Sit on the Bleachers

by Stephen T. Messenger

September 21, 2021

It’s funny watching kids play soccer.  I’m currently helping coach a 12-year-old team, and they’re at the point where they have skills but can’t quite see the bigger picture.  Much like watching a game of checkers where the pieces only move forward, the kids push fast and hard down the field and usually lose the ball.

As I watch from the sideline bleacher, it’s painfully obvious how the players are supposed to position themselves on the field. Their actions should be less checkers and more chess—concentrating on maneuvering instead of pure offensive push, sometimes even moving the ball backwards to go forwards.

Typically, this is hard to see when playing, but easier to observe when sitting on the bleachers.

When I was newly assigned as the lead of a University ROTC program, I made a number of rapid cultural changes that both put the organization on the right trajectory and simultaneously disrupted the military instructors and staff. 

Of course, I thought these decisions would have unquestionable, positive effects and in many cases they did.  However, the team became frustrated because of the rapid and compounding changes to the old way of doing business.

These changes were needed, but based on the frustration I witnessed, I wasn’t implementing change in a way to bring the team along with me.  I was pushing down the soccer field by myself and about to lose the ball. 

I sat on some upper bleachers in the gymnasium after a physical training session in early October reflecting on these decisions.  My seasoned, senior non-commissioned officer sensed my consternation and wandered over.  

The role of the senior advisor is to provide advice based on their years of expereince.  They understand the culture and impact of decisions more than anyone as they constantly engage individuals and assess the organization.  As a great leader and trusted advisor, he instinctively knew that I needed guidance and advice.   

As we sat on those bleachers, I had an opportunity to see the field from the sidelines and from a different perspective. 

He thoughtfully laid out his opinions on the impact of the changing environment and made recommendations as to the timing and communication on how to move forward.  His unsolicited feedback helped me improve my personal leadership and allowed the organization to become more effective moving forward. 

Without this bleacher time and reflection of my own leadership style, I would have struggled to improve, and the organization would have suffered instead.

We all find ourselves in multiple roles of this story over time.  If you are:

1. The Leader.  Take some time to sit on the bleachers and reflect about both where you’re at and where you’re going.  Invite a trusted agent to join you and look at the field together.  Don’t wait for unsolicited advice, but ask for it before it finds you, because sometimes it won’t.

2. The Trusted Advisor.  Find someone who’s sitting on the bleachers not asking for advice but obviously needs it.  Leadership is a lonely place sometimes, and everyone can use a second opinion and a different perspective.  Your feedback matters, and good leaders are open to improving.  

Reflection is key.  This world moves fast, and it’s important to take some time to think about your leadership. 

Sit on the bleachers and consider how your actions are affecting your organization.

Talk to trusted advisors early and often and ask where you can have more impact. 

Listen as others tell you what’s working and what isn’t. 

Find a quiet spot to reflect and make better decisions. 

Then, reflect some more.

Bleacher time gives you a different point of view than when you play on the field.  It’s a powerful experience to sit on the sidelines with a trusted advisor and speak frankly about ways to get better.


Sergeant Major Randy Rivera was my trusted advisor in this story.  He’s currently leading a battalion in the 10th Mountain Division and has been positively impacting his Soldiers, peers, and officers for over twenty years.  He is one of many phenomenal leaders who have impacted my personal journey.


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