O Captain! My Captain!

The Walt Whitman poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” is classified as a mourning poem. I believe there are coaches who reflect on their former team Captains with the same sentiment – the mourning of poor leadership and a failed season. I also know, that when we intentionally develop team leaders, those words can become a declaration of pure pride.

In the last few weeks, I have had a significant number of coaches reach out to talk about team leadership. Specifically, what leadership model should they use, how they should select their team leaders, when they should select their team leaders, and what skills should they look for in their team leaders. I am grateful that coaches are asking these questions. Team leadership will make or break a season. As coaches, we have a moral responsibility to develop future leaders.

Here are my thoughts on those questions:

Different Leadership Models: Most teams I work with use one of the following models:

  1. Designated Team Captains: For most of my career this was my preferred model, but your own leadership style as a coach and your current team culture will dictate the best option for your team. With this model, I suggest selecting 2-3 student-athletes and intentionally developing them as leaders. I would suggest meeting weekly in the off-season to do leadership development and to develop a deeper level of trust. In-season you can meet as needed but I wouldn’t go more than 7-10 days without meeting.
  2. A Team Leadership Council: With this model, you can select a larger number of players to develop. This model may also allow you to designate specific areas of leadership for each student-athlete to focus on and it allows you to be more intentional about developing your younger or future leaders. With a Team Leadership Council, I have found you need clear expectations for the members. Without clear expectations, you may find that no one is taking action because they expected someone else in the group to do it.
  3. No Designated Team Leaders: I know of teams who have used this model successfully but there are some clear guidelines in order for this to work. First, your culture needs to be well established. If your team culture is strong then this can work, but a team in transition will fail with this approach. Secondly, the expectation needs to be that everyone will lead and everyone will be held accountable. This works well in a program where the coaching staff has been intact for many years with a large number of returning players who have bought into the team culture. I would not advise this model for a team in transition.

Ways to Select Team Leaders: Not only do we need to think about an appropriate leadership model, we also need to think about how we are going to select our team leaders.

  1. Student-athletes select the team leaders: This works if your team culture is very strong but it will not work if your team is in transition. In one of my first college jobs, I asked the team to mark on a roster who they thought our best team leaders were. They unanimously selected a student-athlete who I knew would quit the team at some point. She just wasn’t a college level player and it showed in her work ethic and attitude. I asked our student-athletes to stop by the office and explain why they selected her. They all offered a variation of, “she is the best at decorating our lockers on our birthdays. She always brings cupcakes too.” When your players don’t know how you define leadership it is difficult for them to help identify the team leaders. If your culture is stable their input will be valuable, but if the culture is in transition this method will be a recipe for failure.
  2. Coaches select the team leaders: There are times when a coach simply needs to make this decision, particularly for a team in transition. However, as your team culture becomes stronger I do believe student-athletes should have a voice in this process.
  3. A hybrid process where coaches make the final decision after considering student-athlete input: This is the method that I think leads to success. The reality is sometimes coaches get it wrong when selecting team leaders. As coaches, we don’t always know what is going on with our team when we are not around. By asking for input from our student-athletes we allow them to be a part of the process but we can also gain valuable insights about our team. And just like coaches, players don’t always get it right either. I strongly believe that coaches should have the final say in selecting team leaders. In many cases, our jobs depend on this decision. We should listen to our players but also listen to our own life experience as coaches and select the best leaders to serve in this capacity. We have no right as adults to blame our student-athletes for selecting poor team leaders, the final decision rests on our shoulders.

When to Select Team Leaders: The timing of selecting your team leaders may be just as important as who you select.

  1. The process of discerning your next group of team leaders should begin long before your season ends. I would strongly encourage you to select and announce your team leaders as soon as you know who they are, ideally soon after the end of your season. This gives them time to adjust to their new role, practice leading in a lower stress environment and develop a closer relationship with the coaches. It is much safer to practice being a leader in the off-season than it is in-season. By developing your team leaders in the off-season you increase the odds that they can lead successfully.
  2. If you aren’t sure who your leaders will be then I would strongly encourage you to provide your entire team with plenty of leadership opportunities to see who will surface as your leaders. Put them in a variety of environments where people need to lead.

What Skills to look for in Team Leaders: I may need to write multiple posts on this topic. The reality is I could give you a list of 20+ skills to look for and develop in your team leaders. If you could find leaders with several of those 20+ skills then you would be in great hands! For the sake of time I will offer five skills to consider:

  1. Say “Come with Me.”: I believe great leaders are willing to walk with their people. They don’t lead from a distance pointing out what others need to do, they actually walk with their people. A specific example I can give you happened with one of my teams in preseason. One morning before training my Senior Captain who was our starting Keeper walked into the office with a freshman attacker. Our Keeper said, “We need to talk to you.” I found this moment to be odd since these two didn’t play the same position, they weren’t in the same class and they had just met a week ago. Our Captain went on to explain that the practice gear for the young freshman was missing. It wasn’t in the laundry and they had looked everywhere. I soon figured out what was going on … the freshman was afraid to come tell me, but our Senior Captain literally said to her, “come with me.” Our Captain could have said, “this happens from time to time, it may have ended up with the volleyball team, it will show up, or just go to tell coach” but she didn’t. Instead, she walked with her to have that conversation with me. Great leaders say “come with me.”
  2. Do The Dirty Work: Team leaders need to be people who do the dirty work. They need to do the thankless jobs, the kind of stuff other people run from. They should be the ones picking up the trash on your sidelines, showing extra care for the locker room, and offering to carry team gear. This matters because if they are willing to do it off the field then you can count on them to do the dirty work on the field. If you are willing to empty the trash when no one is looking then you will be willing to make a 40-yard sprint screaming for a ball you know you won’t get just to create space for your teammate with the ball. Great leaders do the dirty work.
  3. Pay it Forward: I am amazed at how many coaches ignore this skill. When selecting team leaders you need to pay attention to who has paid it forward. By that I mean, the day you become a starter or the day you become a senior should not be the day you “turn on” your leadership skills. Great team leaders have been paying it forward from the moment they joined the team. People who pay it forward don’t wait until they can be recognized, they lead from where they are. You don’t become a great leader when you become a starting point guard, you become a great point guard because you led from the bench as a 3rd string player for two years. Pay close attention to who has been paying it forward for years. When you find those leaders you can trust that they will continue to lead because leading has become a habit for them. Great leaders pay it forward.
  4. Burn the Ships: This phrase comes from the story of Hernan Cortez who left Spain in 1519 with 600 men, 16 horses, and 11 ships. They were headed to Mexico in search of Aztec jewels. While the men were nervous, they knew if they got into trouble they could alway go back to Spain. But Cortez took a dramatic approach as a leader. When they landed on the shore he told them to “burn the ships.”  They were in this battle to win it and they weren’t turning back so they burned the ships to remove the option of retreating. Great leaders know that preparation and personal growth are critical to success but they also know there are times when they have to step up and go for it. Sometimes leaders have to let go of an escape plan and step into a leadership role that feels outside of their comfort zone. Finding team leaders who will let go of perfection and lead in the difficult moments can be a turning point for a team. Great leaders burn the ships.
  5. Take Care of their People: As you think about your team who are the student-athletes who take care of their people? You can define this in many ways, but think about who genuinely cares for their teammates? When a team knows their leaders care for them they will suddenly do anything their team leaders request. You can’t go wrong with leaders who care for their people. Great leaders take care of their people.

I highly suggest developing your entire team as leaders and providing additional development opportunities for your team leaders. As coaches we are leaders and the reality is great leaders develop more leaders.

When we speak of our team leaders it shouldn’t feel like a mourning poem. Instead, we should tell the narrative of young leaders who successfully helped to move a group of individuals from here to there.

If you are interested in using Leadership Discovery to develop your team as leaders or our new Skype-based Leaders in Action program for team leaders then please reach out. We’d love to help you develop the next generation of leaders.