A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege of guiding several focus group discussions with members of Canada’s high performance sport community. In this article, I’d like to share one of the most powerful leadership-related insights I uncovered in those discussions. This insight focuses on the topic of how leaders can pursue the performance limit of their teams and team members in constructive and sustainable ways.
The credentials of the attendees were impressive: two former Olympians, one of those a medalist in Rio; a former Olympic coach; a CEO of a provincial hockey association, who was also a former assistant GM in the NHL; a coach and advisor for a professional cycling team; the leader of a national cycling program in a Commonwealth country; a mental performance consultant, and former international level athlete; and a high-performance advisor for ‘Own the Podium,’ a Canadian organization that seeks to maximize Olympic medal counts.
At one point in the focus group we broached the subject of how organizational leaders and sport coaches could seek the performance limit of their teams, but without breaking them. How do you move people to the absolute limit of their performance and potential, without fracturing the relationships with them?
At that moment, one former Olympic athlete and coach in the sport of cycling put up his hand to contribute. Below is his near verbatim comment:
“…When I first had kids, we were playing around with some YMCA programs. I had been coaching my whole life, and had been to the Olympics coaching a couple of times. But it took me taking my kids to a YMCA program where this really hit home. These YMCA instructors were amazing at being leaders in pushing my kids to move outside of their comfort zones. And the concept they used was ‘challenge by choice.’ And it related to an activity as simple as going on the water and canoeing, and going through an obstacle course. But the instructors made it very clear, ‘I’m going to challenge you, because I’ve taken the time to get to know you over the last few days of camp, understanding what your individual buttons are. And then I’m going to offer you the opportunity to move beyond your perceived limit, and I’m going to challenge you, but I need your voluntary commitment that you want to be here.’ And I was just like wow, ok… And then that instructor, and this has stuck with me the last 20 odd years, that instructor then had the license to say ‘I know where your self-limits are, you’ve expressed them and you’ve demonstrated them through this process. And now it’s my role to help lead you over the hill, or push you further, because you’ve given me license. So you have to do the prework to take the time to get to know your team members, and then as a leader, as you get to that precipice, then you’ve got to ruthlessly and savagely support those individuals to get over the hump. ‘You’ve volunteered to be here, Tim! I’m sorry, but now I’m going to push because now that’s my role as a leader here. You signed up for it, now here we go.’”
Another participant, herself a former Olympian and medalist, responded:
“That gave me an incredible light bulb moment. [What you’re describing is] almost like a state of flow between the leader and the follower, right? You’re getting someone to that critical point where your ‘leading’ and their ‘following’ is in this agreed upon state. So you need to have leader and follower in this state, where they agree to be in that [high-performance] cycle with each other…”
Ruthlessly and savagely supporting… Ruthlessly and savagely supporting… This phrase echoed in my ears for days. Two of these descriptors seemed incompatible with the third. It sounded like mixing oil and water. I had never contemplated a concept like this in a leadership context, and I’ve been working in this space for years. Yet here was an experienced high-performance athlete and sport coach, and a former Olympic medalist, both of whom have breathed the rarest air at the highest peaks of performance saying, ‘yeah, that makes sense to me.’ What was this concept we’d stumbled upon?
After further reflection, I distilled that in this fascinating passage these talented sports-men and -women seemed to be making several important points.
First, they seemed to suggest that when leaders strive to move their teams towards their performance limit, that they need to first complete a preparatory or prework phase. Based on their comments, this prework seems to include at least three steps: building a relationship; learning about the other person’s idiosyncratic needs, triggers, or tolerances; and establishing permission or consent.
Second, the completion of the prework seems to imply mutuality in the relationship. It’s a two-way street. Both parties partake in a kind of ‘contracting’ to enter into the high-performance state together. And notably, the follower (or the athlete, or even the YMCA camper) has some distinct power in the relationship. It’s not a top-down arrangement. The follower gets a say about whether they want to engage. If the leader needs to obtain permission or consent to enter the high-performance work zone, that implies the follower has meaningful power. [Note I learned this is especially the case in high-performance sport, where athletes have significant input about how much stretch they infuse into their goals; by contrast in organizational settings, goals may be more often imposed ‘from above’).
Third, and this part is critical, once both parties establish this groundwork, the relationship seems to enter a new zone where the leader has significantly more freedom to push for higher levels of performance, with less risk of damaging the relationship. I’ve started to think about entering this zone with the phrase ‘piercing the bubble.’ When you’re inside the ‘bubble,’ perhaps many of the constraining interpersonal rules that leaders often need to pay attention to, just melt away: lines demarcating what’s psychologically safe vs not, what’s socially or culturally or situationally appropriate vs not, or what behaviours fit with individuals’ preferences/tolerances vs not. Perhaps if leaders can ‘pierce the bubble’ and enter this high-performance arrangement that’s voluntary, permission-based, and consensual, they step into a new landscape governed by unfamiliar rules (maybe this evokes memories of entering a foreign country); perhaps it’s a place where leaders can push in a more aggressive or authoritative manner, without worrying about damaging the relationship or offending.
Fourth, once inside the ‘bubble’ it seems to be the leader’s role to encourage the testing of new limits. In other words, it’s as if the leader now has permission to say ‘I see a higher ceiling than you see yourself; I see more potential that you see in yourself; since you gave me permission to assume this role, trust me that we can go beyond the limit that you perceive, and let’s explore what lies on the other side; it may be painful and extremely uncomfortable, but since we’ve agreed we want to go there, let me help guide you.’ Interestingly, this type of narrative frames aggressive pushing which we would normally judge as hostile and counterproductive, as a much more human-centric, compassionate, and supportive activity.
Perhaps these distillations help explain how leaders can ruthlessly and savagely support others, how the oil and water can in fact mix. Once leaders establish permission and consent, complimented by a trusting relationship and some familiarity with the person they’re leading, perhaps this helps the follower interpret aggressive forms of support as constructive, positive in intent, and aligned with their intrinsic goals.
I still have some lingering questions about this notion of ‘piercing the bubble.’ For example, do leaders need to continually negotiate and renegotiate consent once they’ve entered a high-performance cycle with a person or team? Or should they just negotiate consent at the start of the process and consider it ‘set’ after that point? Also, I can see how ‘piercing the bubble’ can work well in a one-to-one coaching dynamic, but how does it work in a team setting? Do you negotiate permission and consent with each member individually? Do you negotiate it in a public team setting? And what if you lead 2000 people? How do you scale this insight across very large teams? Finally, will ‘piercing the bubble’ work only with the most motivated employees? Or can it also work with employees of low or average motivation?
Even with these questions in mind, I believe this notion of ‘piercing the bubble’ may be a powerful concept for leaders to consider. It helps outline a path for leaders to strive for the absolute peak of performance, in ways that preserve the human capital underneath them. It shows the enduring value of ‘push’ (not just ‘pull’) tactics, as long as they’re practiced in a humane way. And it raises leaders’ awareness to the notions of permission and consent (underrepresented terms in discussions of organizational leadership, though they’re more prominent in high-performance sport contexts), and how they can act as a gateway to a high-performance working relationship.
As a post script, I sent the above article to the former Olympic athlete and coach in the sport of cycling, who provided the first quote captured above. He provided some additional commentary, which I thought would be valuable to add here.
Reacting to the phrase 'piercing the bubble' he offered the following:
"I think your choice of 'piercing the bubble' is an appropriate term. To me this captures the essence that the coach – athlete tandem (in an individual sport context) are both empowered to break free of usual restraints or otherwise perceived barriers."
He also offered the following perspective on the question of whether leaders/coaches need to continually negotiate and renegotiate consent:
"My take, yes, leaders (at least in my experience) constantly re-establish and/or renegotiate consent throughout the day, week, month, year, etc. This is important b/c the athlete will always be in a state of constant flux in terms of their level of mental/physical readiness. Some days the athlete presents in a state of absolute readiness, i.e., their physical, mental, technical and tactical abilities are all in top shape - ready to go… therefore the negotiations on a day such as this may require tempering enthusiasm, holding them back, not pushing new limits. This would be the case if the athlete were 2-3 days out from a major competition. You would want to temper their excitement, to “keep the genie in the bottle until race day.” Whereas, when the athlete is having an absolute shocker of a day – and what they really need from the training session is a walk and a talk with the coach with no physical/technical/tactical load imposition…. (i.e., they simply need to be told it’s okay to have a rest day today b/c they are carrying excessive fatigue). Lastly, if the athlete is seemingly coasting along, happy to simply “check in and do the basics” - that’s a time when the coach really needs to lean in on the “challenge by choice” concept and push the athlete to expose a new level of output…."
Thank you for reading and I would welcome your feedback. If you would like to receive future original articles providing unique insights on leadership, please consider subscribing to my newsletter at www.timjacksonphd.com
Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has assessed and coached leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He's also worked with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.
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