One of my biggest lessons in leadership happened many years ago while watching a basketball game on TV with my husband. It was an exciting game during March Madness and one team was down by a point with just a couple of seconds left. The team who was behind called a timeout to set up a play that would get them a chance for a possible buzzer-beater. If they hit it, they’d win, if they missed it, they’d lose.
Leadership means wanting the ball
During the timeout, I remarked to my husband that I felt sorry for whoever was going to get the ball and take the final shot. It was so much pressure! I couldn’t imagine being the one who had to take that shot. In front of all those people! After all, if you make it, you’re the hero, but if you miss it the disappointment and failure would be crushing.
I assumed everyone in the huddle was probably hoping the coach would ask someone else to take the shot. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me and what he said next. “Carmen,” he explained (surprised that I didn’t already know this), “the best players want the ball in this situation.”
This was totally new information to me, and I forget what actually happened in the game, (sorry) because I was in the middle of an epiphany. Talk about an “aha moment!” Immediately, I felt the truth of this statement in my bones. While I never played basketball myself, I definitely could relate to situations where I could imagine “wanting the ball.”
At that time, I did victim-offender mediation for a living. My job was to sit down with victims and their offenders and facilitate a restorative justice process that would allow harm to be repaired. Sometimes it was serious harm. I knew immediately when I wanted the ball- when other people were in some sort of conflict that they couldn’t resolve themselves.
There are a lot of people who shrink from that kind of situation, after all, conflict makes a lot of people extremely uncomfortable! And these were felons and criminals! However, I loved how when I had the ball, all of those worries faded into the background. I was truly in my element as I would facilitate, listen, reframe, clarify, and help others negotiate and communicate. Mediation used all of my natural giftings and gave me a place to exercise them for the greater good. It was a place where I felt incredibly connected to myself.
There is immense satisfaction in seeing a need, knowing that you are the best one to fill it, and confidently stepping into leadership.
Taking the Risk
Unfortunately, mediation didn’t always achieve the results I hoped for. And just like the countless basketball players who have taken that last-second shot, sometimes my shot wouldn’t go in. Despite all the hours of training and practice I had put into developing my gifts and skills, there was still so much out of my control. Maybe one party would walk out, or maybe they’d agree to one thing in the mediation and then fail to live up to the commitment afterward. Sometimes I’d be the one to mess up by missing an important dynamic or saying something clunky and derailing the process- the verbal equivalent of an airball.
And by the way, even Michael Jordan and LeBron James (people who are KNOWN for hitting buzzer-beaters) only hit about 45%-47% of their possible game-winning shots.
On the other hand, when it went well, mediation was transformative- providing the same exhilaration as hitting that buzzer-beater. There was never a crowd to go wild (thank goodness!), but on the inside that’s exactly what it felt like when I had the privilege to help bring about understanding, healing, justice, and reconciliation.
The thing is, even though there was always a chance that I might throw up the metaphorical airball, I was willing to bet on myself and take that chance. Having a healthy ego means being aware of your gifts, skills, and talents, and watching the average person handle conflict was enough of an indication to me that I was better positioned than most people to get the ball near the basket. So even though I am generally a risk-averse person, that’s why I wanted the ball.
Leadership means recognizing our gifts
When we are truly working out of our gifts everyone benefits.
For each of us, there are situations where God has wired us to want the ball. Wanting the ball is often experienced as an urge. A compulsion. An impulse towards action when something inside you steps up to the challenge. It’s answering the call to carry out a particular mission or task.
Identifying when you want the ball is an incredible tool, for gaining insight into how you show up in leadership, in life, in relationships as well as career discernment. So when do YOU want the ball? When was the last time you felt utter assurance in taking the lead? That you confidently shouldered the risk to do something that not many other people could do?
Can you want the ball too much?
Of course, there’s the dark side of the force to consider, too. Wanting the ball can also lead to selfishness and arrogance- where you’d prefer if everyone would just get out of your way and let you take care of matters. And if, for whatever reason, you don’t get the ball you end up feeling frustrated. Stifled. Disappointed. To watch someone else screw something up (or even worse, succeed!) is all kinds of maddening.
With maturity, we learn how to temper that compulsion. With God’s grace, we learn to recognize our limitations and how to bring other people along on our journey. How to truly put the needs of the team ahead of your own.
We learn to recognize when we need to take that last shot and when we need to pass the ball to someone else. It may not change the fact we want the ball, but we’ve learned how to consider the gifts of others on our team as we work towards a common goal.
As we grow in our professional lives and as leaders in our homes and communities, we will further develop mastery in areas that others do not have. We learn that there is a role for all of us to play. Life becomes so rich when we begin to see the fruit of our gifts…and enjoy the benefits when others experience the same. How joyfully we can celebrate our part in the good work we are called to do! Wanting the ball, when it comes from a place of self-awareness and care for others, is servant-leadership at its best.