As the middle child, I was sandwiched between my older brother (who was 2 years my elder) and my younger brother, also separated by two years. In theory, I wanted to be that lacy-dressed, Mary-Jane wearing Honey Bunch. I did want to be a princess (in my head). But seriously, there was no hope of me being girly. I liked to play rough and get dirty. I was competitive and ambitious: my sole goal each day was to beat my brothers at everything. Wearing the sash of justice and fairness around my neck, I advocated for Girl’s rights ( but in all honesty, at that stage of my life, I really just cared about my own rights). Therefore, when my brothers got to play sports at the rec center, I insisted that I participate in sports as well. I was around 11 years old, and we lived in a bedroom community of New Orleans on the West Bank. Neighborhood leagues were everywhere. But in the early 70’s, girls couldn’t play football or soccer. My choices were to run track or play recreational softball. So I decided to try them both.
I only lasted one season on the track team, competing in the 440 relay and the long jump. If you know me today you might find that hard to believe. Seriously, if you see me running, you had better look behind me because there is most likely a man with a chain saw chasing me. In other words, my days of track and field were short lived. At our (end of the season) regional meet, I received a third place medal in the long jump. My relay team came in second. I wasn’t great but I didn’t stink at it. And my heart just wasn’t in it.
I loved playing softball. And I was good at it! I could hit, run and even slide. Third base was my position because I could chuck that ball between third and first fast and accurately. I loved scooping up a grounder, hurling it to first and hearing the umpire tell the runner, “You’re out!” Sometimes I played first or second as well, but third base was my spot! My first year in the league, I made the all-star team! I was so excited! After all, who doesn’t want to be a star?
But imagine my chagrin when I found out my position on the all-star team was left field.
I tried to tell the coach that I was a third basemen, and would be wasted in the outfield. I mean, hadn’t he seen me play? The coach explained to me that on my home team, I was the best choice for 3rd baseman. As a matter of fact, It was my performance at 3rd base that earned me a place on the all-stars. But, he explained, all of the all-star team players had talent. And frankly, the all-star team had players that were better then me at 3rd base. He had to think about the team as a whole. He needed my arm out in left field. He needed me to field the ball and hurl it into the in-field before the other team could score.
All I really heard then was blah blah blah…there are players better than you…blah blah…team.
Huh? I wasn’t the best at third base? What?
To say the least, I wasn’t happy. But I really wanted to play on the all-star team. So I dutifully reported to practice every day and took my position.
In left field.
All-star league took up my entire summer. It was fast-paced, challenging and most of all fun. Those days, girls softball was fast-pitch. And true to it’s name, the pitcher would wind up and throw the ball very hard and very straight, aiming for the strike zone over the batter box. Woe to you if you got hit by that ball. Games were fast-paced and exciting. As the season progressed, I found left field to be challenging as well. I found that the really good batters hit the ball away from the outfielders, giving them more time to round the bases. Therefore, in center and left field, it was necessary for the fielder to be watchful and somewhat predictive as to where the ball will be placed. I honed my skill set of watching, anticipating and reacting, and became a decent outfielder. More importantly, I became a part of the bigger picture. I was part of a team.
On a team of high achievers, each position had its importance. For example, if the competition aimed for the fences, the third basemen actually relied on the outfielders to retrieve the ball quickly and shoot it to them to make the stop. Eventually, I felt just as important as the basemen because they relied upon me.
Coaching for excellence on a baseball team is not unlike coaching for excellence on your work team. Leaders must observe and document the skill set, knowledge and experience of everyone on your team and ensure everyone is in the right position to achieve the agency goals. Yet, Sometimes we may find ourselves in a position that challenges our understanding.
At DHR, while I was managing the Resource Division in Mobile, Alabama, I had a sweet job that entailed reviewing contracts, supervising the foster parent unit, quality assurance unit and training. I loved my job. But to be perfectly honest, it didn’t push or challenge me. I was asked by the director at the time to take over the entire foster care program. In my eyes, the foster care program was the largest most challenging program in the office. I tried to push back, but the director did not entertain my excuses. And so, once again, my “cheese was moved”.
Of course, you know what happened. I accepted the concept that the mission of the team held more importance that the position or role that I was assigned. Begrudgingly I accepted and Foster Care Program Manager became my new title. Challenging and fast-paced, the foster care program quickly became one of the hardest endeavors of my life. But, like in the softball world, I became part of a close-knit team. I discovered some wonderful social workers, developed rising leaders and truly felt that, as a team, we were fulfilling a mission to help foster children find safety, permanency and well-being. And ultimately, my time in that position led to other challenging positions for me down the road.
Do you find yourself resenting your place on the team? Do you think that your talents and skills are not being utilized? Do you feel less valuable than your other team mates?
My challenge to you is to embrace the mission. Whether the goal is winning the all-star softball tournament or protecting children from harm, look at your role with fresh eyes. How are you contributing to the team? Likely you will find that many team members depend upon you to do your part well so that they can take the ball and go on to the next stage. Utilize the opportunity of this new challenge to learn new skills or to hone current skills. You may find that by playing left field for a while, your value as part of the team will become more clear to your agency and to yourself.
Learn what you can from this position but keep shining. Don’t be surprised when, after you immerse your whole self into the role, your contribution will become clear. And know that someone is always watching and looking for an all-star to move on to more challenging opportunities.
Your path, no matter how long you have walked it, is ever moving and changing. Play the best left field you can right now, and eventually you may get picked for third base.