managing books

Leadership lessons, on field and off

Special to The Globe and Mail

Author Paul Levy makes the case for teamwork in Goal Play! (Brand X Pictures/Getty Images/Brand X)

Goal Play!

By Paul F. Levy

(CreateSpace, 199 pages, $18.95)

*****

Paul Levy recently had lunch with one of the young women he coached in soccer more than a decade ago. She asked if he remembered a play she had made as a 14-year-old. “Of course – you made a great save in front of our goal,” replied Mr. Levy who, when he wasn’t coaching from the sidelines, was running major public institutions such as Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

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But the young woman wasn’t talking about how she prevented a goal – she was referring to how she accidentally headed the ball into her team’s net, precipitating their loss. “I forget that one,” Mr. Levy told her.

So she refreshed his memory, recalling how she was left sobbing after the game and he consoled her by telling her that she had done an excellent job, that great defenders sometimes accidentally score on themselves when a deflected ball goes the wrong way, and that she shouldn’t worry. Fourteen years later, his words were still with her.

“You never know when a kind or supportive word from you will make a lasting difference,” Mr. Levy writes in Goal Play! Each chapter of this new book begins with a dollop from his days as a soccer coach and then moves to the workplace, with examples of how to be a better manager.

Mr. Levy argues that we are born to work and play together in teams, which means there are vivid similarities between the job of a coach and that of a corporate leader: “Soccer is a metaphor for creative collaboration in a team, and coaching soccer can likewise be a metaphor for effective leadership.”

Take mistakes. Executives must encourage subordinates to own up to mistakes and learn from them. That means, to him, that it isn’t the mistake that matters as much as the lesson that can be drawn from it.

“If people think they will get in trouble for having erred, or for having brought up a systemic problem in the organization, those errors and problems will go unreported. The person and the organization will thereby lose an opportunity to grow and improve. Accordingly, a strong commitment not only to transparency but to a just culture is essential to achieve continuous improvement,” he notes.

He recounts how Daniel Beard, head of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the early 1990s, wanted to empower managers in his organization’s 35 regional offices. He gave each manager two “forgiveness” coupons, and asked them to hand in one if they made a mistake. On each was written: “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

In hospitals, of course, mistakes can have serious consequences. Mr. Levy recalls the time a surgeon at Beth Israel operated on the wrong ankle of a patient. The surgeon reported the mistake to higher-ups. They decided to publicize the case throughout the hospital because it offered lessons about where pre-operative practices had to be improved. Mr. Levy, then head of the hospital, declined to punish the surgeon or others in the operating room for the lapse because they were devastated by the unnecessary harm they had committed to the patient.

The debate continued, however, and Mr. Levy realized his decision against punishment was correct but his reasoning was wrong. The reason not to punish, he later realized, was that it would likely contribute to a culture of hiding errors rather than admitting them. It was only by nurturing an environment in which people would freely disclose errors that the hospital as a whole could focus on the human and systemic determinants of those errors.

Does this mean never punish? Mr. Levy stresses that it does not. He also recalls a doctor who, in the midst of a complicated surgery, left the operating room to consult on another patient in another building; the surgeon felt there was no danger to the first patient because a natural break had occurred in the operation. The patient wasn’t harmed, and was grateful to the doctor for his skills. But the doctor was penalized because intent matters: He felt the rules about not leaving the surgery didn’t apply to him.

In the first case, the system could be improved as a result of the incident. In the second case, the system was fine, but the doctor ignored it.

Goal Play! isn’t entirely about mistakes; it’s wide-ranging, and covers the field in the same way a good soccer team does – briskly, with intelligence and skill. Mr. Levy has lots of stories to tell from his management experiences and from his wide knowledge of organizations. In an engaging style, he passes along some useful lessons that we, like his teenage player, may well remember many years from now.

*****

Postscript

David Lapin, a rabbi and corporate adviser based in Toronto and Los Angeles, looks at how character can determine your success in Lead by Greatness (Avoda Books, 338 pages, $19.95).

In The New Technology Elite (John Wiley, 378 pages, $59.95), Florida-based consultant Vinnie Mirchandani (who has been called the “king of wow” for his keen eye for innovation) looks at how great companies are successful at both producing technology and meeting the needs of tech consumers.

Paul Assaiante, the winningest coach in U.S. campus sports history for his work with the men’s squash team at Trinity College in Connecticut, shows how to counsel people to overcome fear in Run to the Roar (Portfolio, 247 pages, $17.00), written with author James Zug.