BY TAYLOR BROWN
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
Young athletes are often socialized into believing that they must be leaders. Coaches and parents alike preach leadership values such as perseverance, determination, and respect. However, very few young athletes know what being a leader means.
When I ask young athletes how do you lead, they invariably respond, “I lead by example.” This is another way of saying, “I have no idea how to lead. I just do what I think is right.” At the early stages of leadership development, many don’t know what they don’t know about leadership. This answer is simply what young athletes think leadership is.
“I lead by example” is just a method to deliver leadership, but it does not give any information about the substance of leadership philosophy or practice.
The better question to ask an athlete is, What example do you lead by? This question gets to the heart of the idea. The answers usually involve hard work, integrity, humility, and being a team player. If these qualities are what’s required to be a leader, then every hard-working, high-achieving player on every team would be considered a leader. But even on those teams, a few athletes possess something more. True leadership requires introspection, self-inquiry, and personal growth.
Here are three questions that leaders should ask themselves to develop their leadership capacity.
Why do I want to lead?
Many athletes are told they should lead but never answer why.
Frequently, it seems leadership is equated with strength of character and is considered good, while following is equated with weakness and is considered bad. Athletes can find themselves in leadership positions because of the fear associated with choosing not to lead. They have never asked themselves, Why do I want to lead? Often, the reason is to avoid the shame of following.
It takes curiosity, honesty, vulnerability, and adaptability to understand why you do something. When leaders understand their why, they will return to it in challenging moments.
Read more about identifying your why in Start with Why by Simon Sinek.
How do you respond to vulnerability?
Clinical social worker and professor Brené Brown defines vulnerability as a feeling of uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure. It’s a universal human experience, and trying to avoid it is a mistake. As uncomfortable as it is, sharing vulnerability creates a sense of connection among us.
Sharing vulnerability is often misunderstood. Many believe it involves personal disclosure or emotional expression. While those ways are possible, sharing vulnerability has more to do with how you choose to respond to your experience of vulnerability. You can either armor up and avoid it or open I up, accept it, and take action.
Leaders understand what their default response to vulnerability is, how it affects others, and how to change it.
Read more about vulnerability and leadership in Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts by Dr. Brené Brown.
What are the values you want this team to embody?
How do great leaders develop winning cultures? Culture is built upon the values that leadership prioritizes, and the first step in developing a winning culture is to define what values you want the team to embody. To identify those values, think about the principles good teams are built on: trust, respect, and accountability.
The next step is to define what norms support those values. Norms are practices and behaviors the team does automatically. Examples: making sure everyone is at practice every day; being clear with expectations; and consistently taking action that may be outside your comfort zone.
The last step is to define the daily behaviors that will turn into norms over time. Maybe it is the captain’s job to take attendance and explain the workout.
Once you have defined these three steps, start implementing the behaviors, which in time will turn into norms and grow into values.
Culture will develop whether leaders pay attention to it or not. With attention and intention, a values-based culture will support performance, but with neglect, a culture can detract from performance. The choice is yours.
Anyone can set a good example, but leadership requires more—knowing where you’re going, inspiring your team, and showing the way.