In 2015 Jim Harbaugh accepted the job as football coach at the University of Michigan. Over the next 12 months he became a perpetual motion machine with an electrifying effect on play, recruitment, the university, town and even the country.
Close to the 2016 signing day for new recruits, Harbaugh appeared on the Dan Patrick show in San Francisco. There was a light-hearted moment when Patrick challenged Harbaugh to convince a young man named Seton O’Connor to hit himself in the face with a pie. The humorous event, which can be seen here, actually reveals a lesson worthy of our attention.
At the start there is a brief moment of awkwardness for both people. Then we watch Harbaugh do things that seem natural to him. First, instead of trying to persuade, Harbaugh uses inquiry. He asks Seton if he remembers George Halas, coach of the Chicago Bears.
Normally asking a question like this creates engagement. The only problem is that Seton looks at Harbaugh blankly. To the shock of everyone on the show, he cannot answer.
Pause for a moment. If you were Harbaugh, on television with this awkward situation, what would you do next? I believe most of us would get nervous and become increasingly ineffective. What does he do?
Harbaugh says, “I want you to put this pie in your face better than it has ever been done before.”
Despite his disorientation, Seton suddenly focuses. He says, “You want me to do it with enthusiasm?”
Notice that now the conversation is not about if he will put the pie in his face, but about how he will do it.
Harbaugh nods and replies to the query about the level of enthusiasm, “Unknown to mankind, better than anyone has ever done before.”
Seton seems excited but then looks at the pie and pauses. Harbaugh notices the pause and asks, “Do you want me to give you a three count?” He is referring to the count that a quarterback gives to a center so as to trigger the snapping of the football.
Seton nods his head. Harbaugh gives the count and Seton puts the pie in his own face with enthusiasm. The group explodes with glee.
It all seems so funny yet in this scene is a microcosm from which we can learn much. What Harbaugh does is clearly spontaneous and natural. Yet his efforts follow a recognizable pattern. While it may be an unconscious pattern, he is operating according to the positive mindset and the principles of transformational influence.
He can stimulate people to think and behave differently. We call this transformational leadership. Transformational leaders change cultures and people. They inspire high performance. The seemingly silly scene is a microcosm of transformational leadership.
Transformational leaders create interest or engagement. They often do this by asking questions. This was the first thing Harbaugh did.
They also provide inspirational motivation, a desirable image of the future. Instead of giving instructions, Harbaugh gives Seton the opportunity to pie himself as no one has ever done it before. Even though he is uneasy, Seton finds the challenge inspiring and intrinsically motivating. He is ready to go.
While inspired, Seton, nevertheless, pauses. Transformational leaders also supply individual consideration and support. While they ask people to perform at high levels, they are also sensitive to individual needs and they use their creativity to help individuals commit and move forward. Again, without much conscious thought, Harbaugh offers to give the three-count. Seton is ready to act.
Some argue that leaders are born, not made. It may be that some people are naturally inclined towards transformational influence, but no one internalizes the positive template without going through their own transformative learning processes.
We were invited to meet with a group of young professionals in medicine. They wanted to discuss how to become change agents. We started with two questions. First, how did they define the word leader? They responded that it was someone who can stimulate people to feel, think, see and do things in a new way.
Next, we asked them to differentiate between a novice, an expert, and a master. One person said a novice is someone who is just learning. An expert is a person who learns to effectively lead his or her own organization or group. A master is a person who takes the principles of leadership and generalizes them in such a way that they can effectively lead any organization or group.
The answer exceeded our expectations. They were implying that there is a generalized theory of leadership that allows a person to effectively inspire change in any situation. We have already made this claim about Harbaugh. Two other illustrations come to mind. The first was a world leader. The second is relatively unknown public school teacher.
There is a movie called Gandhi. It well illustrates his development from novice to master. At the start of his career Gandhi was awkward in his attempts to influence. Yet he continually reflected on his experiences, tried new experiments and grew into a master. At the end of his life he was able to enter nearly any situation and stimulate people to feel, think, see and do things in a new way. He, like Harbaugh, had a generalized set of action principles that he could use in any situation.
The public school teacher was someone we had met personally, a woman who struggled to get her credentials and who took years to learn how to excel, eventually becoming highly effective in the classroom. Referring to her experience as an undergraduate in an education school, she told us, you learn the “rules” of teaching. Then you go to your first class and you learn that every child is different, that each one has a unique set of needs that you have to learn how to work with each unique child.
“Then,” she said, surprising us, “you go to the next level.” Fascinated, we asked her what that was. She said that she eventually learned that every child was the same. No matter what a child says or does, every child wants to be respected, every child wants to succeed, and so on. No matter what the superficial signals suggest, they all have the same set of intrinsic needs. She told us that once she discovered they are all the same, she could effectively teach any group, old or young, gifted or special education.
This woman, like Gandhi, reflected continually on her experiences, tried new experiments and kept growing. She went from a novice at empathy to an expert who could understand and attend to the needs of each child. Operating as an expert she kept growing until she made a profound discovery. She learned to scale empathy. She learned to empathize with the whole. Now she is a master of influence. In any situation, like Harbaugh on the TV show, she can identify the collective needs of the group or individual and focus her efforts to influence on those needs. She can therefore teach/lead anybody anywhere. She is a master change agent.
We delight in the fact that she is a public school teacher and not a CEO or a world leader. She has a job that tends to be depreciated. Professionals in pursuit of power would not think of going to the local public school to find a master of leadership. Yet she illustrates an important fact; master change agents emerge in every profession and context. As people pay the steep price for acquiring the positive perspective, they become more and more masterful. Eventually they gain a theory of influence that allows them to inspire positive change in any situation. They may make mistakes, like asking about George Halas, but they tend to recover. If we look for them, even in strange places, like a TV show, we can choose to learn from them and we can accelerate our own efforts to become masters of positive influence.
What is the steep price that has to be paid to become a master of positive influence?
Who, in my personal circle of relationships, has paid the price, and what can I learn from that person?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?