Email Lessons From an Ancient Pastime

Man is a Ball tossed into the Field of Existence,

driven hither and thither by the Stick of Destiny, wielded by the hand of Providence.” Omar Khayyam (10th Century)

The “Triple Crown” refers to three consecutive races for three-year-old racehorses. Winning all three of these contests is considered the greatest accomplishment of a thoroughbred. Originating in mid-19th century England, the Triple Crown starts with the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday of May. The Preakness is run two weeks later, followed by the Belmont Stakes.

On Saturday, May 5th, a crowd of 165,307 gathered on a beautiful day at Churchill Downs Racetrack and watched a horse named “I’ll Have Another” rally to capture the Garland at the Kentucky Derby. While the record-breaking 138th running of the first leg of the Triple Crown is America’s grandest sprint, it is the game of Polo that should receive the greatest of global honors.

Equestrian Polo is the oldest team sport in history. First introduced as a training exercise for elite solders in the cavalry, Polo is a ball sport, played on horses. Teams compete by hitting a hard hockey-sized ball through their oppositions’ goal with a mallet attached to the end of a 4¼-foot stick. While its exact origin is unknown, it is generally believed that nomadic warriors originally played Polo over two thousand years ago. Polo was adopted as the “Sport of Kings” – the most noble of pastimes of kings, sultans, khans and caliphs.  While the power of the horse propelled notable world leaders like Alexander the Great, Caesar, Attila the Hun, and Napoleon to fame and glory, the Byzantine Emperor Cantacuzenus (1341-1347) was one of the earliest imperial casualties of the sport.

The West was introduced to the galloping game in the mid 19th century. By the 1930’s, crowds in excess of 30,000 regularly attended international matches at the Meadowbrook Polo Club on Long Island in the United States. Today, there are more than 250 active Polo clubs in the United States Polo Association. Currently, the highest level of Polo is played in Argentina, the United States of America, and England. It is played in more than 60 countries and enjoyed by more than 50 million people each year.

In the 10th Century the poet, Omar Khayyam, referred to the game of Polo in a poem entitled the “Rubaiyat.” Unlike Sylvester Stallone, who once described the game in terms of “trying to play golf during an earthquake,” Khayyam employs Polo as a metaphor for God’s dominion over the apparent chaos of life. The word itself conjures clichéd images of exclusivity from movie stars, royalty, to the fabulously wealthy. Whatever the case, Polo is also a wonderful allegory for today’s hectic and rapidly changing global environments as it accurately reveals the essentials of current social, political, business, and religious realities.

Aldous Huxley once said, “Experience is not what happens to a man but what a man does with what happens to him.” To succeed as an experienced leader in today’s hectic world, the symbiotic equestrian communication strategies of teamwork that supports the ability to swiftly adapt to variations, is essential. Even if one decides to never saddle a Polo horse, the meaningful combination of communication between stallion and rider – of willful people and willing chargers – provides powerful lessons for those responsible for the precision of swinging the mallet of leadership.

Leadership, like the “Sport of Kings,” demands the hard work of clear communication. Polo players must learn to ride and control the 35-mile-an-hour gallop of a horse in a grassy arena the length of three football fields, while simultaneously advancing a 3” bamboo-root ball with right-handed dexterity. Such a task can only be accomplished when horse, rider, and team members interconnect as one!

Like Polo players who must develop important teamwork competences, leaders of all stripes should similarly concentrate on acquiring the necessary communication skills for wise and effective conjoining of countervailing forces towards specified goals and objectives. When swinging a mallet to pass, restrict or advance a Polo ball experienced players will adhere to the previously defined actions. In a similar fashion, leaders of working teams should take the time to initially outline performance guidelines as a way of avoiding group frustration, misunderstanding, and ineffectiveness.

Communication is a common area of acute frustration within and among all types of teams. More specifically, when left to the unpredictable whirlwind of providence, email correspondence can become counterproductive. As such, like Polo players, leaders of business, school, political, and religious organizations and working groups should take the time to delineate specific procedures for inter-group communication – especially with regard to recipient, method, subject and response time.

The following is a partial list of the most common email hazards with accompanying alternative resolves.

Recipient: “Who should receive this email?”  This is an important question to ask prior to clicking on the send key as email content should be carefully filtered and sent to the appropriate recipient. Topics intended for select members should not be shared through mass distribution that only tends to create unnecessary confusion and/or email overload.

Forward/Copying: “Who should receive a copy of this email?” Recipients should never copy or forward email correspondence to individuals not listed on the original message.  If such an option is desirable, responders should first receive permission to do so from the original sender.  In this way, anonymity is respected, honesty expanded, and privacy protected.

Method: “Should I email or call?” Email communication should not become the default method of communication. It is, therefore, beneficial for teams to have a clear understanding of when electronic messaging should be chosen over real-time conversations.  It is safe to assume that negative news or critique should always be disclosed through phone or personal face-to-face communication. Critical issues should be handled in a timely fashion where potentially contentious positions can receive clarification before they escalate to destructive relations.

Subject: “What is the topic of this email?” Subject lines should be clear and concise. The topic of an email should be written in a way that allows recipients the benefit of not having to open to recognize the communiqué’s primary purpose.  In this way, recipients of numerous emails can filter messages according to topic and answer at a more time-effective schedule.

Length:  “How long should an email be?” While email correspondence should not be harried, they should, nonetheless, not be allowed to develop into long reports or essays!  Attention should be given to avoid repetitive words and phrases.  Alternatively, care should be taken not to over-simplify responses where the original sender might feel slighted or insulted. By agreeing on the basic length of email communications prior to beginning its work, teams can avoid the embarrassment of such unintended messaging.

Proofreading. “Was I understood?” Quarrels and misunderstanding can be greatly reduced by carefully editing and proofreading emails. Tragically, emails sent in response to contentious and sensitive issues only serve to escalate rather than defuse volatile opinions and/or statements. As a rule, recipients should either call or develop the discipline of “clearing their emotions” prior to responding to such posts.

Response Time: “When should I respond?” There is nothing more annoying than waiting to receive a response to what a sender believes is an important issue.  Unfortunately, recipients may not always share a similar devotion to a topic’s significance. As a result, evening and weekend emails might go unopened – or worse – forgotten!  By including an anticipated response timeframe to important messages, senders may greatly reduce such unintended anxieties.

In the final analysis, business, school, and religious groups would be better served if they, like Polo teams, would clearly define agreed-upon communication procedures for their ever-shifting equestrian-like contemporary environments. By utilizing precise e-mail protocols that clearly outline the standards to the aforementioned categories, organizations can effectively create safe interpersonal work environments fit for royalty.  Only in this fashion, can astute leaders avoid having their respective members feel like bamboo polo balls thrown onto uncomfortable fields of coexistence – driven hither and tither by mallet-headed communications.


Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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