“Sometimes the most important thing I can do is to show up!”

We are part of an organization that depends on coordination and teamwork among colleagues.  That’s something we all know, but an experience I had earlier this week provided some additional insight.

I was attending a girls’ high school soccer game – something we really enjoy even though Rhonda and I don’t have any daughters. During the team introductions, I noticed that one of the players had what appeared to be some physical limitations. She ran with some imbalance among her legs, and one of her arms didn’t function in synchrony with her gait. What I initially saw as limitations made me feel uncomfortable for the student-athlete and for the others on her team and on the opposing team.

As the game progressed, the player in question spent much of the game on the field, and showed some flexibility in playing in several different positions, both offensive and defensive.  Clearly, her coach was comfortable making her a key to the game plan. Her play wasn’t typical – she wasn’t as quick to the ball as other players, and her ability to move the ball with force didn’t seem to match with others on the field. And yet there she was, ready to play, and absolutely committed to her team. As I continued to watch, I saw that she was a particularly effective defender, blocking forward progress of whatever player she was defending, and forcing her opponent to settle for a pass backward rather than forward and toward the goal. Her dedication and self-confidence helped to turn my sympathy into respect.

The experience caused me to reflect a bit more on the concept of cooperation and contribution to a team.  I know there are times when I’ve felt I didn’t quite have the answers or skills I needed to be a more effective member of the Michigan State University Extension team. And prior to taking on my role on this team, there were days when I didn’t have the best approach to help students understand the concepts I was trying to teach. There were times when my efforts to write a compelling grant proposal or research publication just weren’t what they needed to be.  There were times when I didn’t have all I needed to help faculty succeed in strengthening their skills and productivity.

At those times, it’s tempting to conclude that my inadequacies are such that it would be better if I simply didn’t try rather than embarrass myself by trying and falling short of expectations. I’ve been told that I can be a bit of a perfectionist. That’s a description I’ve never thought applied to me. But perhaps there is some of that in me, and perhaps in many of us in Extension – we want to do our best and we want it to be effective. In our desire to make a difference, we’re tempted to conclude that if it isn’t perfect, it won’t have an impact.

The young woman I watched on the soccer pitch this week reminded me that showing up and contributing to the team with whatever skills I might have at my command are far more important than being the best player on the field. A colleague once shared with me that after serving as a new county Extension director for several months, he finally realized that one of the most important things he could do was to simply show up – attend meetings, answer phones, be present. He wasn’t sure what that accomplished, but I assured him that it sent a very clear message: we’re present, we’re part of what matters in your community, we’re ready to listen, and we’re ready to serve.

As a team, we are strongest when our colleagues “show up.” If they give an outstanding presentation or bring a major breakthrough for a client, that’s fantastic. But even if they aren’t able to “score a goal” at that meeting, being at the meeting communicates what is strongest about MSU Extension: we are here – in communities, in farms, in businesses, in families. And that’s what keeps us relevant and successful in our mission. It strengthens our team.

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