Leadership Lessons from Cheerleading

Throughout my career, I’ve had ongoing and, at times, painful discussions with leaders, managers, and technical experts who put their hearts and souls into their work to create outstanding outputs. But, unfortunately, mistakes happen that are sometimes in someone’s control and, other times, out of one’s control.

So what happens when the result does not go as planned and you or your team member feels defeated and unable to move forward?

I have some answers for you; these came to me while I watched the second season of the Netflix docuseries Cheer. Don’t worry; you won’t find spoilers or a review here.

The Cheer docuseries highlights the competition journey of two rival squads aiming to win the national cheerleading award in Daytona, Florida. These cheerleaders are determined and disciplined athletes; they work tirelessly to the brink of injury and emotional distress. I was riveted by their ability to fly through the air and land (most of the time) on the practice mat upright. Here’s the thing… no matter how much they practice, they don’t always land a stunt or move perfectly. They fall multiple times, over and over again. And when they do, the team’s coach consistently provides input on how to correct mistakes for next time.

During the team’s competitive journey, a critical moment occurred when one team messes up a routine. Immediately following that event, anger, frustration, and defeat lead to tears and people shutting down emotionally. What does the coach do? The coach yells at them. But not in the way you might think. The coach does not make the situation worse than it already is. Instead, the coach diffuses emotions by yelling multiple times, “Let it go! Let it go! It will not happen again!”

In that defining moment, the coach (leader) could have shown frustration or disappointment and further brought down the team’s morale. Instead, they opted to give the team members permission to let it (the negative feelings) all go. The coach helped the team leap out of a downward spiral of emotions.

For me, it was exhilarating to watch a leader take a potentially damaging situation and refocus the energy toward the future. And there are many lessons to learn from this particular cheerleading coach. Here are two ideas that can be applied in any organizational setting:

First, as a leader of people, processes, or products, the idea of helping others recover from a “fall” by permitting them to “let it go” is compelling. As much as team members prepare and practice, there are conditions beyond one’s control in life. The variables can range from self-confidence, lack of physical energy, people dynamics, technology issues, and the current pandemic the world is in. In life, things do not always go as planned despite how much you prepare. Cultivating this mindset will help you detach from feelings of failure when faced with defeat. What matters most is knowing that you and the team did everything you could to prepare. While also remembering that there will be opportunities in the future to correct the mistake.

Second, know that your response time is critical when things go wrong. People who care deeply about their work are generally superior performers and will be the hardest on themselves; they have incredibly high standards for their output. So as a leader, it’s essential to immediately take a moment or two to help the team member get to the other side of their emotions.

Depending on the person you are speaking to, simple statements will help your team member or colleague in a stressful mental state:

Empathize, recognize, and redirect: I know you cared a lot about that project. You put a lot of hard work into it, and sometimes, things just get messed up. So let’s focus on making it better for next time.

Help them process: It seems like you are feeling [state the emotion you are observing, i.e., frustration, anger, sadness] right now? What can I do to help? What do you need to hear?

Be supportive: It will be ok; this won’t happen again. You will be more creative and innovative because of this experience.

Remember that your goal as a leader is to help others focus on the next steps.

Award-winning cheerleading squads can blend technique (difficulty level), skills (tumbling, flying), and performance (dance). But even more important is how they recover from falling – both physically and mentally. We can learn from these athletes by giving ourselves permission to let it go when we fail. And know that we have learned key lessons that we will incorporate into the next challenges we will most likely encounter.

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