Why traditional leadership just isn’t good enough anymore

I recently had my team choose their captains and I was satisfied with who they chose so I didn’t veto the votes and I let the popular vote stand.  I haven’t always done it this way, but this year I opened up the voting to allow for anyone on the team to be selected regardless of grade and what resulted was we ended up with 3 captains, 1 is a sophomore, 1 is a junior, and 1 is a senior.  I agreed with all three picks because all three are cut from the traditional leader model, they all have worked hard to develop their skills and continue to do so.  They all show up for both in season and out of season activities including fundraising, community service and conditioning.  And they are all outgoing and will speak their mind and both encourage and drive others to be better players.  So, as I announced their selections to their teammates I was satisfied with the selections but left with one big question in my mind, how would I take these players from traditional leaders to becoming transformational leaders.

The first step in my mind was to begin by explaining the difference because as anyone who has coached high school boys can tell you, they really do not think that deep.  First, let me acknowledge that most leadership scholars refer to what I call traditional leadership, as transactional leadership, which is leadership that works within set established goals and boundaries to reach team goals.  Transactional leadership is future oriented which is what makes it popular because people feel driven toward a goal while transformational leadership focuses on values and vision, the end state isn’t necessarily a championship rather it is more of the reward of being part of something bigger than yourself.

We naturally favor the transactional model because its easier to say “our goal is to win a state championship” and to do that we need to “work hard” every day and that outcome will happen, its easier to say that than to explain what your vision is and make that relatable to all on the team.  The problem with the transactional model is that it hardly ever delivers and internally players lose faith in it.  Imagine making your goal to win a state championship.  Even if you have all the right players, in all the right positions, and they all work as hard as they can, winning a state title or not might come down to having all of those players available (i.e. uninjured) at all the right times, or it might amount to playing the right teams on your schedule in order to prepare your team properly for the tournament, or any number of things that your teams leadership cannot predict or control.

As a transformational leader you are focusing on the experience you want everyone to have on your team.  Certainly winning is going to be part of that experience, I would never suggest that it isn’t important, however, being an undefeated state champion is as much a chance occurrence as it is the result of a perfectly executed plan that is well led.  As a transformational leader your focus is on engagement with each other and what motivates each player.  The focus is on uncovering a set of team values that all players can relate to and live by.  It is about creating an environment where teammates with a shared set of values can rally behind and with each other in developing a team culture that is something they want to be part of.  Transformational leadership is about affecting change, tearing down the status quo and building a program that meets the needs and aspirations of the group being led.

Leaders who seek to transform their teams need to have a strong sense of who their team is and what the players on their team value and to do this they must take the time to listen to others and draw out of them what it is they are on the team for, what they value, and what they can do to help others feel those values are part of their teams makeup.  This isn’t an easy sell to today’s athletes, they are actively recruited by colleges as early as 8th grade, and they are told that they are worthy of the next level of play well before they have even experienced high school at all.  It is difficult at best to sell a player on the idea that doing what is best for the team and giving up some of his/her accolades will actually produce a team culture that is one they will remember the rest of their lives, but it is essential if we are to be successful in our mission of growing the leaders of tomorrow.  
Sports to me has always been the great incubator of tomorrow’s leaders and it is why I have coached or played in  8 different team sports.  Consider this list: GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt played football for Dartmouth, IBM CEO Samuel Palimisano walked away from an NFL tryout with the Raiders, Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman was a four-sport athlete in high school, Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb was a soccer star at Stanford, Sunoco CEO Lynn Laverty Elsenhans played for Rice’s basketball team, and Rorke Denver was a Navy SEAL team commander after captaining the Syracuse men’s lacrosse team to 2 NCAA championships in the 90’s and was honorable mention All-American.  Men and women alike who play and excel in team sports environments are making a difference in the lives of others.  Inherent in our vocation as coaches is our obligation to lead our players and model for them what good leadership looks like, however, I believe it is also to inspire them to change the way we think about leadership and to challenge the status quo.  Instead of putting in place a program for your players, consider inspiring them to think differently about leadership and transform their teams into a group of players bonded together by a common vision of their future that is firmly grounded in values they all hold dear.  If you can do this you will have created leaders who will go on to inspire and create greatness in others and that is a future we can all get behind and promote.

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