There are mean and nasty people in this world. These individuals are impatient, harsh, rude, and cruel. Their objective is to impart their misery on everyone they come in contact with.
The Big Game
Let me set the stage for you. It’s late on a Saturday night, a trip to the championship game is on the line. Two undefeated teams clash, vying for one of two spots in the final game. The score remains scoreless as the game enters the fourth quarter.
The fans are restless, they expect better from the coaches. Jeers exceed the cheers. Every play call is second guessed. Their frustration builds as the coach sticks to the gameplan and continues to run the same series of plays without scoring a touchdown. The cries to, “run outside,” “throw the football,” and “run something different” ring out. They have had enough!
Finally, with less than three minutes to play, the seven-year-old Acworth Warriors punch one in and go up seven to nothing! We would cling to that lead for the final few minutes and move on to the championship.
I coached youth football for twenty-one seasons and that evening was the single worst experience of my coaching career. I was twenty-four years old, no child on the team, and was seriously considering whether the effort to volunteer was worth pursuing ever again.
Mean and Nasty People
Through the discouragement, I mustered up enough energy to tell the boys how proud I was for their effort that evening in the post-game speech. As we broke the huddle and headed to the vehicles, there was very little gratitude or encouragement offered towards myself or any of the coaches. In a moment I won’t ever forget, I was intercepted by a mean and nasty person who cursed me up and down and made it known how poorly he felt I had coached that evening.
Here are three valuable leadership lessons I learned that evening through my experience with mean and nasty people:
Stay the Course
Later that week, the President of our football association was attending a league meeting. He had run into the opposing coach from that fateful game. In their conversation, the coach expressed how he could not get over how disciplined we were in our commitment to stick with the game plan. He was certain that we would finally get discouraged late in the game, abandon our game plan, and then he would seize the opportunity to win.
When faced with mean and nasty people in leadership, stay the course. Remain disciplined in your plan and relentlessly pursue victory. You Can Count on Critics to be nothing but a distraction, hoping that you abandon your game plan and fumble the ball. When the noise gets unbearable, remember what baseball legend Babe Ruth once said, “The loudest boos come from the cheapest seats.” Stay the course.
Refuse to Engage
You likely gave me too much credit earlier. As you read the part about the parent who Interceded me in the parking lot, it would have been easy to think that I showed great composure by just continuing to my vehicle.
If I’m being honest, it was terribly difficult to resist engaging. My pride, combined with a twenty-four-year-old temper, and a wrestling background wanted to pummel him right there in front of everyone. While that would have brought me great…momentary satisfaction, there would have been severe consequences to that choice. I gained more respect in the eyes of those parents who watched me stay calm, cool, and collected in the face of mean and nasty.
If you are in a leadership role, encounters with mean and nasty people await. One thing is for sure, we and our organizations ARE GOING to fall short of someone else’s expectations. When tempers flare, words become harsh, and criticism is cast…refuse to engage. When pride tells you to engage, it’s always a good choice to disengage.
It’s Them, Not You
The ones that were the harshest that evening were bitter people. They were using the conduit of a youth football game to take out their life’s frustrations on someone else. I am willing to bet these people exhibited the same uncontrolled behavior in their personal and professional lives as well.
Dealing with people like this requires the issuance of grace. Essentially giving them a gift, one in which they do not deserve, the benefit of the doubt. Most likely there was a bad choice, a tragic event, a traumatic childhood, a failed relationship, a dead-end career, financial hardship, or a series of unfortunate circumstances that inflicted a wound that never healed behind the behavior.
The issue was not me and my play calling, it was them. Pastor Rick Warren said, “Hurt people, hurt people.”
In leadership, the best thing we can acknowledge is that everybody has a story. When a team member is off or we come across that challenging employee, we can start with grace and empathy. It doesn’t always solve the issue, but it places the leader in the right mindset to make a tough, but clear decision. Just remember, sometimes it’s them, not you.
Just as there are mean and nasty people in this world, there are those that are kind and supportive. The crazy thing is, my discouragement didn’t necessarily lie in the words used towards me that evening. It was the fact that they were used in the presence of my wife, Shannon, who was gracious enough to share her husband three nights a week and most of the day on Saturday with the team.
That evening taught me a lot about leadership. The three lessons I learned: to stay the course, to refuse to engage, and to remember that it’s them, not me, have proven to be extremely valuable lessons in my leadership journey. Every ounce of discouragement in that moment prepared me to deal with mean and nasty people in the future.
Many of our most valuable leadership lessons are taught in moments like this. It’s not always easy for us to see through the fog of the moment, but once the sunlight breaks through the next day, we are better for it.