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Are You a Ball Hog?

| April 30, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is an essay by Amanda Winegarden, a Security Risk Analyst in the University Information Security Group at the University of Minnesota. She is a new alumna from the recently graduated MOR Lead From Where You Are Program at the University of Minnesota. Her essay first appeared as a program reflection earlier this year. [Amanda may be reached at <[email protected]>.] 
When I was younger, I learned how to play a new sport.  The name of the game was soccer, and the goal was to use my feet to get the ball into the back of the net. I had a coach there to guide me and teammates who were learning alongside me. 
Though we were all learning together, we didn’t seem to extend this aim beyond ourselves. Each of us understood that we had to use our own feet to get the ball into the net. We didn’t recognize the success of our team as reflective of our own success. The evidence was in the way swarms of tiny humans followed the ball across the field. We clumped together, packed in tight around the ball, and each tried our turn kicking in the appropriate direction. Sometimes, the ball would come to a complete stop. This was the most disconcerting of all. We would all stand back, unsure of what to do without the pre-existing momentum of the object. 
Over the course of many seasons, we practiced this sport called soccer. Our coaches taught us that we were attempting to move this ball as a team. When the ball touched the back of that hanging net, we had all individually and collectively succeeded. We each worked on improving our own skills – how to handle the ball with our feet. We accepted feedback from our coaches and evaluated how we were doing and where we could improve. We worked on combining those skills into something that looked more like a coordinated dance – sharing the ball with each other. 
We may have won games in those early days, but to reliably succeed as a team, we had to evolve. We practiced new skills over and over until our muscles instinctively remembered what to do.  We had to spread out, stop crowding around the ball, and allow others to try kicking the ball into the net. Giving each other more space to move meant we could share more effectively. It also meant we had to nurture trust in our teammates. Trust we would each follow through on what we had practiced. An inability to handle the ball would mean the other team might take it, or the kicked ball might end up far away from the net intended to receive it. Though those mistakes didn’t always mean lost games, they could sometimes feel like small failures.
You may be familiar with the term:  ball hog (n., plural ball hogs) – (sports, idiomatic, informal) In team sports, a player who keeps the ball to themselves, rather than passing it.
When I was younger, this is the definition I would have given. Perhaps, with a tone of injustice around sharing the field with one. I’ve now come to realize that a ball hog is someone who hasn’t been able to look outside of themselves and their own practices. It is someone who doesn’t trust or support their team and doesn’t give others on the team an opportunity to learn or succeed.
Many of these lessons were completely subconscious to me. They were only a byproduct of learning to play a sport I loved. With the perspective of adulthood and a framework of concepts, I can look back and recognize themes.
Through the MOR Leaders Program, I’m able to draw parallels to work life. You can read this description of a child learning a recreational sport and see many of the themes covered in our program: self-awareness, practices, feedback, forming and maintaining a team. You can replace references to soccer with something more relevant to the workplace.
As I’ve been reflecting on our time in this program, there is one thing I want to emphasize: the value of going through it together. I find great benefit in having this common experience and perspective as we all approach Lead(ing) from Where We Are here at the University.
Virtues of practice and giving one another space to attempt new and different things were effective because my team understood the intent of doing those things. We were “reading out of the same playbook” – to keep with the sports metaphor. We knew that where others stepped back, we needed to step up. We knew that each of us needed to practice different skills and that we had differing mastery goals. Without awareness of another’s effort and a shared goal, making those changes on our own could have easily resulted in even more chaos on the field. 
As we all grow and evolve our practices, deepen our sense of awareness, and incorporate new and more powerful forms of evolution as leaders, I’d like to express a deep interest in continuing to share in a growth community with all of you. I’d like to encourage you to share with co-workers, family, and friends who weren’t in this cohort or who haven’t attended anything like this program before. Individually, we can learn to excel and move forward with what we’ve learned. In a community, we can reach even greater levels of coordinated success as a team.
I’m grateful to have shared in this experience with you, and I recognize the unique brand of leadership you bring to the University.  I look forward to seeing what we can achieve.


Amanda makes a number of points in her essay. There is one, however, that really stands out to me: It’s that we are in “this” together, that we need each other to succeed, that we must share what we know and understand with each other, that we need to grow and learn together. This is true in our work as well as in every other aspect of our lives.
So, as you go through your week, step up to the challenge of being a team and, if you have a tendency to be a “ball hog,” look for ways to get beyond that to involve those around you.
Make it a great week for your team and you. .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.