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Leadership lessons from the locker room

by James Wilson, Municipal World
in Leadership, ONLINE FEATURE

If you’re a hockey fan, you might recognize the name Ryan Walter – former Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens. Since that point, he’s developed a successful career as a speaker and author, presenting on some of the lessons he’s learned and developed as they relate to leadership and culture – taking things from the locker room to the board room. Walter presented at the 2018 Ontario Municipal Administrators’ Association (OMAA) Fall Convention on the topic “Tomorrow’s culture turns on today’s language.”

Walter drew on his experiences from the sports world to put the emphasis on culture – positive culture, negative culture, and the differences in between. His own experiences taught him a number of things: one of the biggest differences between organizations with successful cultures and ones with struggling cultures is language. Language is critical: teams that lose blame; teams that win take personal ownership. Teams that are successful have a “no excuses” culture – and that culture is not just “top down” but driven laterally throughout the entire organization. This influences the title of his presentation: “Tomorrow’s culture turns on today’s language.”

One of Walter’s most poignant quotes was this: “the genesis of high performance in leadership is not action … it’s something deeper.” It’s about developing the habits, successful “championship” habits, that will dictate whether our teams are successful. And, as leaders, there’s one key question:

How do we as leaders actively/ethically influence the thinking of our people? And, influencing the thinking is critical for one simple reason. We focus on results. But, how do we get there? Results come out of habits – what do we do when we’re not thinking about things. Those habits are developed through continuous actions. And, of course, actions are influenced by individuals’ think and belief systems. These belief systems are powerful, they are unique, and if a leader can make a difference at that level, it will have huge impacts on the community.

Walter focused on three numbers: humans have 60,000 thoughts a day, 95 percent of those are recurring, and 80 percent of those are negative. It means that if you can build positive momentum, good things can come. The culture of an organization – the way people think – can be revealed and healed by the language that gets used.

Using a quadrant model, Walter outlined five “types” of thinking. These include:

  1. Past negative (regret, disappointment)
  2. Future negative (a powerful force that causes people to lose before they try)
  3. Past positive (nostalgia)
  4. Future positive (a critical state that activates energy and is critical to building successful teams)
  5. Flow

It’s important to remember that not all negative thinking is negative – it’s about analysis, building contingencies – but its important to put negative thoughts in perspective. Using different types of language can have significant results, whether it’s stress, gratitude, and forward thinking.

So, with that said, it’s important to get people focused on the future positive (Walter cites an 80-20 balance) and a 3:1 positive to negative interactions to even maintain what relationships you have.

While the first four of those states in that model are conscious thought, the fifth is unconscious. It’s a state of “best game,” it’s where everything’s going right, and it’s powerful. It’s something leaders need to protect.

In short, leaders play a vital role in teams. How they foster culture is going to determine success and failure. And the language you use is going to be vitally important in getting there. MW

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