Right now, arguably more than at any other time past, we need good leadership. It’s a tad ironic that this is happening when the world is awash with advice about how to lead—or so it seems. The truth is, much of that advice isn’t valid, in the sense that it’s either commentary (rather than thoughtful proven insight) or worse, it’s past century advice that no longer fits the times and the challenges. That puts a mighty weight on the kind of counsel that says good leadership is just “5 Must Do Things,” or that the magic beans result of a good leadership quote is all you need.
As a leader, what should you do? You might think you need to turn to a coach for a good answer. What you need even more is to work on becoming a good coach yourself.
The Real Job of The Leader: Cultivate A Culture of Leadership
Though we often assume otherwise, the job of the leader isn’t to be the solo, gun slinging hero who single handedly saves the day. Their real job is to build a culture of leadership, an environment that enables every single person in the organization to step up and lead in their own way. And that means being a good coach. But how and in what way? While perhaps unexpected, it turns out that what it means to be a good youth soccer coach offers valuable, proven answers—no matter what your field of play.
Years ago, I took a series of coaching courses from a wise old prophet of the pitch, a man named Len Oliver. I’ve been amazed by how often Len’s lessons come back to me, no longer in the role of soccer coach, but in my work with organizations. Chief among them is the lesson that if you think your job as the coach or leader is doing it all, knowing it all, and telling all, you’re missing more than the boat – you’re missing the opportunity to raise all boats. While Len’s insights were many, 4 in particular hold the keys to changing your view and to making leadership cultural.
Lessons from The Pitch in Cultivating A Culture Of Leadership
- “No Lines, No Laps, No Lectures.” The lesson is precisely what it appears, a reminder that all those things we assume to represent good leadership, are often just the opposite. Len used to say that in soccer there were really just three states of play—you have the ball, you’re trying to get the ball, and, the dominant state: you’re in some sort of transition. Sure, you can and should teach everyone the basics. But most of soccer, indeed most of work and life these days is about being in the zone of transition, which also happens to be a zone of uncertainty. In that zone, no plan, no punishment, and no talking to is likely to do much good. Once you dump “the 3 Ls,” what should you do instead? Read on.
- Learning by Actually Doing. “Bottom line, Len used to say, “the game is the teacher.” As a player, a leader, heck as a person, you really only ever learn by engaging in real world scenarios and doing. On their own the fundamentals only go so far. In the ever-present transition zones, success boils down to knowing how to improvise with what you’ve learned. The hard truth for leaders, as Len taught, is that players solve, not coaches. If players are never allowed to truly play however, they can’t be expected to solve. As the leader, you might fear that while learning performance is at risk. The greater risk is a bunch of followers who never learning to solve on their own.
- Layering the Lesson. Removing the lines and lectures and learning by doing takes practice. Central to the way Len taught us to design a practice was the idea of layering the lesson. Whatever the lesson of the day was, Len would first teach its basics using players in pairs. It was a chance for everyone to concentrate on the new skill without distraction. The practice would then build to small-sided games, accomplishing two important things: it expanded the challenge, from two players to four-on-four; but it also turned the lesson into a game, something fun and something that required improvisation. Near the very end of a practice, the players would scrimmage as a full team—transitioning the lesson into the context of real play, but importantly, also dropping all reference to the new skill taught that day. Len wanted every player to know that any skill was simply one arrow in their quiver, and theirs to choose when to pull.
- The Joy of The Game = The Best Path To A Win. Even for little kids, learning a new skill, competition, and life can be stressful. The source of much of that stress, Len used to say, came from equating success with a win. Do coaches and players want to win? That’s rhetorical. But true wins, lasting wins are the result of a gradual accumulation of teaching, learning, leading, and playing. Such sense of purpose and commitment is both tiring and elusive without the fun. Len knew all that. So, he ended every practice with play, something purely for fun that on the surface appeared to have little to do with soccer, and yet he knew was vital. The game “What time is it?” was a perennial favorite. Here’s how it went…
Picture 25 kids standing on the end line of the field (not in line, but on it), each with a ball at their feet. Len says nothing about the ball, just tells the kids, “Follow me as I move toward the other side of the field. When you want to, ask me what time it is.” And off he goes.
Ten feet out, some kid always tests him. “What time is it?” she calls. Len stops, turns to face them, and answers, “It’s 10:30.” Down the field they go – they call, he stops and answers … 12:15… 2:27… 3:01 until he’s almost at the other end. The next time they ask, Len doesn’t give a time. Instead, he bugs out his eyes, puts his hands in a claw shape and growls, “It’s dinner time! And I’m gonna eat you up!” 25 newbie players scream, turn, and go racing back to the start. Every single one of them has their ball at their feet – dribbling like Pele or Mia Hamm, all the way back, never having been told to do so. Every. Single. One. Each taking the lead in his or her own way. There’s a lesson in that…
A version of this article originally appeared in the author’s Innovator’s Edge column for Inc. Magazine.