One of the greatest benefits of sport is that it can help people become better leaders.
Unfortunately, too many athletes are missing the boat.
There are multiple reasons at play, but a key one is the lack of leadership being demonstrated by the coaches.
This article breaks down the nuances of what it takes to be an effective leader in the new era of sport – whether you are an athlete, a coach or just want to show up as a better leader in any area of life.
Before leading others you must first learn to lead yourself.
This is what the mental game is all about – self-leadership.
It’s about taking responsibility for your own mindset, attitude, and behaviors.
There are two beneficial outcomes from mastering your mindset.
First, it directly affects those around you as you will be leading by example. Not just in your effort and focus, but in your composure, resilience, and confidence. How you respond to pressure and adversity can be contagious and positively affect those around you.
Second, when you are in a centered state you are primed to effectively lead others through empathy and encouragement. When you are not centered, you will struggle to listen with an open ear and communicate calmly and effectively.
Interacting with Others
Self-leadership is always step 1, but learning how to effectively interact with others is a set of skills in and of themselves.
There are 3 core communication skills that if you master, you will be a great leader.
But before we dive in, there is one important thing to address.
Why do you want to be a leader?
If the answer is for your own self-gain, rewards, or recognition – then the strategies below will not work as well.
There is only one good reason to be a leader – it is to serve the team. Doing this will often come back to personally benefit you – but that should not be the primary reason you want to be a better leader.
As a leader, serving the team should be your primary motive. From there, the following strategies will help you effectively impact the team.
Strategy #1: Praise
No matter how common sense this strategy seems, it is shockingly underutilized.
The culture of a team is highly dependent on what gets measured and praised.
This doesn’t mean you need to become a hype-person or be super positive all the time. Being fake doesn’t work, and being positive all the time is not sustainable.
Instead, it is about catching others doing things well and acknowledging the little things out loud in front of the whole team.
The benefit is not just in the person receiving the praise, but in the ripple effect on everyone around it.
Praise is the number one strategy to help your team build momentum.
Think of two teams where the start of the game is back and forth – evenly matched.
Team A sits there quietly with small amounts of praise and some corrections when mistakes are made.
While team B is giving lots of praise and recognition. They anticipate and feel like success is coming their way. They believe they are gaining momentum.
The intangible momentum is surely in Team B’s favour.
On the individual level, praise is also tied to confidence. Although an athlete’s confidence should not be tied to receiving praise, the external validation will certainly play a factor for a lot of athletes. Click here for a full write up and video on How to Play with Confidence.
Strategy #2: Encourage
The fundamental way to get more out of those around you is to effectively encourage and inspire them.
Your actions and words can help others own their greatness, show up at their best, and keep moving forward towards their goals.
But the mistake most leaders make is to either give too little support or too little challenge.
Encouragement is about having the right mix of support and challenge based on the needs of the situation.
Too little support and those you are trying to encourage will feel you don’t understand them and they will think you don’t truly care. As such they start to tune you out or push back to your suggestions.
Too little challenge and those you are trying to lead will lack structure and growth that comes from challenge. This can turn into chaos or complacencies within a team.
The human skills of leadership are primarily about reading what a situation needs. Then, it’s about being able to deliver the delicate balance of support and challenge.
Most situations are a mix of both support and challenge – which can be tricky – so first let’s break down the key behaviors of each side.
Supportive-Based Leadership Skills & Behaviours
- Empathy: This is the foundation of being a supportive leader. It is simply about your ability to put yourself in their shoes. This is not about sympathy – which is about having a pity party. Instead, empathy helps you better understand what they are thinking and feeling, so you can better connect and encourage them.
- Collaborate & Listen: Ask for other peoples input then listen. Relay back what you heard to show you understand, then when appropriate make adjustments based on their input – this truly shows that you care.
- Acknowledge Thoughts and Feelings: This can be when they directly mention their thoughts & feelings, but it could also be you making an educated guess. For example, after a mistake or failure you can say I assume you are probably feeling pretty frustrated. This shows your thoughtfulness – you are both thinking of how they might be feeling and care about how they are feeling.
- Positive Affirmations: One of the greatest gifts a leader can give is to help others see what they are capable of. By affirming your belief in others, you can help ignite their belief in themself. This is a form of praise (strategy #1), but it doesn’t have to be after they did something well. In fact, reaffirming what they are capable of is an important strategy after failure. It provides hope of turning things around and bouncing back.
- Take Responsibility: When you take responsibility for your faults, mistakes, or short-comings it helps create a safe environment. Others become less worried about failure and the need to be perfect. This is not about decreasing standards, but rather about showing our humanity – being relatable, and leading by example.
- Make it Fun: Don’t forget to keep things fun. If things get too heavy and too serious all the time it will smother the life out of people. All high-performing environments need to be able to keep things light – obviously without losing the details and work ethic. This can be attained by telling a joke, playing a fun game, or simply reminding people not to take things too seriously.
Challenge-Based Leadership Skills & Behaviors
- Honesty: The foundation of effective challenge is rooted in honest and caring feedback. The book Radical Candor by Kim Scott effectively highlights this as you can see in her 4 quadrants below. This is also why we explained the supportive behaviors first. They generally need to be paired together to optimize effectiveness.