Blog post

Leader as Coach

1 March 2017

When I was in the eighth grade, my father encouraged me to go out for basketball. While I admittedly had zero natural athletic ability, I was willing to give the sport a try. I’m so glad that I did.

In addition to having fun and learning the love of physical fitness and team spirit, some of my most important leadership lessons originated from this competitive team sport. The principles of coaching in athletics are closely correlated with leadership in the workplace.

As with any corporate team, an athletic team must adhere to the coach’s discipline associated with mastery of basic skills. Athletic teams adopt the coach’s game plan by executing brilliant plays necessary to win the game. Teams in the workplace follow the leader’s game plan by accomplishing goals and strategies required to realize organizational mission and vision.

Victories for coaches are typically measured by the win-loss column. For corporate leaders, the victories are measured by profitability, value and stakeholder engagement. In reality, coaches and leaders understand that victories transcend numerical measures of success. Victory to a  leader as coach is also measured by teaching important life lessons such as learning from mistakes so that continuous improvement is pursued for self and for team; accepting disappointment with grace; winning with humility; learning to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable as we accept stretch assignments that we’ve never before attempted; learning that the team accomplishes more together than could ever be achieved by one extraordinary performer; and, learning the importance of teaching those who follow us the same leadership lessons that we learned from those who came before us.

Great coaches like great leaders provide constructive feedback when things don’t go according to plan. They also provide ample praise when excellent results are achieved. I shall never forget the day that as a ninth grader, I heard Coach Kea say, “Smith, that jump shot looks pretty good.” Those simple words of encouragement were all that I needed to set me on fire to work harder and to achieve more. The same is true in the corporate setting as employees are starving to hear the words “Well done. Thank you.” from those to whom they report. It is regrettable that some leaders believe that praise is soft. Recognition is not soft at all. It’s absolutely strategic.

Outstanding coaches and leaders “own” the game plan and the ultimate outcome. There is simply no room for the blame game in greatness. Revered coaches and leaders don’t offer excuses about poor officiating, competitive interventions or extenuating circumstances. The team always gets the credit when things go well. The coach and leader should always accept responsibility when things don’t go according to plan. Period. End of story.

As you think about your own leadership responsibilities, please know that the lessons you teach your team today are the same lessons your team members will pass along to those who follow them. I hope you pay it forward when they say, “Put me in, Coach!”

Originally published on March 1, 2017 in Smart Business.

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