Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Keeping Your Eye On The Ball

When tackling a leadership challenge, it's important to know whether you're in a game of ping-pong or tennis. Do you know the difference?

In this LA Times photo, Evgueni Chtchetinine's eye is most certainly on the ball! Ping-pong balls are lightweight, and respond dramatically to the smallest nuances of the stroke. Power is a factor, but it is second to finesse.

Though the balls move very fast (nearly 100 mph at the point of contact), they're so light that they have little momentum for overcoming air resistance. As a result, they slow down quickly on their way to the opponent. And by the time they get there, spin is everything.

Is that the kind of game you're in? If so, you'll need lightning-fast reflexes, a light touch, and a good paddle. It's not a ground game – no turf, no running, no wind or sun, no rain.

Ping-pong leadership challenges require finesse more than anything else. For example, making changes in a small organization where relationships with co-workers and customers are fairly intimate – that would be a game of ping-pong. So would influencing your peer group in a larger organization, if the peer group's values involved close personal relationships.

A game of ping-pong is compact and quick. Don't bring a tennis racket!

In this photo, also from the LA Times, Vera Zvonareva's eye is on the ball, too. Tennis is a power game – arm and shoulder swinging a heavy racket hard against a larger and heavier ball. And you do a lot of running! The court is large and the game is usually exposed to the elements and a large crowd.

Tennis takes finesse, but power rules – the balls move at 140 mph at the point of contact.

If tennis is the game, you'd better be in good shape! Strategy and tactics are executed on a larger scale, and full body stamina is essential. Good looks and nice clothes matter too.

Tennis leadership challenges require power more than anything else. For example, if you're trying to overcome the inertia of a large organization, you're in a tennis game. If you need to influence a distant authority, that's tennis. If there's a large audience in the room – tennis.

A game of tennis is expansive and slow. Don't bring a ping-pong paddle!

In the course of a day, a job, or a career, there will be ping-pong moments and tennis moments. To succeed and make a difference, you'll need the skills appropriate for each. That way, you won't have to sit out any games.

Just be sure you know which game is being played before you make your first move. You don't want a ball to hit you in the face!

This article has been selected for syndication in Innovation Daily.