Leadership is a Game of Inches

The 1999 movie Any Given Sunday tells the story of a fictional American football team, with much of the focus on the team’s head coach. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the plot aside from one scene.

In that scene, the coach, played by the actor Al Pacino, delivers a speech to his team. He says:

“You know, when you get old in life things get taken from you. I mean that's, that’s—that’s part of life. But you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out life’s this game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small—I mean, one-half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One-half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it.

“The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second.

“On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw—with our fingernails—for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the ____in' difference between winning and losing—between livin' and dyin'.

“I’ll tell you this: In any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s gonna win that inch. And I know if I’m gonna have any life anymore, it’s because I’m still willin' to fight and die for that inch.”

In my work as a business professor and management consultant, I’ve come to believe that leadership is also a game of inches. 

Everywhere around us in our organizations—and among our friends and family members, for that matter—exist opportunities to make a difference, to introduce new patterns of communication and thinking, to connect and align people with goals and visions for the future.

But we often fail to capitalize on those opportunities. 

One reason, I think, is that we place “leadership” on some sort of pedestal, with some sort of romantic notion that “leaders” are “great people” who do “great things.” Sometimes that certainly is the case. But it’s also true that leadership is often in the little moments—fleeting opportunities to influence the people around us in a positive way. In this way, leadership doesn’t have to be grandiose or flashy or even specifically planned. It can include:

  • Looking one of your team members, peers or even your supervisor in the eyes and telling him or her that you value his or her contributions;
  • Listening to people with the intent to understand them, not simply thinking about what you’re going to say next or how you can fix their problem;
  • Taking a moment to encourage someone who is going through a tough time;Sharing a personal story of wins or (even better) losses that taught you a lesson;
  • Clarifying expectations about who is responsible for specific outcomes;
  • Reducing ambiguity about what success “looks like” and how people fit into team goals;
  • Encouraging dissent and courageous, respectful conversations about what’s not working well;
  • Explaining the procedures behind your decisions that affect people’s work or rewards;
  • Stepping aside and letting someone else lead a project or conversation;
  • Following others who are doing something worthwhile;
  • Running effective, satisfying meetings;
  • And being a role model for the behavior you value in numerous other small moments that happen either in one-on-one situations or with larger groups.

Even though many of these little moments of leadership might be small or mundane, they can be mighty. 

Because when we “add up all those inches”—to paraphrase the Any Given Sunday coach—that can make the difference between winning and losing, either as an individual leader or as an organization. 

If we wait until the perfect time to “lead,” we can end up missing these small, everyday opportunities. 

But if we act instead by being the change we want to see around us, the ripple effects can be far-reaching.

And after all, isn’t that what leadership is all about?

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.