During a Monday night football game a few years ago, the Dallas Cowboy’s were defending at their own three-yard line. The quarterback for the opposing team dropped back and fired a bullet…right to one of the Cowboy’s defensive linemen. To my disgust, the lineman dropped the ball even though it was right between the numbers and even though he got both hands on the ball.
At the time, it seemed unthinkable that he would drop a sure interception, but I stopped yelling at the TV long enough to hear one of the commentators (a former lineman himself) explain why we should give the guy a break. As he explained it, linemen spend their entire careers pushing against three-hundred-pound gorillas on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Every muscle in their body is invested in the struggle to push past the opposing lineman to get at the quarterback. When a ball is thrown their way, they don’t have the “soft hands” required to catch the ball.
By that last comment, he meant that because the linemen were totally focused on the goal of overpowering their opponent, it was supremely difficult for them to switch goals in the middle of battle. I can relate. I remember countless times when I was insensitive to my wife when she called me at the office. Her calls always seemed to come right in the middle of my battles with three-hundred-pound gorilla projects and three-hundred-pound gorilla deadlines. Bruised from her own battles with the kids, all she wanted was a sympathetic ear. What she typically got were short, curt responses indicating I had better things to do than to talk with her.
Because I was so focused on the battle, I didn’t have the soft hands necessary to respond to my wife appropriately, and I forgot we were playing for the same team. Each time I dropped the ball, I regretted it the second I hung up the phone. Realization of how important and unrecoverable the moment was always made me wish I had not been so single-focused.
If we are going to be effective leaders, we have to learn to develop the soft hands required when our team members come to us for help. We have to be skilled at transitioning from driving the line, chasing down the goal, sacking the competition… to taking time out, being receptive and possibly moving in a whole new direction.
While success requires us to be totally invested in our work, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that teams are made of people, and we can’t play this game alone.