True or False: Seniors make the best leaders?

When I ask coaches who their team leaders are I frequently hear the following, “well, our Seniors, I guess.” And when I ask why their Seniors are their best leaders more often than not the reply is, “because, they’re Seniors.” Please excuse my sarcasm, but in what world does surviving your first three years of high school or college qualify you as a leader?

Let’s use basketball as an example. If I asked who your starting point guard was would you automatically say it was a Senior? No, you would say it was the player who had developed the strongest skill set as a point guard. Ideally, it would be a Senior, because she has been a part of your program for three years and she should be the most qualified for the job, but that isn’t always the case and it certainly isn’t something we can assume.

In order for a player to be the most qualified to start at the point guard position a few things probably happened in her development; she had a coach who taught her how to be a great point guard, she had older players who mentored her as a point guard, she put in the time and effort to develop the skills to be a great point guard, and she was willing to be the backup point guard while she was developing her skills. When those things happen your Senior point guard will likely be the most qualified player for the job.

I strongly believe that leadership is a skill. If that is the case then we should be able to use the same criteria in assessing your team leaders. Here is a checklist for determining if your Senior class will be able to lead effectively:

  1. They had a coach who taught them how to lead: Our student-athletes need us to teach them how to attack a full-court press, how to manage a close game with 30 seconds left on the clock, and they need us to teach them how to lead. They aren’t being taught how to lead in school, they aren’t just going to figure it out on their own, and it isn’t something that will magically click for them the day they become Seniors. When a coach teaches her student-athletes how to lead they will naturally be better equipped to lead as Seniors.
  2. They had older players who mentored them as leaders: This might be one of the most overlooked issues in developing team culture. When you have a great Senior class who mentors the class below them you significantly increase the odds that your next Senior class can serve as leaders too. Your Senior class has been influencing the class below them for three years so one great Senior class often leads to another great Senior class.
  3. They put in the time and effort to develop skills as leaders: In order for a player to earn the role of the starting point guard, she will have to put in hundreds and hundreds of hours to develop the skills necessary to be a great point guard. The same truth applies to leadership. Ultimately leadership is a skill and we need leaders to put in the hours to develop their skills. When a class puts in the time and effort to develop their leadership skills for three years then they may be equipped to lead effectively as Seniors.
  4. They were willing to lead from the bench: To become the starting point guard, a player will likely have to spend some time as a backup point guard. The student-athletes with potential see this as a great opportunity to develop. Every day they take the court with the desire to be the best backup point guard they can be because they are preparing for the day when they will be the starting point guard. Great leaders do the same thing. They lead on the bench, they lead through injuries, and they lead where they are. They don’t just show up their Senior year feeling entitled to the position. Instead, they were leading for the last three years. If a Senior class has led in every role they have been asked to play then they will likely be able to lead as Seniors.

If you can check off all of the categories that are listed above then you may have a Senior class that can lead effectively! But let’s also talk in more detail about the factors that could prevent your Seniors from being your best leaders:

  1. The senior class did not have had a coach who taught them how to lead:
    1. Unfortunately, they may have experienced a coaching change during their career. Some student-athletes have played for several coaches during their career and as a result, they were taught inconsistent messages about leadership. This concept could also apply when a new coach replaces a long-standing coach and there are conflicting views on leadership. In either of these examples, it will be important to quickly discern if the Senior class will be able to learn, embrace and implement a new model of leadership.
    2. Sometimes a senior class hasn’t been taught to lead simply because it is outside the comfort zone of their coaching staff. In this scenario, it is critical that a coaching staff is able to recognize the need to provide outside resources in the areas of leadership development. However, let me be clear in saying this process needs to begin when they are freshmen, not when they become seniors.
  2. The class above them served as poor examples of team leaders: While it might sound cruel to withhold designated team leadership roles from a class of Seniors simply because the class before them showed poor leadership skills I strongly believe this needs to be taken into consideration. Every class is significantly influenced by the class that is a year older than them. Far too often a Senior class that lacks leadership skills are given permission to lead by the coaches. They not only lead the team in the wrong direction while destroying team culture, but they also lead the Junior class to believe this is how leaders act. You might think there is no real harm in letting a poorly skilled Senior class take the reigns. I’ve heard coaches say, “how much damage can they do in one season?” I would venture to guess that they have been leading the class below them poorly for three years. After three years of influence, your Junior class (soon to be Seniors) will fully believe this is the leadership model they too should portray. If your Senior class isn’t comprised of your best leaders who have been mentored by past team leaders then you need to consider younger players who can lead without having to unlearn ineffective leadership skills.
  3. They did not put in the time and effort to develop their leadership skills. Not only is a leadership a skill but it is also a choice. When you have a Senior class that made the decision for three years to not invest in their leadership skills then they are ill-equipped to serve as team leaders. Your team culture needs to embrace leadership as a skill and when you essentially hire unqualified people for the job you are making a mockery of your own team culture. If your Seniors haven’t developed skills as leaders then please understand that was a choice they made. You need to respond to that choice by selected your most skilled leaders as your team leaders.
  4. They were not willing to lead from other roles. Leadership skills are not dependent on a starting position or significant playing time. If your Seniors were not leading as Freshmen, Sophomores, and Juniors then why should you have the confidence that they can lead as Seniors? Surviving three years on a team does not mean you have developed leadership skills. Your best leaders will lead from where they are and if you have not seen evidence of that over three years then please do not make the mistake of assuming it will organically happen the day they become Seniors.

We need coaches who will display the courage necessary to empower team leaders when they possess a clear leadership skill set rather than simply elevating those with seniority. 

Leadership is a skill and we need more skilled leaders.