Lacrosse: Leadership for the World

Jun 1, 2020

Marty Margarit - Halifax Thunderbirds Ball Boy - 2020

People development works best through inspiration, not authority.  I learned that firsthand through an initial attempt at developing my eldest nephew into a lacrosse player; somewhat forcing the stick into his hand, in contrast with my youngest nephew, who just always had a stick laying around and asked to play whenever he felt like it.  This same nephew actually became our team ball boy this year with the Thunderbirds, and is now “inspired” and wants to be a lacrosse player when he grows up.  I took a new approach the second time around, which was more of a “values-based” style of leadership, enlisting the heart and mind of my youngest nephew, through inclusion and further participation.   

“When people are not awed or overwhelmed by authority, true authority is attained” - Tao Te Ching

Inspiration is how followers are created.  As a leader, it is imperative that you nurture your initial followers as equals.  New leaders will emerge as these early adopters are again followed, if the cause is righteous, and if the leaders continue to listen to their followers, building consensus surrounding their cause, ultimately a “values-based” movement will be established.  People yearn to be connected to something of substance.  They are oriented to values.

In the realm of coaching, a value is an enduring, deeply held belief that is a statement about the team identity (i.e. “honest efforts = honest results” - Terry Sanderson). What values do you stand for?  Are there gaps between these values and how you actually behave?  

You earn your war bonnet for taking a stand on values.  A virtue is not virtuous until it is tested.  Great coaches and performers have demonstrated that they hold true even under fire.  The ability to say the word “no” a hundred times for the sake of one overwhelming and fulfilling “yes,” is the essence of success in life and sports.

Leaders must have the willpower to take difficult and sometimes very lonely positions.  Leadership must be for the world.  What do you want them to remember when you are gone?  In the end, your leadership as a coach will be measured by your ability to develop better people.

People expect their leaders to speak out on matters of values and conscience.  As a coach, it’s important that you draw attention to critical values and priorities, and stand by them when challenged. You need to follow through on team rules and provide feedback and examples of expectations not being met.  When it’s needed, authority must be there, but on its own it is not enough to create the partnership required for team success; as the leader you must create these conditions.

You get what you tolerate.  Good leadership means you will spend roughly 75% of your time encouraging and 25% enforcing the rules; with veteran team members expected to be completely autonomous. As a coach, and in order for your team to become champions, the pull of inspiring values needs to replace the culturally conditioned “natural instinct” to lead by push.

Organic Leadership

Leaders are people who influence the thoughts and actions of others, inspiring them with their knowledge and passion.  In any given situation, the person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge as a leader, whether designated or not.  The best leaders try to lead along the grain of human nature rather than going against it.  They are resourceful; resilient; ambitious; professional; and possess staunch integrity.  Daily habits of successful leaders include basic gestures of kindness and integrity, such as expressions of thanks, praise, assistance and support of others.

As mentioned above, true leaders inspire through a sense of mission.  It’s a way of living; they set the bar high and they hold themselves and everyone else around them accountable to a high standard.  As the leader, you have to be what you want your followers to become.  You have to be the first to arrive and the last to leave.  You have to come with a smile on your face, ready to work hard. The leader’s own style of followership provides the model for his/her own people to imitate. The group’s vibration dominates, while the leader follows.

A leader is ultimately interested in finding the best way, not in having their own way.  As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated,  “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”  In my own leadership practice, I will often ask questions that I, and perhaps half of the group, already know the answers to, in order to mold consensus for the sake of the group.

Former US President Eisenhower takes it further in acknowledging that “a sense of humility is a quality (he) has observed in every leader whom (he) deeply admired.”  Great leaders routinely downplay their own accomplishments and admit their mistakes. They publicly accept criticism and take responsibility for the mistakes of the subordinates that they have selected, while giving them credit publicly for team triumphs.

Effective leaders do not single out individuals to the group; instead, they tactfully ensure that the guilty party knows they are being addressed.  Good leaders refuse to campaign, and they further squash efforts by others to campaign on their behalf.  True leaders are precise organizers, not flamboyant spokespersons.  They detest screaming and pounding on tables.  They understand their own limitations, as well as those of the group, yet they consistently seek ways to improve those limitations while also enhancing existing strengths.  

Leadership Credibility

While it’s important to be competent and confident, a coach must have credibility to be a truly effective leader.  Being credible is about being honest, forward-looking and inspiring, to name a few characteristics.  Leadership is wisdom to act, courage to act, and the capability to manage.  The effective leader is mentally and emotionally grown up.  Such a leader must be free of arrogance and moodiness, while also being objective and thoughtful.

Being a talented leader is more art than science and is about having an instinct for the essential.

The leader needs unswerving strength of character.  The choices will be difficult; the temptations many.   Making the right decisions will not be so much intellectual as demanding of one’s character.

As a leader, your very identity must become fluid (invisible leader).  People cannot move to high performance if they have to spend time and energy adjusting to you; you need to adjust to them. 

“The flexible are preserved and not broken.”  -Lao Tzu- 

Leadership Types

There are two types of leadership, leading by example and vocal leadership.  Leaders by example are more common, although no less noble.  The prototypical leader, however, is both. 

By definition, someone who shelters themself in private life is living a less consequential life than someone who enters the public arena.  When you enter the public arena you are subjecting your ideas and actions to the scrutiny of public appeal, and not everyone has the courage, resilience and fortitude to do so.  

Vocal leadership is calculated instruction:  sometimes your team wins because of you, sometimes your team wins in spite of you, and sometimes it’s like you are not even there.  You need to know how to say the right things at the right time, and when to back-off, knowledge which comes with experience. 

In the backdrop of athletic dressing rooms, players learn much about what is acceptable in Canadian culture, and in general, are notorious for “calling each other out” on obtuse statements or actions.   The “right way” of doing things is always subject to debate, so if you are going to stand up in the room and make a statement, you’d better have it “figured out” or your levels of respect will diminish the more you continue to speak.  This is the concrete risk of vocal leadership; what you say, how you say it and when you say it, can all be very consequential (for better or worse).  

This “risk” was amplified while in tutorial classes during my favourite course I took at York University, in Toronto, called “Cultures of Resistance in the Americas,” taught by professor Andrea Davis.  Every race and culture, both male and female were seemingly represented at the table, as we discussed issues relevant to systemic racism, generational poverty, gentrification, police brutality and others.  Participants were required to present factual evidence in support of position statements presented at the table, or essentially face being chewed up and spit out like a piece of gum.  My personal challenge was in bringing the “white male perspective” to the table with respect to the issues at hand. The resulting discussions were  some of the “realest” conversations I’ve experienced in my life, and they definitely shaped my perspective as a leader, greatly.  I effectively learned how to avoid prejudice, stick to the facts, be who I am, recognize my white privilege and also the responsibility that comes with having that kind of advantage in life.

Leadership Preparation

All high-performing organizations have key leaders and sub-leaders with deep commitment to the cause.  Senior leadership is crucial in having a confident team.   I always tell the team I’m coaching that it’s the LEADERS’ team, not mine.  If they do a good job of leading, then we will have a successful year.

All effective leaders have a deep and abiding desire for accomplishment.  A coach, by definition, is “a vehicle that takes people of value from where they are to where they need to go.”  As a developer of others, ultimately your job is to dramatically reduce the need for your services; it’s crucial to involve the performers in their own development.  Team members will ultimately gravitate toward the leaders/coaches that they feel they can relate to, and/or the ones that they are most like.

Leading is not just about motivating and giving energy, you have to maintain your professionalism – self awareness is key.  In order to help manage people, managers need to be able to manage themselves:  their relationships, their personal tendencies, their expectations, their arousal level - all of which directly impact their ability to read situations, make good decisions, communicate clearly and effectively, and react accordingly.  You must have your own act together before you can step outside yourself and lead others!

Managing the impulse to react is another big part of leading - also critical in confronting (although you don’t want to go to the opposite extreme of being too relaxed).  Great leaders are able to keep themselves under control during the heat of battle.  Your demeanour can't change in big games, as a leader you must strive for consistency. 

The leader’s outbursts should not be regular or predictable.  It is the art of being angry at the right time, to the right degree, with the right people.  It requires advanced thought; a real and focused mental plan, not an emotionally driven monologue (which has the potential to estrange you from your subordinates).  The boss’ ability to be human, aware and in control of emotion is critical.  When you cannot change external factors, you can still choose your reaction to them.  In that respect, it is imperative for a leader to be able to respectfully accept losing; which is truly a required attribute..  Leaders must know how to bring their team back from defeat, being a gentleman in both victory and defeat.  

As an effective leader, one is able to sense when the team energy level is down, and it is also up to them, to get it cranked back up again.  Whatever mood you want to portray in the important games is also the one you have to portray in the games perceived as easier.  The worst thing you can do during an “important” game is change the way you look or how you coach.

To get the most out of your team you need to understand them, and dig deep to find the primers which motivate them.  What is it that we take for granted?  What are the goals of the players?  The team?  Why do people play lacrosse?  Fun, physical activity, to win?  Don’t assume!  Profile your team and find out the little things that matter in their lives.  Efforts to gain human understanding should dominate a leader’s thinking and actions (Emotional Intelligence).  If something is a priority to the team, or a member(s) of the team (perhaps cultural recognition), and of no ill effect to the group as a whole, find ways to build it into the team environment!  

As a coach, you can’t “expect” your leaders to know how to lead, which was my biggest pitfall when I first got into full-time coaching.  We would name our leaders, give them a few words of wisdom, and expect that they had all of the required skills to manage and lead their teammates.  Sure, we had some token meetings, but I knew I wasn’t adequately preparing them because I would often find myself pointing things out reactively, instead of proactively...which is why I configured the chart below.  Now I am actually able to provide an effective reference tool that I can keep my sub-leaders (team captains) accountable to

Communicating As A Leader

Effectively communicating as a leader involves listening; delivering ideas; confrontation; being open and non-defensive; understanding non-verbal behaviour; good presentation skills and a sense of humour.  You have to believe in what you are saying and also speak as if you believe in what you are saying. When things aren’t going well, it’s not merely what a leader says, it’s also how a leader looks.   It’s not always what you say as much as how you say it!

Good leaders prefer honest, active aggression as opposed to covert, passive aggression!  Trust your gut (the first law of leadership).  Once you’ve made your move, you have to stand by your decision and live with the consequences.  All good leaders offer an opportunity to respond.

When you communicate as a leader, sit or stand up straight. Speak with conviction and emotional strength; show conviction in your belief in other people.  Dispute negative thinking with vigour as negativity takes over the individual brain first, and eventually takes over the collective consciousness of your team. 

Attentive Listening

For a leader there is no trivial comment; they know that little things make all the difference between victory and defeat.

When someone is struggling, many coaches tend to want to move quickly into problem-solving mode; listening provides you with clues to unravel the mystery.  Attentive listening involves suspending assumptions by pausing and asking questions to hear points of view.  It incorporates eye contact, tuning into body language, nodding/affirming you are listening (uh huh, okay etc.) and not interrupting.  Restating/paraphrasing the speaker’s ideas, empathizing, and asking questions for clarification, are all incorporated skills of effective listeners.

Maintaining eye contact in particular, sounds so simple, and yet can actually be very difficult.  Do not maintain maniacal eye contact during your conversations;  “soft eyes” are recommended, and different cultural norms should be expected.

The five levels of listening are:  ignoring, pretending to listen, listening selectively, attentively listening and listening with empathy.  Listening is the act of being present for another human being with the intent of truly understanding what they are saying.  There is so much more to listen to than words; you must listen to the whole person.  Often, all you have to work with when trying to help someone develop is what you see and hear.  Don’t be so focussed on the literal words, while ignoring the other clues all around you.  Resist automatically accepting what you see at face value.  Listening involves key observations of non-verbal cues; often what you are hearing does not match up with what you see and feel as you interact with the other person. Making that distinction can be critical in their development.  Active listening guides you in assessing what the next step should be for their development.

Leaders are more effective when they learn to balance the masculine and feminine sides of their nature.  A firm hand is needed as much as listening without judgment.

Concluding Thoughts

The best leaders are often the best listeners and the most open to new ideas.  Great leaders are courageous enough to abandon practices that may have been successful in the past.  The truly great leader overcomes all difficulties and views adversity as a series of battles to be overcome.

The primary key to overcoming adversity is how you choose to view or explain it (temporary, changeable).  The leader needs the capacity to meet adversity without succumbing to emotional paralysis or withdrawal, and without lashing out at colleagues or subordinates.  Exceptional leaders take an active role in situations of adversity to ensure that adversity is channeled in a developmental way.  “Leaders let you fail, and don't let you be a failure.”  They have a strong developmental bias and spend a great deal of time playing out various scenarios and imagined consequences.

Coaches are accountable for maintaining the specialness of their players, and further trying to cultivate everybody’s leadership abilities within the group.  Caring is at the heart of really good leadership (the servant-leader concept).  “Ich Dien” appears prominently on the crest of the Prince of Wales.  It says so simply “I serve.”  People want to know how much you care before they care how much you know.  The end goal of effective team leadership is to find a just balance between competing values and goals of individual team members.  

“A skilled craftsman leaves no traces” -Lao Tzu- 

Recommended Reading & Works Cited - Click Here 

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Music Suggestions:

Damian Marley - Leaders

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