True or False: Seniors make the best leaders.

When I ask coaches who their team leaders are I frequently hear the following, “well, our Seniors, I guess.” And when I ask why their Seniors are their best leaders more often than not the reply is, “because, they’re Seniors.” Please excuse my sarcasm, but in what world does surviving your first three years of high school or college qualify you as a leader?

Let’s use basketball as an example. If I asked who your starting point guard was would you automatically say it was a Senior? No, you would say it was the player who had developed the strongest skill set as a point guard. Ideally, it would be a Senior, because she has been a part of your program for three years and she should be the most qualified for the job, but that isn’t always the case and it certainly isn’t something we can assume.

In order for a player to be the most qualified to start at the point guard position a few things probably happened in her development; she had a coach who taught her how to be a great point guard, she had older players who mentored her as a point guard, she put in the time and effort to develop the skills to be a great point guard, and she was willing to be the backup point guard while she was developing her skills. When those things happen your Senior point guard will likely be the most qualified player for the job.

I strongly believe that leadership is a skill. If that is the case then we should be able to use the same criteria in assessing your team leaders. Here is a checklist for determining if your Senior class will be able to lead effectively:

  1. They had a coach who taught them how to lead: Our student-athletes need us to teach them how to attack a full-court press, how to manage a close game with 30 seconds left on the clock, and they need us to teach them how to lead. They aren’t being taught how to lead in school, they aren’t just going to figure it out on their own, and it isn’t something that will magically click for them the day they become Seniors. When a coach teaches her student-athletes how to lead they will naturally be better equipped to lead as Seniors.
  2. They had older players who mentored them as leaders: This might be one of the most overlooked issues in developing team culture. When you have a great Senior class who mentors the class below them you significantly increase the odds that your next Senior class can serve as leaders too. Your Senior class has been influencing the class below them for three years so one great Senior class often leads to another great Senior class.
  3. They put in the time and effort to develop skills as leaders: In order for a player to earn the role of the starting point guard, she will have to put in hundreds and hundreds of hours to develop the skills necessary to be a great point guard. The same truth applies in leadership. Ultimately leadership is a skill and we need leaders to put in the hours to develop their skills. When a class puts in the time and effort to develop their leadership skills for three years then they may be equipped to lead effectively as Seniors.
  4. They were willing to lead from the bench: To become the starting point guard, a player will likely have to spend some time as a backup point guard. The student-athletes with potential see this as a great opportunity to develop. Every day they take the court with the desire to be the best backup point guard they can be because they are preparing for the day when they will be the starting point guard. Great leaders do the same thing. They lead on the bench, they lead through injuries, and they lead where they are. They don’t just show up their Senior year feeling entitled to the position. Instead, they were leading for the last three years. If a Senior class has led in every role they have been asked to play then they will likely be able to lead as Seniors.

If you can check off all of the categories that are listed above then you may have a Senior class that can lead effectively! But let’s also talk in more detail about the factors that could prevent your Seniors from being your best leaders:

  1. The senior class did not have had a coach who taught them how to lead:
    1. Unfortunately, they may have experienced a coaching change during their career. Some student-athletes have played for several coaches during their career and as a result, they were taught inconsistent messages about leadership. This concept could also apply when a new coach replaces a long-standing coach and there are conflicting views on leadership. In either of these examples, it will be important to quickly discern if the Senior class will be able to learn, embrace and implement a new model of leadership.
    2. Sometimes a senior class hasn’t been taught to lead simply because it is outside the comfort zone of their coaching staff. In this scenario, it is critical that a coaching staff is able to recognize the need to provide outside resources in the areas of leadership development. However, let me be clear in saying this process needs to begin when they are freshmen, not when they become seniors.
  2. The class above them served as poor examples of team leaders: While it might sound cruel to withhold designated team leadership roles from a class of Seniors simply because the class before them showed poor leadership skills I strongly believe this needs to be taken into consideration. Every class is significantly influenced by the class that is a year older than them. Far too often a Senior class that lacks leadership skills are given permission to lead by the coaches. They not only lead the team in the wrong direction while destroying team culture, but they also lead the Junior class to believe this is how leaders act. You might think there is no real harm in letting a poorly skilled Senior class take the reigns. I’ve heard coaches say, “how much damage can they do in one season?” I would venture to guess that they have been leading the class below them poorly for three years. After three years of influence, your Junior class (soon to be Seniors) will fully believe this is the leadership model they too should portray. If your Senior class isn’t comprised of your best leaders who have been mentored by past team leaders then you need to consider younger players who can lead without having to unlearn ineffective leadership skills.
  3. They did not put in the time and effort to develop their leadership skills. Not only is a leadership a skill but it is also a choice. When you have a Senior class that made the decision for three years to not invest in their leadership skills then they are ill-equipped to serve as team leaders. Your team culture needs to embrace leadership as a skill and when you essentially hire unqualified people for the job you are making a mockery of your own team culture. If your Seniors haven’t developed skills as leaders then please understand that was a choice they made. You need to respond to that choice by selected your most skilled leaders as your team leaders.
  4. They were not willing to lead from other roles. Leadership skills are not dependent on a starting position or significant playing time. If your Seniors were not leading as Freshmen, Sophomores, and Juniors then why should you have the confidence that they can lead as Seniors? Surviving three years on a team does not mean you have developed leadership skills. Your best leaders will lead from where they are and if you have not seen evidence of that over three years then please do not make the mistake of assuming it will organically happen the day they become Seniors.

We need coaches who will display the courage necessary to empower team leaders when they possess a clear leadership skill set rather than simply elevating those with seniority. 

Leadership is a skill and we need more skilled leaders.

Please let us know how we can help to develop your team leaders. 

Oh Captain2

O Captain! My Captain!

The Walt Whitman poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” is classified as a mourning poem. I believe there are coaches who reflect on their former team Captains with the same sentiment – the mourning of poor leadership and a failed season. I also know, that when we intentionally develop team leaders, those words can become a declaration of pure pride.

In the last few weeks, I have had a significant number of coaches reach out to talk about team leadership. Specifically, what leadership model should they use, how they should select their team leaders, when they should select their team leaders, and what skills should they look for in their team leaders. I am grateful that coaches are asking these questions. Team leadership will make or break a season. As coaches, we have a moral responsibility to develop future leaders.

Here are my thoughts on those questions:

Different Leadership Models: Most teams I work with use one of the following models:

  1. Designated Team Captains: For most of my career this was my preferred model, but your own leadership style as a coach and your current team culture will dictate the best option for your team. With this model, I suggest selecting 2-3 student-athletes and intentionally developing them as leaders. I would suggest meeting weekly in the off-season to do leadership development and to develop a deeper level of trust. In-season you can meet as needed but I wouldn’t go more than 7-10 days without meeting.
  2. A Team Leadership Council: With this model, you can select a larger number of players to develop. This model may also allow you to designate specific areas of leadership for each student-athlete to focus on and it allows you to be more intentional about developing your younger or future leaders. With a Team Leadership Council, I have found you need clear expectations for the members. Without clear expectations, you may find that no one is taking action because they expected someone else in the group to do it.
  3. No Designated Team Leaders: I know of teams who have used this model successfully but there are some clear guidelines in order for this to work. First, your culture needs to be well established. If your team culture is strong then this can work, but a team in transition will fail with this approach. Secondly, the expectation needs to be that everyone will lead and everyone will be held accountable. This works well in a program where the coaching staff has been intact for many years with a large number of returning players who have bought into the team culture. I would not advise this model for a team in transition.

Ways to Select Team Leaders: Not only do we need to think about an appropriate leadership model, we also need to think about how we are going to select our team leaders.

  1. Student-athletes select the team leaders: This works if your team culture is very strong but it will not work if your team is in transition. In one of my first college jobs, I asked the team to mark on a roster who they thought our best team leaders were. They unanimously selected a student-athlete who I knew would quit the team at some point. She just wasn’t a college level player and it showed in her work ethic and attitude. I asked our student-athletes to stop by the office and explain why they selected her. They all offered a variation of, “she is the best at decorating our lockers on our birthdays. She always brings cupcakes too.” When your players don’t know how you define leadership it is difficult for them to help identify the team leaders. If your culture is stable their input will be valuable, but if the culture is in transition this method will be a recipe for failure.
  2. Coaches select the team leaders: There are times when a coach simply needs to make this decision, particularly for a team in transition. However, as your team culture becomes stronger I do believe student-athletes should have a voice in this process.
  3. A hybrid process where coaches make the final decision after considering student-athlete input: This is the method that I think leads to success. The reality is sometimes coaches get it wrong when selecting team leaders. As coaches, we don’t always know what is going on with our team when we are not around. By asking for input from our student-athletes we allow them to be a part of the process but we can also gain valuable insights about our team. And just like coaches, players don’t always get it right either. I strongly believe that coaches should have the final say in selecting team leaders. In many cases, our jobs depend on this decision. We should listen to our players but also listen to our own life experience as coaches and select the best leaders to serve in this capacity. We have no right as adults to blame our student-athletes for selecting poor team leaders, the final decision rests on our shoulders.

When to Select Team Leaders: The timing of selecting your team leaders may be just as important as who you select.

  1. The process of discerning your next group of team leaders should begin long before your season ends. I would strongly encourage you to select and announce your team leaders as soon as you know who they are, ideally soon after the end of your season. This gives them time to adjust to their new role, practice leading in a lower stress environment and develop a closer relationship with the coaches. It is much safer to practice being a leader in the off-season than it is in-season. By developing your team leaders in the off-season you increase the odds that they can lead successfully.
  2. If you aren’t sure who your leaders will be then I would strongly encourage you to provide your entire team with plenty of leadership opportunities to see who will surface as your leaders. Put them in a variety of environments where people need to lead.

What Skills to look for in Team Leaders: I may need to write multiple posts on this topic. The reality is I could give you a list of 20+ skills to look for and develop in your team leaders. If you could find leaders with several of those 20+ skills then you would be in great hands! For the sake of time I will offer five skills to consider:

  1. Say “Come with Me.”: I believe great leaders are willing to walk with their people. They don’t lead from a distance pointing out what others need to do, they actually walk with their people. A specific example I can give you happened with one of my teams in preseason. One morning before training my Senior Captain who was our starting Keeper walked into the office with a freshman attacker. Our Keeper said, “We need to talk to you.” I found this moment to be odd since these two didn’t play the same position, they weren’t in the same class and they had just met a week ago. Our Captain went on to explain that the practice gear for the young freshman was missing. It wasn’t in the laundry and they had looked everywhere. I soon figured out what was going on … the freshman was afraid to come tell me, but our Senior Captain literally said to her, “come with me.” Our Captain could have said, “this happens from time to time, it may have ended up with the volleyball team, it will show up, or just go to tell coach” but she didn’t. Instead, she walked with her to have that conversation with me. Great leaders say “come with me.”
  2. Do The Dirty Work: Team leaders need to be people who do the dirty work. They need to do the thankless jobs, the kind of stuff other people run from. They should be the ones picking up the trash on your sidelines, showing extra care for the locker room, and offering to carry team gear. This matters because if they are willing to do it off the field then you can count on them to do the dirty work on the field. If you are willing to empty the trash when no one is looking then you will be willing to make a 40-yard sprint screaming for a ball you know you won’t get just to create space for your teammate with the ball. Great leaders do the dirty work.
  3. Pay it Forward: I am amazed at how many coaches ignore this skill. When selecting team leaders you need to pay attention to who has paid it forward. By that I mean, the day you become a starter or the day you become a senior should not be the day you “turn on” your leadership skills. Great team leaders have been paying it forward from the moment they joined the team. People who pay it forward don’t wait until they can be recognized, they lead from where they are. You don’t become a great leader when you become a starting point guard, you become a great point guard because you led from the bench as a 3rd string player for two years. Pay close attention to who has been paying it forward for years. When you find those leaders you can trust that they will continue to lead because leading has become a habit for them. Great leaders pay it forward.
  4. Burn the Ships: This phrase comes from the story of Hernan Cortez who left Spain in 1519 with 600 men, 16 horses, and 11 ships. They were headed to Mexico in search of Aztec jewels. While the men were nervous, they knew if they got into trouble they could alway go back to Spain. But Cortez took a dramatic approach as a leader. When they landed on the shore he told them to “burn the ships.”  They were in this battle to win it and they weren’t turning back so they burned the ships to remove the option of retreating. Great leaders know that preparation and personal growth are critical to success but they also know there are times when they have to step up and go for it. Sometimes leaders have to let go of an escape plan and step into a leadership role that feels outside of their comfort zone. Finding team leaders who will let go of perfection and lead in the difficult moments can be a turning point for a team. Great leaders burn the ships.
  5. Take Care of their People: As you think about your team who are the student-athletes who take care of their people? You can define this in many ways, but think about who genuinely cares for their teammates? When a team knows their leaders care for them they will suddenly do anything their team leaders request. You can’t go wrong with leaders who care for their people. Great leaders take care of their people.

I highly suggest developing your entire team as leaders and providing additional development opportunities for your team leaders. As coaches we are leaders and the reality is great leaders develop more leaders.

When we speak of our team leaders it shouldn’t feel like a mourning poem. Instead, we should tell the narrative of young leaders who successfully helped to move a group of individuals from here to there.

If you are interested in using Leadership Discovery to develop your team as leaders or our new Skype-based Leaders in Action program for team leaders then please reach out. We’d love to help you develop the next generation of leaders.