Want To Become a Great Leader? Go Coach Little Kids.

Manager. Leader. Sometimes they are used interchangeably to describe people to which other people report. But they are ultimately very different. Managers are people who do just that: they manage. They make sure that Task A was completed on time, on budget, and according to the right process. They hold people accountable for their parts in making that happen. But they don’t necessarily inspire anyone. Most often, they aren’t someone behind which people will get in front of to take a bullet. Those are leaders. And, deep inside, many of us want to be able to lead. We want to be the “captain of the team.” We want to be the person to whom everyone looks when someone yells, “fire!” But to be that person requires a lot more than just being able to follow a plan of action. It requires that we are able to make quick decisions, have a vision for the solution, and, most importantly, delegate ownership of parts of the solution to other people. But for some, for managers masquerading as leaders, delegating ownership is tough because they always know the best way to get things done.

That’s why the best analogy for a good leader is a youth sports coach.

The ultimate role of any coach in sports (although it’s more pronounced in youth sports) is to provide guidance and instruction. So the coach teaches his players the skills required to excel at the game and then guides them to understand how the game is played (so they can apply those skills that make them the best). Of course, this is when the coach is a leader. What happens when the coach is a manager? He doesn’t delegate. He yells and screams at his players as they are playing because he knows best how the game should be played. He tells them what to do and when to do it. Shoot. Pass. Anyone who’s watched a youth sports game, regardless of the sport, has seen this happen. As a youth hockey coach of 15 years, I’ve seen this done too many times to count and, admittedly, even done it myself early on in my coaching career.

But through good coaching, players are empowered to make mistakes. When you think about it, making mistakes is very natural. Sure, sometimes mistakes can cost the game (or, in the case of the business world, real dollars) but unless they are done through complete idiocy, in which case why is the player playing at all, or maliciousness, in which case it’s easy to remove the player, how accountable should we hold people? A manager holds them accountable to the results. A leader holds them accountable for how they reacted and dealt with the mistake because it’s more important that team members recognize what they did so they don’t do it again. A manager just gets rid of the “failure.” Although in sports, it’s just not feasible to keep switching out your team.

You see, being a coach (and a leader), requires us to recognize that team members are people, not just parts of a process.

Why little kids? Because they are the best and worst team mates. They are passionate about their loyalties, unafraid to point out when someone else has made a mistake, and reticent to accept blame themselves. Which is why coaching them is the best thing for anyone who wants to be a great leader. Children in sports represent the most dysfunctional team but a great youth sports coach can figure out how to instill personal accountability (“Okay, that was my fault”) and even how to get team members to articulate what they did (“Here’s what I was thinking when I made that mistake”). Because, in the long run, it’s not the mistakes that are important, it’s how team members respond to them that says everything about their capabilities.

So, you want to be a great leader? Fine. Go prove it to a bunch of 8 year old kids. Then you can prove it to the rest of us.

Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto.com.

Jason Thibeault is the senior director of marketing strategy for Limelight Networks. In this role he helps direct Limelight’s corporate messaging and positioning, develops whitepapers and e-books, blogs, and evangelizes the Limelight solution offering to audiences around the world. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine Honors Program and a M.A. in English, with distinction, from California State University, Northridge. Jason is the co-author of the marketing thought-leadership book Recommend This! Delivering Digital Experiences People Want to Share (Wiley), the middle-reader chapter series Marmalade (Dime Novel Books), and rethinkeverythingblog.com. He is an inventor on a number of technical patents with Limelight Networks. Follow him on twitter @_jasonthibeault.

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