders one on one. They are often a great way to create a change in perspective very quickly. They allow us to, for an instant, see the world through the lens of another person. That helps us evaluate our own lens with a little bit more objectivity. It only lasts a few seconds; then all of our own experiences, biases, and convictions swoop back in to put our thinking right back where it was before the little vacation. Sometimes though, a moment is enough to create a few cracks in our window on the world and allow us to question our own thinking. When leaders do that, it’s usually a very good thing.
One of my favorite quotes is by Mia Hamm. Virtually everyone has heard of Mia, she has scored more international soccer goals than anyone in the history of the game, male or female. She was referred to by Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon as “perhaps the most important athlete in the last 15 years.” The quote is this: “I am building a fire, and every day I train, I add more fuel. At just the right moment, I light the match."
Now lot’s of athletes and other successful people have made similar quotes about training hard but I love the imagery Mia uses here to allow us to visually picture that flame exploding as the match is struck. And I see so many parallels between Mia’s quote and the challenge of becoming a successful leader.
I’ve come across a lot of leaders that believe that when they are finally placed in a leadership role, they can then become a leader. That’s like Mia saying, when I make the team, then I can start to train. If you’re not already training, you’ll never make the team. Leadership is about helping those around you get better and it doesn’t matter if you are in charge of them or not. It doesn’t even matter if you know them. How many people have influenced you in some way during your life and don’t even know it? If you’re like me, it’s a long list.
I’ve also known leaders that believe leadership is mostly about the big speech or the huge meeting or even the well-crafted memo. That’s like Mia thinking that it’s only about the game instead of understanding that the game is just the expected result of all of the training and practice. She didn’t wait for the game to become effective. Mia understood that it’s the little things you do every day that prepare you for success. Whenever I come across an effective leader, I find that they too are focused on the daily things that make them better and have impact on others around them. If they are only leading when the spotlight is on, chances are, it won’t shine on them for very long.
The third point that I think this quote makes is that doing anything great, at least in a sustainable way, starts with becoming a person who is capable of great things. Real leaders understand that most of the effort has to be placed in making themselves better so that they can lead others more effectively. No one leads others well over time unless they first learn to lead themselves.
Mia has another quote that says “The vision of a champion is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when nobody else is looking.” That’s often how the days go for you if you are a successful leader. They are full of challenges, changes, learning, working and growing. But for every day you face like that, there’s an opportunity to take a person, a business, or an organization to a place he, she or it could never have gone without you. That’s worth working for, that’s worth becoming a leader for. Make sure when you get that chance; you’re ready to light the match.