03/19/2013 03:23 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

Because He Can

This past weekend, I heard from a college baseball player who attended one of my seminars last summer. He asked me this question: "If I make the plays that I'm supposed to make, what should I do if my coach complains that I'm not making the plays the way he wants me to?" Hmm, great question. And upon closer examination it seems that this player has a flair for the dramatic; he plays a bit loose and fancy-free. But by contrast, his coach likes to play it conservative. He doesn't appreciate players who in his mind "show off."

Indeed, this dilemma isn't unusual; it occurs in many areas -- not just sports. I've seen this same push-and-pull go on between employers and creative young employees, in politics and scholastic environments, even in households. To me, the answer to the dilemma can be found in this brief story:

About 10 years ago, I was giving a talk at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass. Before the talk, I skated with the school hockey team, which is coached by Brian Day, a former college teammate of mine and, in my opinion, at the very top tier of coaches anywhere.

Toward the end of practice, one of Brian's players (who went on to have an all-American career at Boston College) "showed off." He came down the right wing, put the puck between his legs, kicked it with his left skate, twirled around, and launched the puck into the upper left-hand corner of the net.

Brian's first-year assistant coach immediately skated over to where Brian and I were standing and inquired, "You're not going to let him get away with that 'hot-dog' move, are you?"

Brian said, "Yes, I am."

"Why?" the assistant coach, indignantly asked. "Why would you let him try that type of play? All the guys aren't that capable."

Brian's insightful retort, "Because he can!"

I'll never forget those simple, yet brilliant words. In truth, the worst thing a mentor can do is thwart the imagination and free will of someone else. If you're a coach, teacher, employer, or parent -- consider this: The best leaders allow instincts to flourish. They understand that there's more than one way to field a ball, score a goal, or do anything for that matter.

As Brian reminded me that day, if a person "can" -- then please, give that individual the rope to step outside the box. Believe me, if you do, your organization will produce inventive and inspiring leaders who more often than not will come through when the chips are down.

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