Leadership Lessons from an Unassuming Role
Have you ever caught yourself watching a sporting match where you end up yelling at the TV screen thinking the referee might hear you? You become so invested in the game that you feel that berating them through the screen will have some effect on the way the ref’s subsequent decisions will be made. I can hear some of you groan at another sports analogy about to be applied here, but stay with me on this one because it may change the way you think about trust and leadership in public service, AND, the way you view the referee at your child’s next little league game. But, to begin with, what actually gives me license to talk about both officiating sports and public service? Two topics that, quite frankly, have probably never even come close to entering your mind at the same time! I started refereeing basketball at the ripe young age of thirteen and had no idea the impact it would make on my life. I went on to referee state championships in Australia and College Basketball in Canada. My educational background and professional life also happen to be in governance. As a person who has always aspired to a career in public service, I could not help but see the extraordinary links between these two seemingly juxtaposed topics.
As referees, we are responsible for making split second decisions, often under extreme pressure. These decisions that we make affect the way people feel, think and react to any given situation. Does this experience sound familiar to you? Referees actually display some of the most extraordinary qualities of leadership. Now, I am a person who completely understands the begrudging feelings many have towards referees. I apologize if you are still cradling the scars from THAT decision that came from THAT referee back in junior high that lost you the championship match! BUT, and as obscure as it may seem, public service and refereeing actually share some very similar experiences, and recognizing this can actually teach us some very important lessons about leadership. So, hear me out.
Referees, like those in public service, are facilitators, they are the enablers, the diplomats, the judiciary, the rule enforcers, the teachers and the carers. They do this all for the love of the game and for a sense of community. It’s a calling. It’s a dedication to a certain level of responsibility. These aspects of a referee’s job ring remarkably similar to the roles and responsibilities involved in public service. In the stadium, we are the police, we are the firefighters, we are the courts and councilmen, and sometimes, we have to be animal control as well. Yes, you heard me right… animal control.
One of the complaints often heard by local referees is when a player or coach did not like a decision, and as a result says “I can’t believe I am paying YOU for this!” As with game fees that pay a referee’s wage, many people in society are also sensitive to where their tax money goes and what they see these taxes outwardly being spent on. In all honesty, the greatest thing that both positions have to develop is trust. I did not even come close to realizing this early on in my refereeing career, but this is what makes us successful at our jobs. The weight that trust carries is actually astounding. Creating trust and building relationships and rapport with those around us through clear communication and demonstrating objective and transparent decision-making, makes all the difference in the world. This goes for referees and it most definitely goes for those in public service. Surely, I get an “Amen” on that one. The bottom line is, the greater people’s trust is for the public servant and the referee alike, the criticisms and public outcry will not come nearly as swift and harsh if that level of trust and faith in a well demonstrated ability to lead, is there. On the court, if I have built and established a level of trust with players and coaches (and sometimes parents), a bad call on my part is far more easily forgiven, and they perhaps will not call for my head on the way out the door or in the parking lot.
As a basketball player (albeit not a very good one), I know I have caught myself walking into an arena looking at which referee would be on my game. I would find myself either mentally high-fiving myself knowing that this person was capable and I trusted them to be the arbiter, or, I would audibly groan knowing that I was up for a tough match, as I was just as likely to be going to battle with the referee as much as the opposition. Those who have played competitive sports know this feeling. Honestly, the same thing goes when I walk into a stadium and see who I will be refereeing with on the next match. Like walking into the workplace and trusting who you have to work with, knowing who I would be walking onto the court with, made all the difference. What it came down to was, did I trust that person’s judgement? Knowing them, their background, how long they have been doing this for, their level of integrity, the calls they have made (good and bad), do I trust them not to mess up and make us all look like fools? One of the greatest compliments that I received refereeing came one day when the president of my association came to me after a tough match and said, “I would follow you into battle”. What this meant was that, on the court, he trusted my judgement, he trusted my skills, and my ability to communicate and relate to people and build those vital relationships. This absolutely also rings true in the workplace.
On the court as in public service, consistency is key. Consistency in your calls takes away the element of surprise. Consistency builds credibility. In the arena, whether it is the basketball arena or the public service arena, when there is mistrust for those in charge, chaos can ensue. Think of what mistrust does in your own mind, then expand that thought to an entire organization. It can be destructive. Successful leadership takes an extraordinary amount of emotional intelligence. Authority without trust DOES. NOT. WORK. For me, success came when I learned to be deliberate and thoughtful about each decision I made. What that does in terms of creating a level of respect from those around you is quite amazing. Referees, as many working in public service, are on the front lines. We can go through a game and can be called every name under the sun with abuse being hurled from every direction for doing things and making decisions we were trained to do and make. Overwhelmingly my experience on the court drastically changed when I began to realize how important elements like consistency, clear communication, transparency in decision making and a demonstrated willingness to communicate calmly, changed how people perceived me and approached me. All of a sudden reactions to my calls from coaches and players went from “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU MADE THAT CALL, REF! ARE YOU BLIND???” to “Ref, can you please explain that one for me?” at which point a short explanation was all coaches and players needed to be satisfied that the right decision had been made.
Let’s face it, sports has a funny way of bringing out extreme emotion in people and can make us act in ways we would not even dream of otherwise. The fact that in that moment, I had stopped and listened to their question and gave them that one moment to express their concerns, rather than just fobbing them off as just another unjustifiably frustrated player, changed the way they reacted to me entirely. Suddenly there was a level of trust and respect present on the court that made the whole experience that much more profound. Amazing how these same principles can be applied to so many aspects of public service, whether it is in customer service, the folks on the front lines or those in leadership positions. There is a saying in the referee world “You are only as good as your last call”. Just as Warren Buffett said “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you will do things differently.” I’ll let you think about that one for a moment…
Being a referee and working in the arena of public service are both positions that are highly public, they are highly open for criticism and many consider them a necessary evil to keep their world turning. But, we know we are so much more than that. But perhaps another lesson learned… be nice to the referee! They are doing their best in a very tough situation!!
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