“De-commit” is not a word

In an attempt to get inspired to write regularly again, let me take a moment to jot down some random Friday thoughts and see if I can tie them to leadership.

It seems that every time a long-time football coach retires, he talks about how he saw his role as a developer of young men. Many certainly have. I can think of a number who have left a long wake of young men who were having trouble with school or the law and turned them into students and men of character who could succeed in life. If that’s true, then football coaches are indeed among the best of models for leadership.

That brings me back to the word, “de-commit.” It’s a word that’s being more and more widely used in the world of college athletics recruiting. I saw it again in the paper this morning. An athlete commits to one school but circumstances change or the athlete, claiming youth and immaturity, simply changes his mind. He then “de-commits” and then commits to another school.

But “de-commit” is not a word. Instead, let’s call a spade a spade: the athlete is breaking his word. The reasons might be defensible, but his promise is no longer dependable. What makes it worse is that coaches don’t stop recruiting someone when they commit somewhere, because they can always de-commit. What a horrible starting point if the object is to develop men of character. That’s what was so refreshing about this story last year about Paul Johnson, coach at Georgia Tech:

A quarterback from Tampa made a commitment to Georgia Tech but wanted to take a visit to Auburn. Perhaps he realized he hadn’t taken full advantage of the lavish attention poured out on recruits during their official visits. Perhaps he wanted to keep his options open. Perhaps he was having doubts. Either way, Johnson warned him that he’d lose his scholarship offer if he visited another school. He decided to call Johnson’s bluff, and Johnson let him go. I think the most remarkable part of the story is that this episode made the news.

If my boys were interested in playing football, I’d put Georgia Tech a little higher on my list because of this story. I desire that my kids grow up to be men of character. And coaches like Paul Johnson know how to build men.

Why reluctance part 1: fear of failure

I’m back after a short absence. I’ll try to be more timely in my blogging again. Over the next few posts, I want to go back to the reluctant leadership idea. In particular, what causes reluctance to step up?

I suggest there are a number of reasons. Perhaps the foremost is a fear of failure. Young people with potential for leadership need to be identified early and mentored. Part of the strength of the mentoring relationship is the commitment between mentor and mentee – a commitment that can be the difference in a young person stepping up.

They say delegation without support is abandonment. Well, it’s the same with mentoring. Even if the mentee seems ready, that commitment may still be the lifeline. Throwing a young leader into deep water before they have the tools to swim will only reinforce their deep-seated fear that they weren’t really able to do the job. When failure happens, as it certainly will to some degree, how will they handle it? Often, it sets Gen-Xers back for years and causes them to flee responsibility at least until the setting seems right to try again.

A young man knocked on my door one day. He hadn’t shown interest in the Threshing Floor when we first started it. I suspected he had leadership gifts, but he’d actually moved downward in the hierarchy at Wycliffe since I first met him. Recently, however, he had showed glimmers of interest. He came to our group with his Gen-X supervisor, and now he was at my office wanting to talk. He said he’d been talking quite a bit with his boss about leadership and she suggested he might get a lot out of The Threshing Floor. After being around other young leaders, he was so excited and wanted to soak up all he could. He unfolded the following story.

A few years before, he’d been put into a position of leadership with the promise that he would be mentored by his predecessor for two years. But within 6-9 months in the position, the mentor left him due to various reasons and eventually moved to another position. This young man quickly became overwhelmed and asked to move back to his previous role. He’d tried leadership but wasn’t prepared or supported adequately and had a bad experience. It took him years to come back around to wanting to try it again.

Shortly after our conversation, his supervisor – who was equally young but had a broad range of experience and success in various positions – was promoted. Now, in a much more supportive setting, he agreed to move back to the same position he had burned out on before. He’s doing great, and we’re seeing even greater leadership abilities emerging.

What does someone like this need? A safe, supportive environment to cultivate their leadership gifts. A setting that allows failure and provides a chance to get back up again. And a mentor committed to making sure they’re really swimming before letting go.