When you take over as a new head coach or the leader of an organization, things are naturally different. As much as you try and prepare, there are plenty of things you are going to learn as you go.

You Are Always On

When you are the head coach people always look at you as the leader, no matter what the setting. As soon as people see you they are starting to read you – your mood, your body language, your approach. A message is being received, whether you are sending one or not.

I’ve had players tell me they would determine what kind of mood I was in based on what color pullover I wore into the gym that day. One color meant I was in a bad mood, another meant I was in a good one. Of course there was no connection in my mind whatsoever, but my kids were reading me as soon as I walked into the gym.

If you are out to dinner, you are the head coach. If you are walking down the hall, you are the head coach. When they see you working out, you are the head coach. You are the primary decision maker regarding a very important aspect of their lives – so they are always looking at you as that decision maker.

You don’t get to turn off being the leader of an organization when you are around your team. It’s something you have to be aware of and get comfortable with.

You Now Make Decisions, Not Suggestions

Being in charge requires a different level of preparation. You no longer get to make suggestions to the boss about something that might work. Now you are making decisions. That doesn’t mean you always have to have an immediate answer – that is certainly not the case. But when an answer is needed, you have to have a definitive one.

The preparation is different simply because you have to be prepared to make decisions. So you have to know what your approach is that day, what you are trying to accomplish and how you want to get the message across. You’ll certainly get some questions looking for clarification, and you want to be prepared for that.

The days of saying, “You know what, let me ask coach about that and see what he wants to do” are over. You don’t want your team to sense any doubt from you when it’s time to have an answer.

It’s 75% Mental

When I first became a head coach, I was prepared with all of the basketball stuff – our offense, our defense, special situations, practice structure, etc. I knew what I wanted the program to look like and how I was going to coach it. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much time I’d be spending on the mental side of the game.

At least 75% of all of the conversations I had with my team were about mentality, approach and mindset. They weren’t about basketball. Of course we felt like we were preparing them for the basketball but so much of that came natural to them as players. Getting the most out of them was about being mentally tough, staying focused and having the right approach.

I believe strongly that in leadership the mental side of the game is overlooked and under-coached. So much more of my time as a leader was spent on the mental side than I expected.

Solitude is Necessary

I wanted to have a great staff around me. I want others to challenge me to make me better. I want my players to have a voice. I seek out advice from mentors and colleagues I respect. I get better, and I’m more effective as a leader, when I’m learning from everyone around me.

There is a time, however, when I need to get away from all of that. I think any leader does. There is a time when you need to be alone to clear your head and get your thoughts in the right place. To really figure out what you believe, and what you think is right – especially when you have a difficult decision in front of you. Ultimately you have to be the one making the final call.

There are plenty of times where you need to get away from the noise to come up with the right approach. It’s a great challenge to find that balance as a leader.

It’s Okay To Be Wrong

Before I became a head coach I thought being in charge was about always being prepared and making the right call – letting everyone know exactly what the move was to get the job done. What I learned is that one of the most powerful things you can say as the leader is “You know what fellas, I screwed up.”

Not only is it okay to be wrong, it should be expected and it’s a sign of strength. It shows your team that you are vulnerable and willing to hold yourself accountable, and that they should do the same. It creates safety around your team, where they will also feel comfortable making a mistake. It develops trust.

The strength of your team and your culture will grow when they realize you are wiling to be honest about your mistakes. Don’t feel bad about being wrong, just be up front about it.

You Don’t Always Need An Answer

Phil Jackson often used the phrase “When in doubt, do nothing.” It’s a great mindset to have. Leadership comes with pressure, and there’s no doubt you’ll feel the pressure to have answers for your group. But no one expects you to have the right answer all of the time. Sometimes you need to take your time and process a situation before making a decision.

If you constantly try and provide an immediate answer, your team will start to lose faith. If you have to continually go back on what you said or did and change your mind, you’ll chip away at your team’s belief in your approach. They’ll actually have more respect for you if you say, “You know what, I have to think about that.” Getting to the right decision is more important than getting a quick one. Don’t give in to the pressure of leadership.

Questions Are More Effective Than Statements

I never really understood how important the skill of listening was to leadership until I became a head coach. You think you are the guy in charge, so you’ll be standing in front of the group making statements. The truth is the more questions you ask of your team, the more you learn about them and the more effective you are as a leader.

Asking your team questions not only gives you knowledge about what they are thinking, but it creates and environment where everyone feels comfortable contributing. It allows them to speak up when something isn’t right (perhaps when you aren’t around), and it gives them ownership of your culture.

I’ve asked a lot more questions as a leader than I ever thought I would, and it has made me a lot better.

Your Presence Matters

I heard former major league manager Buck Showalter say this once – “You are making a presentation every day. When you walk out of the office and into the clubhouse, you have to be prepared. The way you look, the way you speak, the message you deliver.”

Having a presence as a leader is very important. You have to be able to stand in front of a group and command their attention. If you are unprepared, you will lose them right away. Your message will not resonate, and buy-in and belief will be hard to come by.

It’s more than just knowing the game and giving them the right direction. It’s the way you come across and how you deliver the message. They buy in to you before they buy in to your message.

Context Is Key

There isn’t one approach to leadership or culture that works for everyone. Your approach has to fit your personality, but it also has to fit the culture of your organization and the players in front of you. Leadership is highly situational.

This means you have to be flexible, something I hadn’t really thought about until I became a head coach. You can have core principles that are non-negotiable and you stick with no matter what, but you have to be able to adjust to what your team needs in the moment. I learned that I would rather win than be right. If you aren’t ready to adjust or be flexible where necessary, long-term success will be hard to come by.

You’ll Learn As Much As You Teach

It’s one of the great things about being in charge. Every day your team will teach you stuff about leadership, culture and decision making. If you are open-minded and willing to listen you’ll get better as a leader every day.

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