Do Your Leaders Have Your Permission to Lead?

by Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

Wish your leaders would step up and take more ownership of your team?

One of the themes we hear from student-athlete leaders across the country is that they are hesitant to lead because they are unsure if they have permission to do so. Sure this reason may be a cop out for some but there are still many who hesitate to lead because they question their legitimacy to do so.

This tentativeness to lead is especially evident when it comes to the scary but necessary task of holding teammates accountable to your team standards, both on and off the playing fields. The reluctance to lead affects many younger leaders but can also be an inhibiting factor for older leaders as well.

Whose permission do your leaders need and why exactly do they need it?

Consider this: When you stick your neck out to lead you take a risk. You put yourself out there and risk being ignored, criticized, laughed at, ostracized, demoted, defeated, and/or rejected. As a coach, you know this all too well as a leader. When you step forward to lead, you risk being second-guessed, considered inept, and run out of town, especially when you fall short of your goals. And, ironically, sometimes you can suffer the same fate even when you succeed.

However, driven by a strong sense of passion, purpose, and persistence, you willingly and eagerly accept the risks associated with leadership because you believe so much in your vision and the value of the potential reward, both for you and your team.

To mitigate and overcome the potential harmful risks mentioned above, many young leaders understandably want to know they have the blessing and backing of their coaches and teammates to lead. They want to know that their leadership is really wanted, needed, and valued before they are comfortable stepping into a leadership role.

Not only does the permission to lead question just impact captains, I have also heard from many younger assistant coaches who are sometimes uncertain whether they have their head coach’s full permission and license to lead. They too are sometimes unsure of their place in the program and thus, like your captains, lead tentatively so as not to interrupt or interfere rather than leading to inspire and impact. In essence, they lead not to lose rather than leading to win.

Reluctant leaders who lead not to lose:

• Demonstrate weak and timid leadership.
• Lead only when it is comfortable and convenient.
• May see problems brewing but don’t address them.
• Have a hard time holding teammates accountable.
• May not keep you in the loop about issues on the team.
• Are afraid to speak up and be vocal.
• May not have your back when an athlete criticizes the coaches.
• Fail to address the key issues that could distract, disrupt, or destroy your team.

Just as you highly value the full support of your athletic director as you navigate the turbulent and treacherous waters of coaching, so too do your captains and assistant coaches crave and appreciate your complete and public confidence in them as leaders. (Note to ADs: Be sure you consider this article not only from the vantage point of your captains and assistant coaches but also from the vantage point of your head coaches when it comes to lending your support to them.)

Thus, sometimes your program lacks effective leadership not because you don’t have able leaders, but because your leaders hold back because they are unsure if they have legitimacy and permission to lead. Whether they state it directly or not, your captains and assistant coaches almost always want and need your public blessing and backing to lead.

Three Ways to Earn Permission to Lead

Obviously permission to lead is easy to grant if someone has earned it. It is not something you hand out freely but is something that must be both earned initially and then maintained over time. Here are three key steps your leaders can take to best earn your coaching staff’s and their teammates’ permission to lead.

1. Lead Yourself First

Remind your leaders that the best way to earn your blessing to lead is to start by leading themselves effectively. One of the biggest principles we continually stress with our Emerging Leaders in our Leadership Academies is the principle that “All leadership starts with self leadership.” They must be able to effectively and consistently lead themselves first before trying to lead others. When your athletes demonstrate consistent commitment, confidence, composure, and character it is easy for you to promote and support them as leaders of your team.

2. Think We Instead of Me

Further, coaches will support their leaders when they consciously consider how things impact the entire team and not just them as an individual. Successful leaders selflessly sacrifice their own goals when necessary in service of the team’s goals. When a coach knows that the athlete has a team first approach and is willing to consider and value the We over the Me, it is easy to grant them permission to lead.

3. Forge a Formidable Leadership Team

Finally, as Duke’s Coach K once said, “You don’t need a leader, you need a Leadership Team.” Coaches can best trust and support their leaders when they know they are all on the same page as a solid Leadership Team. Thus, your leaders must protect your back as well. They must be your voice in the locker room and speak up when someone unjustly criticizes your decisions - rather than fueling the frustration by agreeing with them or even condoning it by staying silent. They also must be open and honest with you and keep you informed about what is going on.

In essence, good leaders act as smoke detectors and junior firefighters. They must properly alert you to issues and serve as your trusted first line of defense when the inevitable brushfires of conflicts and cliques flare up on your team. Impress upon them how important it is that they keep you in the loop and help you detect and douse the flames of dissension. You obviously don’t need to know every minor detail, but as co-leaders of the team your captains do need to take ownership and keep you connected with what is going on in the program behind the scenes. It is much easier to support them when you know you won’t be blindsided by problems that they previously knew about but didn’t say anything.

By acting in these three ways, your athletes will earn your trust and respect making it much easier for you to put your full support and trust in them as leaders of the team.

10 Proven Strategies to Get Your Reluctant Leaders to Step Up and Lead

If you find yourself with some leaders who are able but still reluctant to lead, our Championship Coaches Network members can click here to discover ten practical steps you can take to build their confidence and empower them to be the responsible and respected leaders you need to succeed.


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