A few months ago I had a speaking engagement. I was talking about leadership and after the event, a mom and her son pulled me aside to ask a question. I would guess the young man was in 5th grade. His mom shared that he was a reserved person but that he really wanted to be a leader on his team. He just wasn’t sure where to start. This post is a direct response to that question.
For every young person who wants to become a leader, don’t wait for someone to assign you a title or appoint you as a leader. Leadership is a skill and the only way to get better at leading is to practice your leadership skills. Below you will find some tangible ways that you can begin to grow as a young leader.
Please feel free to share this with young people who would benefit from this list! I will post the list on twitter as well.
10 Things Preteens can do to Grow as Leaders
1) Ask, “How can I help?”: One of the best ways you can develop your leadership skills is to ask, “how can I help?” This shows you are willing to serve others. When you see someone doing physical tasks ask, “how can I help?” Great leaders are always looking for ways to help others. When your coach is setting up the field before practice ask, “how can I help?” When your coach is carrying equipment to the car after practice ask, “how can I help?” If a parent is bringing water to the field ask, “how can I help?”
2) Connect with Your Coach: To be a leader on your team, you may need to serve as a bridge between your coach and your teammates. Be intentional about connecting with your coach. Take a few minutes each week to get to know your coach as a person. Ask them some simple questions. For example; where did you go to college? Did you always want to be a coach? What do you love about coaching?
3) Connect with Your Teammates: In order to lead your teammates, they will need to feel a connection with you. There will always be some teammates you connect with more than others, but each teammate will need to know that they have a connection with you. During the course of a week purposefully divide your time between your teammates. Ask different people to warm up with you or to do drills with you, sit by a different teammate on the bench, and walk off the field with different players so you can connect with them.
4) Express Gratitude: One of the ways leaders can grow is by expressing gratitude. Be intentional about saying thank you to the adults who are a part of your team. This includes your coaches, the referees, and parents. By saying “thank you” are practicing gratitude which is an important leadership skill.
5) Do the Dirty Work: It is important that as a leader you are willing to do the tasks that others do not want to do. Look for moments when you can do “the dirty work” like picking up the trash around your field, carrying equipment, or collecting balls that might have gone out of bounds.
6) Take Care of Your People: Leaders are always thinking about others. When you know a teammate is struggling with something reach out to let them know you care. A simple text, a card signed by the team, or inviting them out for lunch when you know they are having a hard time will let them know that you care for them.
7) Find a mentor: All leaders need a support system. As a young leader think about an adult or an older teenager that you respect. It doesn’t have to be a coach. It can be someone who leads people in other ways. Ask this person if they will serve as your mentor. Request to meet with them face to face so you can ask them questions about any challenges you are dealing with. Use this time to learn from someone else who has been in your shoes.
8) Ask, “What do you need from me as a leader?”: Be willing to ask your coach, “what do you need from me as a leader?” This will demonstrate to your coach that you are willing to grow and do whatever the team needs. By asking this question you will better understand how you can best be a leader on your team.
9) Support Another Leader: Great leaders understand the value in supporting other leaders. When you see a teammate stepping up as a leader be sure to support that person. If a teammate speaks up, look them in the eye and give them verbal feedback. Say things like, “you are right” or, “that’s a good idea” or, “thanks for speaking up.” This lets them know that you support them in their desire to develop as a leader.
10) Be the First: As a leader, there will be times that you will need to “be the first.” When your teammates are complaining about the officials you may need to be the first to say something positive. When the team isn’t giving their best in practice you may need to be the first to give your 100% best effort. When the game takes a physical turn and players are getting out of control you may need to be the first to tell your teammates that this isn’t how we should act. Great leaders are willing to be the first in difficult situations.
I have a friend who wants to make a difference the world. He is smart, talented, thoughtful, and empathic. Each time we talk I am energized by his depth and his desire to use his influence in the world. His skill set, coupled with his love for humanity, provide him the avenue to be a true world changer.
But every time we talk we find ourselves going down a familiar path, one where he shares that he feels stuck, that he is tired, and he isn’t sure what to do next to put his ideas into action. This is a conversation we’ve been having for several years. The reality is, he doesn’t need to accomplish all of his dreams. The fruition of just one of his visions would make the world a much better place. However, I must say, if there is anyone who could accomplish many world changing plans it is him. I believe in him.
Sadly, I doubt he will make many of his dreams happen for one simple reason … he is living his life with the emergency brake on. We can’t drive very fast or very far with the emergency brake engaged. We also do a lot of damage to our vehicles when we try and drive a car in this state. Our bodies are no different than a car. We can’t move forward quickly, and the wear and tear on our soul is exhausting when we try to dream big with the emergency brake on.
So do yourself a favor today and just release the emergency brake. You don’t have to press the gas the pedal, you don’t even have to start your engine. Just release the brake, put your life in neutral, and coast for a while. You’ll be moving forward, your body will be free to recalculate, and your soul will thank you.
Release the brake, trust me, we all need you to be free to move forward and dream big.
Life is best lived in motion.
I arrived early that morning and ordered some sweet tea, I know, not really the breakfast of champions but I love their sweet tea. I grabbed a table in the back of the restaurant and got my laptop out knowing I had hours of work ahead of me.
For the next few hours I got a lot done, but as the clouds rolled in so did the parents with kids who wanted to play in the indoor play area. I happened to be seated directly across from the play area entrance.
A mom arrived with her young daughter, I would guess the child was about two-years-old. She was at the age where she believed she was independent but her vocabulary consisted primarily of “yes” and “no.” At one point her mom stuck her head into the play area and asked, “Kailee, do you want to get an ice cream cone?” Kailee came running towards the door and loudly shouted, “yes.”
When they came back to their table, which was next to mine, I noticed that Kailee had an adult size ice cream cone which required her to use both hands to hold on to it. Within seconds Kailee made her way to the play area door and tried to figure out how to open the door while holding her ice cream cone with both hands. Her mom asked her if she wanted to eat her ice cream cone and Kailee replied, “yes!” Her mom explained that if she wanted to eat her ice cream she couldn’t go in the play area. This caused a look of pure shock and horror from the young child! Her mom then changed the question and asked if she wanted to go in the play area and Kailee also replied, “yes!” And her mom explained that if she wanted to go into the play area she would have to hand over her ice cream cone. The idea that she could only do one of those things was turning this young girl’s world upside down!
I think a lot of leaders make the same mistake that this two-year-old made. As leaders, when we say yes to leadership we naturally say no to other things. When you say yes to being your team Captain you also say no to yelling at the referees. When you say yes to being a Division Leader at work you say no to ignoring the unethical decisions of a team member. When you say yes to serving as the Director of an organization you say no to public behaviors that would taint the reputation of that organization.
Great leaders understand that when we say yes to leadership we must say no to other things, but too many leaders want to yes to everything. They frequently behave like a two-year-old who wants to eat her ice cream cone and go into the play area. When leaders behave this way it’s their people who suffer because they are the ones who have to clean up the leader’s mess.
An immature leader takes her ice cream cone down the play area slide leaving a sticky mess behind her.
A great leader understands that leadership requires choices.
When you say yes to leadership make sure you have a clear understanding of what you are saying yes to and what you are saying no to. When you say yes to everything you create a mess and no matter how wonderful you may be, no one wants to clean up your mess.
Great leaders say yes & no.
Registration is now closed. Leadership Reboot will be offered again in January 2018!
Are you interested in developing as a leader?
Do you need to set aside some time to rethink leadership?
Has it been awhile since you lasted invested in your own leadership journey?
If so, Leadership Reboot is for you! This is a FREE 5-day email based program. Leadership Reboot will run from July 10th – 14th, 2017. Each day you will receive an email which will focus on the topic of the day, my thoughts on that topic, self-reflection questions, optional action items, and optional reading. The five topics for the week are:
Day 1: “Why does leadership matter?”
Day 2: “Are leaders born or made?
Day 3: “Is leadership power?”
Day 4: ‘What do leaders love the most?”
Day 5: “What’s next?”
With each email, you will need about 15-30 minutes to work through the material but you can do this at your own pace at any time during the day. The content is appropriate for youth through adults. I hope you will take the time to invest in your own leadership development by participating in Leadership Reboot!
Registration will be open until July 9th.
Leadership Reboot will not be offered again until January 2018.
One of the first questions I like to ask a coach is, “who are your best team leaders?” I recently asked that question to a coach whom I was speaking to on the phone for the first time. I am still haunted by his reply. He said, “I don’t know who our leaders are because we haven’t voted yet.”
If I had asked this coach who his best players were we’d still be on the phone talking! He would have been able to talk in great detail about his leading goal scorer, his blue-collar defensive player of the year, or his freshman who is a little raw but has unstoppable speed. He would be able to answer that question because he is in touch with what makes a great player. So why couldn’t he tell me who his best team leaders were?
I believe there are three logical reasons why a coach might not be able to answer that question right away:
- Recently hired: If a coach was recently hired it would be difficult to know who your team leaders are because everyone is on his or her best behavior and trying to make a good impression. Also, how you define leadership might be different from what they have experienced in the past and it might take some time and intentional effort on your part to develop your players as leaders. In this case, I would expect your answer to be, “I’m not yet sure who our best team leaders are. I need to get to know each of them better and see whom I can develop to match my expectations of a leader.”
- A great group of leaders graduated: If you have seniors who have served as team leaders for several years it may take time some time to figure out who your next round of leaders will be. I am working with a team right now that is in this situation. Because the graduating class was so strong in leadership it is taking some time and space for the next round of leaders to surface. With this team, the coach is being very intentional about creating space in the offseason for those leaders to surface. If this describes your team I would expect your answer to be, “I’m not yet sure who our best team leaders are. We need to use the off-season to create leadership opportunities to see who will step into that role for us.”
- Transfers are added to the roster: Teams often assume that older players are the team leaders (I don’t always agree with this) but transfers who join your team mid-year might make an impact as leaders. In this situation, you may simply need time to see how your team responds to the new players and how that impacts the different roles people will play. In this case, I would expect your answer to be, “I’m not yet sure who our best team leaders are because we have added some transfers and they are changing the dynamics of our team culture. I want to spend a few months getting to know the new players and seeing how they try and lead our team before any formal decisions are made.”
Notice what it missing in each of those examples? Not once was a vote the reason why you can’t answer that question. As coaches, we obviously have a pulse on the skill of our players and since leadership is a skill we should also know who our best team leaders are. Additionally, we should be active in recruiting and developing leaders. While we might not know who our players think the leaders are, we as coaches should have an opinion based on our observations of active leadership moments.
There are three good reasons why you might be able to answer that question and in each of those examples, you need a plan of attack. If you need help with a plan please reach out, I’d love to help you identify your team leaders.
So coach, “who are your best team leaders?”
As I look back on my coaching journey I am grateful that I had the opportunity to coach players at a variety of levels. While I finished my coaching career with elite level NCAA athletes some of my most enjoyable years were as a youth and high school coach. I often hear from youth and high school coaches that it is difficult to develop their leaders because unlike the college game they aren’t with their student-athletes every single day. The path to development might be different the reality is we still need young leaders.
While I believe coaches need to lead the way in mentoring young leaders this post was designed to serve as a guide for young leaders who might be interested in what steps they can proactively take to become great team leader at a young age.
Here are some concepts young leaders should embrace as well as some ways to put these concepts into action:
- Be committed to intentional growth and development: Coaches love working with young team leaders who are willing to grow. I strongly believe that your leadership capacity IS your personal growth capacity. In other words, if you want to lead every day then you have to grow every day. Young leaders need to take the initiative to grow every day.
- Become a reader: I highly suggest that you read as much as possible. There are leadership books available for every age. I would suggest The Energy Bus or The Hard Hat by Jon Gordon (for any age), Teammates Matter by William (for high school students) and Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek (for Juniors and Seniors). You can find my complete reading list here. Start reading today!
- Grow through social media: There are some wonderful people on social media who can provide you with insights on how to be a better leader. I would suggest you start following Jon Gordon (@JonGordon11) on Twitter. There is no doubt that young people spend a lot of time on social media so why not grow in the process?
- Take an online course: If you are a high school student you may want to take an online leadership development course. I now offer Leadership Discovery as a stand-alone online course. You can learn more here.
- Find a mentor: I would also suggest that you find a leadership mentor. There are many adults who have been in your shoes who can offer you advice and wisdom. Think about who you know and respect, and consider asking that person to serve as your leadership mentor.
- Provide insight on the “locker room”: While I would love to think that I flawlessly had a grasp on every player and every little dynamic on our team that simply isn’t possible. As a coach, I wanted and needed our team leaders to help me understand what was going on with our team when I wasn’t around. For example, maybe a player isn’t performing well at practice or she seems distracted because there is an issue going on at home. As a team leader, you need to help your coach to understand some of the issues the team may be dealing with. In this concept, you can think of yourself like a thermometer because you are helping your coach to understand what the “temperature” of the team is.
- Get to know your coach: If you want to help lead your team by communicating with your coach then you will need to develop a relationship with your coach. This way you will feel more comfortable talking about issues or concerns with your coach. By getting to know your coach it will make having some of those hard conversations a little easier.
- Have scheduled meetings: If you want to be a leader you will need to meet with your coach on a regular basis. Coaches often feel stressed before or after a game so try to find another time to meet. Additionally, conversations about the team need to be done face to face. This is important because we communicate not only with words but also with our body language. When we have important conversations over a text we remove half of the communication process. If scheduled meetings aren’t something your coach normally does please express that this would be helpful for you.
- Put out fires before they spread: The best leaders I worked with dealt with issues before they became a distraction on our team. That could mean pulling a player aside to talk about what is going on at home, listening to a teammate who is frustrated about playing time, or helping a teammate to find a solution to a problem they are dealing with. Great team leaders are willing to address things long before they become “problems”. When you are putting out fires you can think of yourself as a thermostat because your actions are literally changing the “temperature” of the team.
- Get to know your teammates: In order for your teammates to trust you, it will be important that you treat everyone with the same respect. Get to know each of your teammates by spending time with them. Look for opportunities to practice with a different person, sit by someone different, or invite a player you don’t know very well to have lunch with you. By developing a relationship with each teammate you will be able to serve as a thermostat for the entire team.
- Speak up: In order to put out fires, you will need to speak up. There are times when you should let your coach handle things but there are other moments when it will fall on your shoulders. One example might be team gossip. When you hear gossip, you need to address it. If you have developed healthy relationships with your teammates then you should be able to speak up and address that issue before it damages the team.
- Support other leaders: I believe great leaders support other leaders. Look for moments when you can support another leader. For example, maybe members of your team are gossiping about another player and one of your teammates says they need to stop gossiping. As a young leader, I want to encourage you to support your teammate by saying something like, “you’re right, I agree with you. Talking about another teammate makes me uncomfortable and think we are a better team when we don’t talk about each other like that.” There is power in numbers, so when you support another leader you reinforce their message.
- Model a high standard of behavior: There is no question that great team leaders model a high standard of behavior. You don’t need to be perfect, but you need to give your best effort on and off the field.
- Admit mistakes: One of the best ways a leader can be a good example is to admit mistakes. If you lose your cool in a game, say something you shouldn’t have said, or make a bad decision you should apologize for that moment. Leaders need to model a high standard of behavior but when you fall short be honest with your coaches and teammates and they will do the same. By doing this you are helping to create a culture of accountability.
- Be on the job: Make sure you view yourself as always being “on the job”. Think about how your decisions off the field will impact the team. People will not just see you as a leader when you are at practice, or in a game but rather they will see you as a leader in life. People will be watching what you do and they will follow your example.
As a young leader please know the only way to become a great leader is to practice your leadership skills! As you think about your team look for ways to put these concepts into action and please feel free to reach out to share your leadership success stories!
If you are a parent I would encourage you to share this post with your young leaders and look for ways to support and encourage them as they seek to develop their leadership skills. This process will include failure but they will grow through the failure, leaders always grow through failure.
I recently had a conversation with a talented spring sport college athlete. Her team has been in season for more than a month and the roles on her team are starting to become clear. This player is very talented and she gets a lot of playing time, but she is struggling with the voice in her head during the rare moments when she is on the bench. She is disappointed that she is starting to think things like, “If my teammate makes a mistake then I will get to play” or, “if my teammate gets hurt, I’ll get to play.” She shared that she genuinely wants her teammates to be successful and she doesn’t want anyone to get hurt or make a mistake, but that voice is stuck in her head and she doesn’t know what to do about it.
I understand where that voice is coming from. If she is on the bench with a player’s mindset then she feels robbed because she can’t do her job from the bench. But I asked this student-athlete to spend some time writing her own job description as a teammate rather than a player.
As a shortstop, she knows what her job description is, but as a teammate on the bench, she needed a new job description to focus on. This shifted her mindset from, “I’m a player and because I am on the bench I am not allowed to do my job” to, “I’m a teammate and I’m fully committed to my job description today.”
Players aren’t the only ones who have shared this struggle with me. Several coaches in the last week have reached out to talk about their frustration over players who aren’t embracing the role they are being asked to play. At this point in the season, players are seeing a pattern. Some players who hoped to be starters are coming off the bench. Others, who hoped to come off the bench aren’t making the travel roster. It is always difficult when what you hoped for isn’t coming to fruition.
As coaches, we need to be intentional about helping our players to shift from a player’s mindset to a teammate’s mindset when they are on the bench.
We can help our players with this transition by doing the following:
- Clearly define their role: As coaches, it might be very clear to us what role someone needs to play, but we can’t assume that our student-athletes know what we need from them. Remember, they aren’t able to just “figure it out” on the field, so we need to help them off the field as well. We need to have hard conversations to define roles and we need to be specific about those roles. When we teach our student-athletes a technical skill we get right to the point and we need to approach defining roles with the same intentional clarity. Additionally, you should give your student-athletes some time to process their roles but at some point, you need to ask if they are willing to play the role you are asking them to play. If the answer is no, then you need to be prepared to part ways with that person for the good of the team.
- Articulate their value: If we are going to ask our student-athletes to shift from a player’s mindset to teammate’s mindset then we need to articulate the value they bring to the team in their defined teammate roles. Be intentional about articulating their value both publicly and privately.
- Continue to develop them as players: The best student-athletes I ever coached were willing to play their role as a teammate but they didn’t want to stay there forever. While someone’s role may be defined for the rest of the season make sure you continue to develop all your student-athlete in practice, during film, or in one on one sessions. Most people are willing to make a sacrifice for the good of the team when they feel like their coaches haven’t given up on them.
- Provide opportunities: It’s expected that you’ll need to play your starters or key reserves, but when the opportunity arises to give playing time to players who are further down the depth chart you should take advantage of those moments. This lets your players know that while you value what they bring to the team as a teammate on the bench you also understand that being a player matters to them.
As you talk with your student-athlete about their role please be sensitive to presenting false hope. The reality is false hope isn’t helpful or hopeful because it’s a lie. We can be compassionate without lying to our student-athletes.
If you find yourself at “that point in the season” when roles are shaking out and players are disappointed I highly suggest that you help your players to write their own job descriptions as teammates so they can spend every minute “on the job.” When game days rolls around your student-athletes can either be players on the field, a player who isn’t allowed to play because she is stuck on the bench, or a teammate who is ready to clock in and do work. If you can remove the mindset of being a player who isn’t allowed to play you will see a big shift in your team culture.
Sidenote, the player I mentioned earlier is now proud to serve as the President of the Positivity Club when she is on the bench. Her job description is awesome and she is fully committed to filling that role when she is asked to.
*If you need assistance in helping your team to value their roles please reach out. I have some great activities that will help your team to embrace their roles.
Over the last year, I have been pretty committed to working out, but a few weeks ago I noticed my knees and hips were hurting. I’ve had knee and hip surgery so it isn’t uncommon for me to have some pain but it was odd that both knees and both hips were hurting. I began to think about my warm-up and cool-down. I questioned my recovery days and I wondered if I was pushing myself too hard.
Then one evening while I was sitting down doing some ab work and I noticed the problem. Since I only wear my running shoes when I am at the gym they look brand new, but when I saw the bottom of my shoes I knew I had pushed them too far and that was likely the cause of my knee and hip pain. I grabbed my phone, got online and ordered a new pair of running shoes.
Once they arrived I quickly put them to use. My suspicions were correct; my knee and hip pain disappeared. However, my feet were killing me! I was waking up in the middle of the night trying to rub out the pain in my feet. My shoes would break-in at some point, but until then I decided a foot massage was in order.
I arrived for my appointment knowing that my feet hurt and that my shoes were the cause of the pain. However, it didn’t take long before the massage therapist found painful spots on my feet that I didn’t know existed! He was able to find places that hurt which I couldn’t have found on my own. No matter how hard I tried I would never have found the spot between my 4th and 5th toes on my right foot or that one specific spot on my left heel!
But isn’t that life? We need other people to help us find the places that hurt.
As leaders, we have a responsibility to serve others by asking the question, “where does it hurt?” Our people may have a general answer and they may even know the cause of the pain. Sometimes, we need to not only ask the question but to also walk with them as they try to pinpoint the specific places of pain. We need to help people figure out where it hurts.
But leaders aren’t exempt from this concept, we too need people to help us wrestle with the question, “where does it hurt?” Far too often leaders try to do it alone, but in doing so we ignore those hard to reach places in our own lives. When places that hurt go unattended to we do a grave disservice to our people because there is less of us to offer to those around us.
As leaders, we need to ask others, “where does it hurt?” AND we need to surround ourselves with people who can ask the same question to us. Trying to do it on your own simply won’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried.
Great leaders will surround themselves with people who will walk with them as they wrestle with the question, “where does it hurt?”
So who’s walking with you? Who’s asking you, “where does it hurt?” And who’s helping you to pinpoint those painful hard to reach places? Don’t try and do it alone.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.