Lately I’ve seen several leaders trip over the unexpected outcome of a grand plan. They failed to anticipate the mistakes and mishaps that happen in all organizations.  When I see an outcome surprise a leader, I’m reminded of a lesson I learned years ago from my Dad.

He had been a great football coach and when I expressed interest in playing quarterback, he agreed to teach me how.  He taught me to play the position but he also taught me how to think like a leader on the field.  He would take me to a football field, walk me to a yard line, and give me a situation–the score, the time, the down and distance–and he’d ask: “What would you call?”  I’d answer and then he’d give me an outcome–and ask me what I’d do next.  My Dad might give me credit for a few yards but would often rule my play a loss or a fumble; my passes might yield a touchdown or an interception. But regardless of the outcome, the game would proceed with, “Now, what will you call?” It not only gave me an opportunity to learn the logic of play calling but it taught me how to consider risk and plan for unexpected outcomes.

That mental rehearsal was invaluable. While it didn’t make me run faster or throw farther, it did make me think better.  I was rarely surprised when a play went south and I was ready to deal with the possible outcomes when they happened.  Because I had already rehearsed the potential outcomes, I was ready to handle the bad with the good when it happened on the field.

I took that lesson with me and used it extensively as a leader.  I would find myself thinking through what could go right and wrong with potential decisions and would include my staff and subordinate commanders in the deliberations.  When I was uncomfortable or uncertain, we’d rehearse.  We’d walk through the situation, consider our choices, and respond to potential outcomes.  When they came, we were ready.

The concept is simple but it takes discipline to step away from what you have to do to prepare for what you might have to do.  Still, that’s an important part of leadership-showing others the potential futures and demonstrating you can lead them through it regardless of the outcome.

When you find yourself in doubt, rehearse. Thoughts?

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