If you’re a women’s soccer fan, you probably spent last Sunday glued to the TV, awestruck as the US Women’s Team pulled out a dramatic, last-minute victory over the Brazilians in a Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match (read more about it here and watch the game here). The win was, of course, fantastic, but what was equally as fascinating was the US team’s attitude. It was truly inspiring, and something we can all learn from.
Initially, it was a painful and grueling game to watch. A quick own goal by the Brazilians left the US women a point ahead within the first few minutes of the game. After some controversial calls by the referee, including a red card that eliminated a key defensive player from the field, the US played much of the game with one less player than their opponent. To add insult to injury, due to a second controversial call, a penalty kick was retaken and a goal then scored by Brazil, which tied the game. Later the Brazilians scored again, nearly dashing the US hopes of advancing to the semi-finals.
At this point, there was plenty to complain about. The officiating stunk. So much so, it appeared to have given Brazil an unfair advantage. In addition, the Brazilians began to rub it in, taking falls and feigning injuries to run the clock out and win the game.
So, the Americans were at a crossroads -- either allow their frustrations get the best of them or keep fighting to the bitter end, with no real assurance of success. How often have we, as nonprofit leaders, been faced with the same choice? And, what path did we take?
How often have we let our discipline lapse and our conversations devolve into gripe sessions about our work? How often have we given up on tough projects because success was not guaranteed and we were just too tired of trying? How often have we allowed our attention to be diverted away from our core purpose by inconsequential details or interpersonal drama?
For me, I’m ashamed to say, it’s been too many times to count. Times are tough. Many of our frustrations are completely understandable and completely justified. Does it really matter that we sometimes choose to let off steam in order to feel better? Does it really affect our ability to get the job done? I believe it does. It’s time to change our attitudes in order to change our outcomes. There’s simply too much at stake not to.
I’ve talked to leaders who are struggling with enormous amounts of negativity within their teams. They’ve shared their pain and frustration about being unable to move their organization forward. Much like the US Women’s Team, they find themselves in an untenable situation, between the proverbial rock and a hard place. And, in the end, it’s the public who suffers.
So, how do we move ahead? How did the US Women covert an almost assured loss to a surprising win? Their post-game interviews were a telling portrait of the team’s attitude, which highlighted three main philosophies that were echoed over and over again. They offer one possible roadmap to change.
Three Keys to Success
1) Unflagging Effort -- The team never gave up, even in the face of undeniable odds. They were playing a highly ranked rival, with inconsistent officiating, and without a key player. It would have been easy to give in. But they continued to strive all the way until the bitter end of overtime play. In the 122nd minute, Abby Wambach scored a spectacular header from a long cross tying the game and forcing a penalty kick shoot out (if you haven’t seen it, watch it here).
2) Unrelenting Optimism -- Up until the last minute, they believed without a doubt they were going to win. US goalkeeper, Hope Solo, remarked that she knew in her gut should would block the penalty kick that ultimately resulted in the US win. She realized that she had more confidence than the Brazilian player she faced, and that would make the difference. She, as well as others described this unwavering faith they would prevail. Not one bit of doubt was allowed to creep into their thoughts or vision of the future.
3) Purposeful Focus -- Refusing to be distracted by negativity and any perceived unfairness of the referee’s calls and the behavior of their opponents, the team has stayed true to their ultimate objective -- to win the tournament. Despite probing questions from the media about what went wrong and who was to blame, the US team and coach refused to stoke the fire, preferring to speak about the positive aspects of the match and their strategy going forward. Their actions during the game were the same, where they demonstrated resolve and determination devoid of any criticism of their peers.
The US team’s win is no doubt partly attributable to their skills, intense training, and resources. But, no less due to the leadership of their coach and team captain and the attitude of the team as a whole.
Imagine if all nonprofit work teams followed this approach? What if we refused to give in to pessimism and disparaging remarks about our peers, co-workers, or partners?
What if we stayed the course no matter what, making small corrections along the way toward our concrete goals we set for ourselves? What if we believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we would find success at the end of the road, in spite of the significant challenges we faced?
How would it change the culture of our organization? How the public perceives us? The motivation of our volunteers? The support from our donors? How would it change our team morale?
I believe that attitude does matter, and it starts with each of us. As a part of a larger whole, each one of us has a responsibility to the overall effort. We are all leaders in some way. We can choose what we think and believe about our program and what actions we take, positive or negative. We need to find ways to remove the stress without damaging our colleagues or program. We need to be disciplined and focused on the community good. It’s important, because if we don’t do it no one will.