Where does the strength of leadership come from? When most of us think about great leaders, they usually have great influencers in their lives. People that made a big impact on them – coaches, teachers, parents, mentors. It’s an interesting question to think about. If you could ask the best leaders you know where the strength of their leadership came from, how would they respond. It would probably give us a better idea of how great leaders develop.

I’m sure there is no one direct path to strong leadership. I think a mistake we often make when learning about leadership is we study the leader, and we look at the results. The best leaders are highly successful, so they’ve had great results. So that’s where we start. Tom Brady wins Super Bowls. Jack Welch turned GE into a corporate power. Phil Jackson has 11 rings. It makes sense that we want our great leaders to be successful. But results don’t require great leadership. And a lack of results doesn’t mean great leadership didn’t exist.

The best way to learn about strong leadership is not to observe the leader, but observe the response. When young coaches watch others coaching their team, I think too often they focus on the behavior of the coach. They don’t focus enough on the response. The strength of great leadership lies in the way the message is delivered and the response it gets. You see young coaches trying to emulate other coaches all the time – with their language, the level of intensity, their actions. But every coach has a different personality, and a different relationship with their players. It’s almost never the same. The approach, the deliver, the relationship, the trust – it all goes into whether or not the leadership is effective.

Do you ever wonder why Bill Belichick’s assistant coaches often struggle to find success? Obviously they’ve worked under the master, and they know what it takes. But their personality, their approach, and their relationships are different than Belichick’s. It’s not that easy.

That’s not to say that the assistants of great coaches don’t go on to have some success. It’s just to say it’s not a guarantee, nor is it as easy as it may seem. You can’t be a great leader by simply emulating a great leader.

As a player growing up playing pick-up ball all summer long in New York, and having to sit out 2 or 3 games if you lost, I tried to figure out the best way to stay on the court. I always observed how players responded to the dominant voices in the park – the guys who thought of themselves as the leaders and weren’t afraid to speak up. I always remember seeing players who weren’t as good getting anxious and upset when someone would yell at them for making a bad play. I always tried to do the opposite. It was amazing to me to see how much you could get out of a kid who wasn’t necessarily that good, but felt some confidence from his better teammates.

I understood that guys would get frustrated when they were losing, but yelling at guys they hardly knew who weren’t that good only made the situation worse. Why would you say something to a teammate that clearly makes him uncomfortable and more likely to keep making mistakes? I was trying to get to game point and figure out a way to stay on the court. I still think about pick-up games that I played in all my life to this day when I think about my leadership approach. What is going to get the best response?

Focus on the message a leader is delivering, and how the players (or workers) respond to the message. This is where athletics is such a great arena. You can see and hear the interaction as it happens, and you get an immediate response. The games (or the practices if you get to observe them) are live in front of you. So you get the natural, raw response.

I’ve always been surprised that more athletic directors, when they are hiring coaches, don’t actually go and watch the coaches coach their teams. Or ask to see some practice film, to see how they coach communicates and how the players respond. I’ve interviewed for 11 D1 head jobs and only 2 of them did the athletic director watch my teams play – once live, once in person. That always struck me as funny, because really the only way they can tell the strength of my leadership ability is through the results, what I’m presenting to them in the interview, and what they learn through third party conversations. That, to me, doesn’t compare to what you can learn by observing the direct relationship.

How is the message delivered? How do the players respond? What is the tone of practice? Is the coach getting the most out of his team? Are the players enjoying what they are doing, and how they are going about it?

Strong leadership generates the proper response. If you want to learn about leadership, observe the interactions first hand. But don’t just focus on the leader. Observe the response. That’s the best way to develop your personal leadership approach.

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