Leadership Lessons from My Past Life as a Football Official

Posted on: September 7th, 2019 by Jen Mueller

I grew up believing that hard work alone would get me where I wanted to go in life. That being loud was a character flaw to overcome. That blending in was best, because you don’t want to rock the boat or make anyone uncomfortable and that the best way to deal with conflict was to back down and somehow make it my fault because, again, I wouldn’t want to make someone feel badly.

Ten years as a high school football official changed those beliefs.

My time on the field gave me a blueprint for communicating under pressure, dealing with criticism, and demonstrated the importance of making some noise.

Lessons learned on the field went way beyond football. Being a high school football official provided a lifetime of leadership lessons.

 

Leadership Lessons Learned on the Sidelines

  1. When you stand out make it count.Being the only woman in a room of men during weekly meetings and the only female on the sidelines meant every person in the room and every coach on the field knew my name. I used that to my advantage. If people knew who I was, I made sure they also recognized I put in the work and deserved to be there.

Leadership Lesson: Standing out makes you memorable. Choose how you want to be remembered and make it happen.

  1. Blow the damn whistle. I’m loud and I talk a lot, but I was hesitant to blow the whistle with any authority when I first started officiating. As the only woman on the field I didn’t want to stand out or draw attention to myself. Blowing a whistle causes people to stop and look. It’s supposed to and it can be empowering.

Leadership Lesson: You don’t need a whistle to make noise. Speaking up, sharing ideas, sticking to your convictions leads to the same end result. Being uncomfortable the first few times is normal. Don’t let that stop you.

  1. Develop selective hearing. I’ve been called every name in the book and heard every (stupid) officiating joke, but I rarely let on. Listening to the criticism didn’t make me a better official, neither did flagging every coach or player who said something in my general direction. As a result, my threshold for crossing the line was set higher than most of my male colleagues and I tuned out a lot of extra noise.

Leadership Lesson: Doubters exist in every work environment. You can choose how much you want to hear. If you’re planning to prove them wrong anyway don’t waste your time being distracted by the noise.

  1. Don’t let them see you argue. The best way to handle an irate coach is standing side-by-side, facing the field with your back to fans (and players) who wanted to pile on. A single person yelling at me was one thing but giving fans a chance to jump in add fuel to the would take that exchange to another level.

Leadership Lesson: People will disagree with you (even if you did the right thing.) Be willing to hear someone out without adding fuel to a disagreement or emotional exchange.  

  1. Do it for you. There were nights I cried. Never on the football field but when I got home and felt overwhelmed by doubt and frustration. More than once I questioned why I choose to keep going back game after game. The answer always ended up being because I’m a competitor and up to the challenge. I wouldn’t have lasted more than a decade in stripes if I was trying to please anyone other than myself.

Leadership Lesson: Proving a point isn’t a good enough reason to do anything. Real conviction comes from your internal drive.

I didn’t pursue football officiating to prove a point. My competitive nature drew me to the challenge of succeeding at something new. It made sense because it aligned with my goal of being a sports broadcaster and sideline reporter at time when women still weren’t taken very seriously in those roles.

There were plenty of days it didn’t feel like I was doing anything but getting yelled at by people who preferred I was anywhere else but the football field. I didn’t realize the kind of leadership development taking place until I looked back years later.

YOUR next steps…

You are doing something right now that is shaping and developing your leadership style.

What is it? Is it a skill you want to have, or a habit that needs changing?

If you don’t see yourself as a leader take a step back and reflect on some of the most impactful lessons you’ve learned in the last five years. Note how they shape the way you approach your current role.

Leadership is everywhere from meeting rooms to the football field.