There is a distinction I want you to make, one that will help make you a better leader. It is the distinction between the locker room and the game.
We have a culture around us that is given to much talk. We should be glad for it. We can’t be upset about the devices that enhance our communication or that a younger generation is highly verbal and eager for connection. We also can’t be upset about the tremendous avenues of media we all enjoy and learn from.
Yet all of this can set us up to confuse the talking and the doing, the describing of solutions with the actual solutions themselves. My metaphor for this is confusing the locker room for the game.
The locker room is where you assemble your gear and talk over the game. Strategies are outlined. Last minute plays are designed. Inspirational talks are given. The locker room is important, both before and during the game. But it isn’t the game. To play the game you have to leave the locker room and get on the field.
I’m concerned that in our high talk culture, leaders sometimes mistake meetings and discussion for action. We speak these days of having “conversations” about a problem as though those conversations are the solutions to problems. They usually aren’t.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in conversations and discussions and anything that extends communication and paves a way for meaningful action. Remember what I do for a living!
Here is my concern. The CEO arranges discussions among his team members, schedules lunches for conversations, has notes distributed about the content of those discussions, and tells his board that the conversations went well. Then he goes on feeling good about what he’s done—having never actually acted on anything all the talk was about.
He’s in the locker room. He’s prompted talk and strategy sessions galore, but never fixed the problem or addressed the need or answered the hurt or built what is needed. He’s just done a magnificent job of describing what the game might look like. He has yet to run out of the locker room door and actually play the game.
Semanticists use some language I’ve started using as well. They speak of Map/Territory Confusion. If you are looking at a map of Ghana, you aren’t looking at Ghana. You are looking at a representation of Ghana. It is likely somewhat accurate, but it isn’t the real thing. You’ll have to go to Ghana for the real thing. You’ll have to use the map but not think the map is the place. It isn’t.
Leaders who make this mistake reap the whirlwind. If you’ve held numerous conversations about sex abuse in your company but never actually eradicated it, you’re in the locker room but not in the game. You’re studying the problem, not fixing it. It’s the same with the underperformance of your sales team or the complaints from your minority team members or the dysfunctions in shipping. You actually frustrate everyone more because you raise hopes that are only dashed by your inaction.
A final thought. This confusing of the locker room and the game is more common among leaders with academic backgrounds. They’ve approached leadership largely from books, lectures, and graduate seminars. They rarely had to take action. I love books, lectures, and graduate seminars. They just don’t automatically lead to action.
Bottom line: Don’t settle until the deed is done. Talk is not action. Spend the time in the locker room that you need. Then leave it and play the game well.