Recently, I attended my son’s swim meet and, for those of you who have been to a kid’s swim meet, you know how they can, well, drag on a little. It’s usually three or four hours long with maybe a couple minutes of your kid actually swimming. I love watching my kids participate in sports, but watching a swim meet is very different than watching a soccer or baseball game. This particular meet was a little different though.
About ten minutes into the meet, one of the boys, probably 11 or 12 years old entered the pool for the boys 50-meter freestyle event. It was immediately clear to everyone watching that something was different. While the other swimmers sped away from the starting blocks racing to the other end for one turn and back to the finish, one boy flailed and splashed with an amazing amount of effort but barely inched forward in his lane. When the other kids were back at the finish, this young man was still only about half way down the first length of the pool.
As we all watched, it became apparent the young swimmer wasn’t concerned about his time, or the outcome of the race. He was swimming as hard as he possibly could and even lifting his head and smiling at his teammates. The rest of us were just hoping he could finish before someone had to dive in and save him. His team was cheering for him at the first turn like he was competing for an Olympic gold. The stands came to life as well, many of the spectators standing and applauding as he continued his journey. Time had stopped at this particular meet and there was not a person in the building who wasn’t focused on the effort of this young man. We suspected there were mental or physical challenges he was facing that the others didn’t have, but it didn’t matter. He was working harder than anyone else would in that pool all day and every individual in the complex was right there with him. They were admiring his effort, watching his progress, and supporting his achievement. No one was worried he was slowing the meet down. No one even remembered who won that event. The other boys in that race finished it with a time around 30 seconds, but when this young man finished his 50-meter swim with a time of 2:17, the place erupted like something I had never seen at a swim meet. There were people crying around me watching this boy do something that other kids would do much faster a 100 times that day. Every person there was touched by what they had just witnessed. I had to ask myself, why?
The answer was pretty simple, effort matters. In a world where we almost obsessively measure results, because they matter too, we sometimes forget that just trying really hard to do things difficult for us is important. Effort matters because other people see it and begin changing what they think is possible. Effort matters because maybe, in that moment while they are watching us struggle and achieve, they believe that they too might be capable of more. It matters because long before there are any results to measure results, there is effort.
Because I’m a leadership nerd, I immediately related that moment in the swim meet to how leaders learn, grow, and succeed in business. There are many times on the way to becoming a successful leader when you just can’t seem to get the team to improve, or the numbers aren’t showing up the way you would like, or the culture isn’t shifting the way you intended. These are the times when the future is determined by effort. What new ways of coaching do we try, what new process for human behavior change do we explore, what new ideas do we research, or what conversations do we have that will help us move forward, even if it is slowly, toward our definition of success?
Results are important and easier to measure, but effort is visible as well. We know it when we see it. When we observe it, it causes us to be confident that the person exerting it will ultimately achieve their goals. Effort has two kinds of impact. It impacts our own progress and it impacts those who observe our effort. As a spectator, it was impossible to see that boy swim and not think about own challenges and how hard we could or should work to overcome them. It was impossible to watch him and not be moved by the power of a resilient human spirit and what it can accomplish. It was impossible to watch him and not be changed, at least a little.
As leaders, people watch our journey closely and observe how much effort we put in to having more impact, coaching more effectively, inspiring teams and people, and continuously improving. Yes, it ultimately creates different results when we work harder, but it also creates results in the moment when we put forth that effort. It builds confidence, reinforces good habits, and creates the possibility of change for everyone who observes us.
The young swimmer will never know how many people he affected that day or how I, and maybe others, were even inspired to write about his efforts. He will be unaware of all of the thoughts people had that day about their own struggles as they watched him and reflected on what they witnessed. But the impact was real, even if he is unaware of it. Effort matters.
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