“Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It’s as if they’re showing you the way.”
- Donald Miller
What makes a great leader? Most of us have thought about this question at least a handful of times in our lives.
Why do we care?
We care because we recognize the vital role of the leader. Nations rise or fall on the strength of their political and military leaders. Sports teams win or lose, in large part, by the strength of the coach. Classrooms learn or languish, based on the strength of the teacher.
Leaders matter, unequivocally.
Recognizing this, it’s important for each of us to consider the qualities we want most in a leader—not just so that we can be led, but also so that we can lead. In this blog, I will focus on the commonalities I’ve witnessed in successful leaders in numerous domains throughout my time as an athlete, and as a mental performance consultant. My intent is to help you identify great leaders that will help you reach your goals, and to help you develop your ability to lead as well.
“If zay did not inzist on paying me, I would do zis for free!” my college philosophy instructor announced to the class during the first minute of our first morning with him. A teacher’s love for his craft is infectious, and I caught this teacher’s love for philosophy instantly.
There are few greater gifts a teacher can give a student, I believe, than a love for a process of growth. In my line of work I’m fortunate to know numerous coaches whose eyes sparkle with love for their sport. When I ask them why they love this sport in particular, they often pause and look away (and surely inward). They answer carefully with seriousness and sincerity. The depth of their connection with their craft makes me want to know it better. The same could be said for a boss who loves his company, and is genuinely proud of the service provided. If you join this company, and interact frequently with this person, your sense of purpose and pride in your role will likely increase. Your quality of work will probably increase as well.
Feeling passion does more than merely increase pleasure; it also enhances performance. Positive emotions broaden one’s vision and thinking, enabling optimal utilization of ideas and enhancing creativity. Genuine interest in an activity promotes greater attention on the associated tasks. Consequently, someone with genuine interest tends to notice important details that might have been missed by someone less interested, thus enhancing the quality of work. Also, the presence of dopamine, the neurochemical of motivation, increases the rate of learning. In short, the love of a craft can make a person more creative, and knowledgeable within it.
Inseparable from the love of a craft is a curiosity about it, and a willingness to share one’s knowledge. The best coaches I know love being asked questions about why something is done a certain way, or what comes next. “He’s back there talking to someone. You know Jerry…” is a phrase so commonly heard among a thriving training group in Vancouver to describe their effervescent coach. Jerry’s love for his craft, and his knowledge about it, give his followers a sense of enthusiasm for training. They also feel confidence in being led by someone who has well-thought answers to their questions.
Unfortunately, I have known some leaders who dislike being questioned. Some immediately interpret questions as doubt about his or her system. Some actually don’t know why they’re doing something a certain way and therefore feel threatened by being asked to explain. I have never known a great leader who responds with defensiveness or resistance to honest questions. I have never known a bad coach who responds eagerly to inquiries.
Coaches who get the most out of their athletes communicate a belief that “better” is possible. For example, in running performance and training, standards are expressed in miles and paces. The most skilled coaches know how to choose goals and workouts that build athletes’ fitness and confidence. They then challenge the athletes at well-timed moments throughout their program. This is the art of coaching.
These same coaches communicate honestly about what will and will not impact a person’s running performance. This includes thoughts on diet, stress, travel, numerous forms of recreation, and sleep. This does not mean that these coaches are experts in the aforementioned fields. Rather, they simply have an understanding of what the impact of each can be on training and racing, and are able to communicate their ideas clearly. Often the message the coach has to communicate on this topic is an inconvenient one to hear. The college athlete does not want to recognize that three hours of sleep each night will negatively impact his progress. However, it is the job of the great coach to be consistent and honest with what he knows to be true on all counts.
This same principle could be applied to the leader of almost any type of team. The good leader knows what is important and what is not. As a result of her expertise and careful thinking, she sets appropriately high targets for her team members. Appropriately high standards communicate belief in a person, and foster trust if the person is supported and prepared to meet the standards set.
Care and fair treatment of team members as people first, outside of any performance context, is crucial to effective leadership. The trust that a follower has in her leader’s care for her underpins her confidence in the program he draws for her, and the advice he gives to her. Trust in our leader’s care allows us to commit fully, and to put in the work that is necessary to become our best.
The best coaches I’ve known – in particular the coaches of young athletes – have a predictable range of behavior. They vary in their personalities, but their variations have a pattern—remaining within what is considered safe and normal treatment of human beings. An athlete should feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes, succeeding beyond expectations, communicating illness and injury, and discussing all aspects of life relevant to his or her sport. Again, this principle is applicable to any field that involves a leader guiding a team to meet rising challenges.
The best leaders seek new knowledge. They read, often material from within their craft, as well as external material. The best contemplate and experiment. The best leaders share stories and ask questions of other leaders—even those in different fields. For example, one terrific distance running coach I know credits a sprints coach with some of his greatest insights. Coaches who isolate themselves, are highly critical of their colleagues, and do not seek to grow their knowledge tend to experience burnout, behave erratically, and become defensive when questioned by their athletes.
Great leaders want to hear your thoughts. They want to know how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally. They understand that this information is necessary in order for the two of you to make the best decisions regarding your long-term plans for continued collaboration. The best leaders want to know what they can do to help you and what they might be doing inadvertently to hinder you. They understand that the leader/ follower relationship is a partnership.
“I want them to know that I’m going to be here through this with them, and that it is my privilege,” National Championship winning Coach Smith, from Northern Arizona University told me. The best coaches, teachers, and leaders see their field as a vehicle to communicate skills for life. Their mission expands far beyond profits, points, and rankings.
No one knows what any of our capacities and limitations are, or what tomorrow brings. The best teachers operate curiously within uncertainty, holding space for their fellow humans striving under their direction. The best teachers learn to see people and patterns through experience. They consistently apply methods that have been developed with care. Yet, there is also an openness about them. They are perpetual students and explorers. Anyone who has had a terrific teacher knows the gratitude felt toward these people for welcoming us along for the ride.
I hope that the paragraphs above have inspired some helpful thoughts. I wish for you to find and/or be a leader, teacher, or coach who embodies many of the qualities described above.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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