“You’re fired!” The Major walked away from the most recent team leader and began looking for the next person to be put in charge. That was the third leader fired for not doing the task appropriately or efficiently enough.
“Simmons!” Simmons made his way to the front of the pack.
“You’re in charge now. Do you understand the task?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Good, show me. The last few knuckleheads can’t seem to get it.”
“Yes sir.” Simmons turned to face his brothers.
“Listen up, we need five even lines. Miller, scoot to your right a few inches. Good. Thomas, tuck your shirt in.” Simmons began pacing up and down the lines adjusting the water bottles to make sure they were lined up and facing the correct way. He moved a few notebooks so they were directly in front of their owners.
About a minute passed. “Simmons, you’re fired!”
Simmons acknowledged his demotion and took his place at the back of a line.
“Gonzales, where are you?”
“Here, sir!” Gonzalez made his way to the front of the pack, accidentally knocking over a water bottle. He fixed it immediately and stood directly in front of the Major.
Gonzalez was one of the smallest young men in the group. Because of his size, he rarely got to participate in the game.
“Can you figure this out, Gonzalez?”
“I think so, sir.”
“You think so?”
“I know so, sir.”
“Show me!” The Major yelled at the top of his lungs directly in the face of the young man. Gonzalez flinched, but tried to hide it the best he could. He quickly regained his composure.
“Yes, sir!” Gonzalez turned around and summoned the first person in each line to join him in a small group.
A slight smile crept onto the face of the Major. He became aware of his countenance and it disappeared as quickly as it appeared.
“Listen up, brothers. It’s hot and we are all tired, so let’s get it right this time. I need you to take care of your line. Make sure all the water bottles are full of water and lined up to the right of your feet. Check to make sure your line has their shirts tucked in and socks pulled up. I noticed some pens are missing. Make sure each person has a writing tool. If they don’t, there are more in the box over on the bleachers. If you need one, make sure you hustle there and back. The Major gave us five minutes to complete this task–let’s do it in two.”
Adversity presented an opportunity for this young man to display something he did not know he possessed. In that moment, Gonzalez was elevated in the eyes of his brothers. No longer a sideline bystander, he was now in charge and he seized his moment. It’s moments like these that old men share as pivotal moments in their lives.
The small group breaks and gets to work, looking for anything out of place that could ruin the exactness of their line. They take ownership of a job well done, directed by the unassuming teammate that possess the heart of a lion.
“Thirty seconds, brothers. Check your line once more, then fall in once complete.”
Gonzalez made one final check of the work of his brothers and made his way to the Major.
“Task complete, sir.”
“Are you sure?”
“How confident are you that you did an acceptable job?”
“Very confident, sir.”
The Major slowly walked up and down each aisle, stopping every few athletes to stare a teammate down. No one flinched or fidgeted. He made his way to the front of the group.
“Well done, Gonzalez. You are a great leader.”
Gonzalez moved his shoulders back and slightly puffed up his chest. His brothers tried to hold back their smiles–some hid it better than others. They were impressed.
“Please tell your brothers to grab their items and report to the shady area for debriefing.”
Gonzales, about two feet taller than 10 minutes before, gave his brothers their next task. The team grabbed their items and sprinted to the shady area without saying a word.
It is something that is learned when we see others fail at the arrival of adversity. As children, we learn how to lead by watching our parents, teachers, coaches, politicians, and religious leaders first do it. We see how our brothers and sisters treat us and experience what happens when we treat them certain ways. Later in life, we have people we report to and who report to us. We read books and watch programs and attend seminars that allow for us to learn different ways to motivate and lead others. Then, we start to intentionally pass on the lessons we have learned.
Some ideas are good, most are bad, but it is experience that teaches us the difference. It has been said that experience is the best teacher, but I believe that is an incomplete analysis of the lessons of experience. To truly grow from experience, we must evaluate what we have endured, then extract from what happened the tools to be used in a future situation.
A leader must be a great follower.
Without adversity, leadership and its lessons are absent. Failure is a one-time event, not a life sentence. The leaders before Gonzalez were not so much failures as they were a lesson in how to do the task wrong. By the time Gonzalez was given the chance to lead, he used the lessons he just learned to do the task correctly.
A leader must be able to use the tools he or she has available.
Gonzalez was not an imposing figure who could use height and a baritone voice to influence those around him. Instead, he used logic and teamwork to get done what he could not on his own. His predecessors tried to lead alone. They thought they could do it by themselves because experience had shown them no other way. The Major knew this, as most young men are not intentionally taught the importance of teamwork, and introduced a task that could not be completed until the use of others was part of the equation.
A leader must be able to hold him or herself accountable before holding others accountable.
If Gonzalez had his shirt untucked, he could not have told his teammate to tuck in his own shirt. Many coaches forget this insight. They command their athletes to be on time, but fail to arrive on time. They encourage their athletes to keep their cool on the sidelines, but scream and yell at the referee, calling him or her all sorts of unacceptable names.
How To Intentionally Create Leaders
A typical practice session offers very few opportunities to grow leaders. Drills are run by coaches, scrimmages are paused for instruction, and rarely does an athlete have the opportunity to call out one of his or her teammates.
Here are some examples of ways you can create opportunities for growth:
The Weight Room
Many college programs have a strength coach dedicated to making sure the athletes are getting stronger and faster. However, most high school programs are lucky if they have enough supervision in the weight room, nevermind an actual strength coach. Create small groups and designate a leader in that group. Before the workout begins, bring together the group leaders and let them know what will be expected of them during that workout. Demonstrate anything that might be cause for confusion and allow for questions. Before these kinds of meetings can take place, the whole team must know what is expected of them when these pre-workout meetings are taking place. Design some sort of warm-up to keep the athletes busy and out of trouble. This will take some extra work on the front end but will make things easier once implemented. If a group is screwing around, the leader of that group is reprimanded after the workout (extra sprints, bear crawls, etc.).
After a few weeks, every group gets a new leader. Meet with leaders periodically and help them work through situations like teammates not giving full effort or messing around too much. Sports are a microcosm for adult life and they will soon find out that high school never ends and many adults never actually grow up.
Create groups that set up and tear down the practice field (cones, bags, ladders, etc.). Once complete, ask the leaders to report to you letting you know the task is complete and reporting on anything that needs attention (a broken piece of equipment, for example).
Let your athlete run the warm-up drills. Give them a clipboard and let them lead how they think is effective. Coach them up on strategies. Point out athletes that are doing it wrong and let them correct their teammates.
Doing these things creates a culture of accountability. Holding a peer accountable or calling a peer out as a young person (or an adult, for that matter!) is a difficult skill and best learned in a safe environment like the practice field.
Some students are better at certain subjects than others. If you have a math whiz, give him or her permission to tutor during study hall. Celebrate their strengths for math, or Spanish, or history, or whatever it is they are good at and give them a platform to help others.
Sometimes age gets in the way of allowing learning to happen. If a sophomore is better at math than a senior, that senior’s pride may get in the way of letting a younger person teach them. This is when you step in and promote the idea that we can learn from anyone, regardless of age or any other differentiating trait.
Look for ways to allow your athletes to practice leading and use your life experience to promote growth in their leadership ability. At first, you may think you are losing time to practice strategy and technique, but you will soon find that you are gaining a team full of leaders that you can rely on when adversity arrives…and it always arrives.