Our 2008-09 team at Rhode Island College is certainly one of the best teams I’ve ever coached. Heading into the post-season that year we felt like we were legitimately good enough to win the national championship (our OT loss to MIT in the first round of the NCAA Tournament might be the most difficult loss I’ve had as a head coach). We were talented, deep and experienced.
That team was led by four seniors – Bobby Bailey, Cam Stewart, Tirrell Hill, and Kaseem Johnson. Stewart, Hill and Johnson were freshmen in my first year at RIC, and Bailey joined them as sophomore the following year. All of them were significant contributors to our Elite Eight team in 2007, and all will likely end up in the RIC Athletics Hall of Fame before it’s said and done.
Bobby Bailey was the Little East Player of the Year in 2009 as a senior. He was a big-time athlete with guard skills who played the wing for us and could guard any position on the other team. He usually drew our opponents best player.
Cam Stewart was a tough, athletic scoring guard who put up 950 points in his college career (an expected run in the NCAA Tournament would have gotten him over the 1,000 point mark). A natural playmaker, Cam was a great shooter with terrific feel for the game who usually came off the bench for us but found himself on the floor in the last five minutes.
Kaseem Johnson was a strong, physical power forward who was a big-time rebounder on both ends of the floor. He could score in the post and finish at the rim, and brought a ton of energy and toughness to our team every day. He was an all-league player who was also very smart and tough defensively.
Tirrell Hill was a scorer who could play the point or scoring guard spot. He was a first-team all league player who scored 1,000 points and brought a competitive edge to everything he did. He loved basketball and loved being in the gym.
We were blessed to have elite talent for our level, as all four of those guys were good enough to play at the scholarship level. They also taught me a lot about leadership.
As I gained experience as a head coach I started to look closely at the traditional leadership model – not only the structure (top-down) but also the definition. That team, with those four seniors, helped me think about leadership in a different way.
None of those four seniors, all of whom were great players, fit the traditional model of what a leader sounded like or looked like.
Bobby was the most talented of the group, but he was quiet by nature. He didn’t have a take-charge personality, but cared deeply about his teammates and went about his business the right way.
Cam was also generally quiet, although he was fully invested in the team dynamic. He was more of the type to take control behind the scenes, to decide the team needed a day off in the pre-season when they had been going really hard for a few weeks in a row.
Kaseem was probably the one most willing to step up and speak up, but he had struggled with being inconsistent with is approach early in his career. It took him a while to understand how hard he needed to compete every day, and how to be reliable at times off the court.
Tirrell brought it every day and loved his teammates, but was more inward-focused. Not a selfish player, but he was certainly driven and hungry. He wasn’t as curious about the mentality of his teammates as others. He showed up, played his ass off, and produced. He expected the same out of everyone else.
That group didn’t have your traditional leader. There wasn’t one or two guys that would take charge, speak up and make sure the guys were ready to go. None of them had the consistent vocal presence you would expect out of a traditional leader. They all made us better, were big-time producers and were great teammates. But none of them really had the personality of a traditional leader.
I learned two really important leadership lessons from that group: 1) They all actually were leading, in their own way, to make our team better. 2) It was my responsibility to fill the traditional leadership void and meet the needs of my team – not the other way around.
I’m always struck by conversations I have with coaches who have bad years and claim a “lack of leadership” on their team. I’ve vowed to never say that as a head coach. My job is to provide the leadership my team needs, and every team is different. Some years I may have to work extremely hard to provide leadership, and other years I might not need to do much at all. It depends on the leadership strengths and weaknesses of the team. But as a coach I’ll never use a lack of leadership as an excuse.
A mistake leaders often make is that they expect their team to meet their own needs as a leader, as opposed to the other way around. We try and get the leadership we want to see out of our players, as opposed to getting the most out of them by allowing them to lead to their personality. If your team doesn’t have that vocal, energetic leader to get them going every day, then you have to do it. Trying to create that leader within your team when you don’t have that personality can prove futile.
I was very fortunate with that 2009 team to have a sophomore point guard – Antone Gray – who is one of the best natural leaders I have ever been around. He’s the best leader I’ve ever coached. So I learned rather than trying to pull traditional leadership out of my seniors, I was better off letting them be themselves and empowering Antone to be a more traditional, vocal leader. I didn’t try and force something on my seniors that made them uncomfortable, and in turn they were able to be themselves. This allowed them to appreciate and accept the leadership style of a sophomore point guard.
This is when I really started thinking about our definition of leadership. We came to define it as “making the people around you better,” and that was it. Everyone on the team could do that in their own way, and it was required of everyone. So Tirrell Hill could lead by being a great competitor every day and setting the tone on the practice floor. Cam Stewart could lead through intentional conversations and decisions made behind the scenes. Bobby led with his humility and selfless approach. Kaseem was a fierce competitor, unafraid of any challenge and always willing to speak up when it was necessary.
We had a great team that year, easily one of the best I’ve ever coached. Understanding their personalities and thinking about the best way to get the most out of them made me think about my definition and approach to leadership. Those four seniors were great leaders for us, yet if you watched practice one day you might not see traditional leadership out of any of them. They weren’t loud or confrontational with one another, so when the team needed that it came from me. I didn’t ask them to fill a leadership void to meet my expectations. I provided them with the necessary leadership the team was missing.
Forcing your team to adjust to your leadership style won’t get you very far. Don’t be stubborn about your expectations. Providing them with the leadership they need is your job. Understanding the difference, and figuring out what your team needs, is essential to any sustained success.