Leadership can be taught

written by Erica Quam

How many times have you wondered about leadership during the recruiting process? Wouldn't it be great if you could determine who would become your best team leaders...in advance?

My first year as a head coach I thought I would recruit some swimmers who had "team captain" listed on their profile and badda-bing...I would have a handful of great leaders on my team. I wanted those "born leaders". Once I had them in my program, they would know how to lead, and then step up to do the rest. It didn't take long for me to figure out team leadership wasn't going to be quite so automatic.

What is leadership? Where do you even start? Leadership is a buzz-word in the corporate world today. Just two years ago when I wrote the original article, Amazon listed 88,985 books with the word 'leadership' in the title.  Today I searched and found the number had escalated to 133,175. 

The definition of leadership starts with you and your experiences. Its definitely worth having a discussion about leadership with your team - to define it and get clear. 

  • Who do YOU think of when you think of a leader?
  • Do you think of a coach, a teacher, a teammate, or maybe a parent?
  • What qualities did that person have that made them an effective leader?
  • Leadership has many intangible qualities. Can you define exactly what it was they did for you to think of them as a leader?

I've worked with NOLS (The National Outdoor Leadership School) since taking a student course up in the Yukon in 2004.  Now I'm an instructor.  I really like how NOLS breaks leadership down into 4 roles, 7 skills, and 1 signature style.  It made sense to me.  I used this framework to introduce leadership to my team.

4 Roles:

  1. Designated Leader: the president, athletic director, coach, team captain
  2. Active Follower: assistant coach, co-captain
  3. Peer Leader: SAAC representative, class representative
  4. Self Leader: athlete takes responsibility to do his/her part for the good of the team

Everyone can play a leadership role - not just the designated leader.  

7 Skills:

Self Awareness, Competence, Communication, Judgement and decision-making, Tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, Expedition Behavior, Vision and action

As a coach, determine and prioritize the skills that your team can focus on and improve to make the biggest impact on your program.

1 Signature Style:

People lead in different ways and develop their own signature style based on personality, learning preference, strengths, and past experiences. Think of it as their unique thumbprint of leadership.

As a coach, it is easy to recognize the athletes that lead the way that you do. It is much harder to recognize the athletes that lead in a style or way that is different than yours.

Take a step back and observe the different ways the athletes on your team lead.  Take time to help them develop their own style.

Coaches can help athletes develop skills to become better leaders just like they help them improve technical skills within their sport. These skills will be transferred to their lives well after college athletics and will definitely make a greater impact on the world.

Although at times it seems easier to take a, 'they either have it, or they don't' mentality, put the time and effort into teaching leadership to your whole team. It will pay off in many ways!

Share the first leader you think of & the one quality that stands out about them in the comments below.