The thought exists that great leaders are born that way. That there is some innate gene that allows them to be great cultivators of others, helping them reach their full potential. The reality is that leadership is not just some amazing trait only a few are blessed to possess; it’s a skill we obtain through experience and learning.
Leadership as a Skill
Jack Clark is head coach of the men’s rugby team at the University of California. During his tenure at Cal, Clark has amassed a 680-90-5 record while winning 22 national collegiate championships and earning numerous coaching accolades. He’s renowned for his leadership and is a frequent speaker to various athletic and academic clubs. He says this about leadership: “We say the definition of leadership is the ability to make those around you better and more productive. It’s a skill to us.”
If leadership really is a skill, how can you work to gain that skill? We know that skills are learned abilities, such as shooting a jump shot or performing a proper serve in volleyball. So what are some things athletes need to have in mind to become leaders?
The Two Ships
Leadership is the main skill, and it is comprised of two other "ships": ownership and relationship. Ownership should be something that comes naturally to team members. Ownership is understanding your role on the team and what is needed of you. It’s being accountable for mistakes and not pointing the finger. Owners have skin in the game, and are willing to bear responsibility. Owners put in extra work, not just the minimum required. Owners spend time away from practice to improve themselves.
Ownership alone isn’t enough in team sports. Relationship is the other necessary component. If there is no relationship with your teammates, then there’s no trust. One of the key elements for the San Antonio Spurs in their incredible run of NBA titles is the fact the team truly cares about each other. Their selflessness is exhibited on the court every game. That selflessness is built on trust for one another. The Spurs win championships because they believe that while individual stars make great plays, selfless players make great teams.
Get to know your teammates off the court. Ask them about their family, their hobbies, and their classes. Those conversations build a huge amount of empathy and trust in each other, and it can be amazing how that translates into the game on the court. Encourage them when they fail, congratulate them when they succeed. Teammates appreciate knowing when other teammates are continually supporting them no matter what.
Three Traits Team Leaders Need
Along with the two "ships" of leadership, it’s important to keep in mind traits that followers desire in a leader, along with traits that followers (or teammates) don’t want to see in a leader. Teammates want a leader to have three key things: confidence, ability to make firm decisions, and integrity. That confidence does not stem from pride but the belief in the work you and your teammates put in during practices to carry over into games. It’s essential in becoming a team leader that you also give your best effort in practices and that you are a cultivator of positivity for your team. Being able to make decisions with clarity and decisiveness is developed from your confidence. Maintaining integrity allows teammates to trust in the preparations made by the team to have success the right way, playing to win but also playing with humility and class. On the flip side, your teammates don’t want someone to lead that is moody and irritable, untrustworthy, indecisive, and abusive of their authority.
Do you desire to become a leader on your team? Ask yourself these questions: What can I do today to become a better leader on my team? What can I do to encourage my teammates to become better leaders? Who do I need to build a better relationship with to strengthen our team? In what areas do I need to be better about taking ownership? When you develop yourself as a leader, it will impact your team in ways beyond what even the scoreboard will show.