One thing that gets lost in a lot of discussions about leadership approach: leadership is highly contextual. The situation you are in matters. You can read a lot of books and study leadership to develop the best approach that fits you, but you then have to make it work for your organization. Your leadership approach is not about you – it is about the people in your command.
I learned this through experience in my two head coaching jobs. When I took over at Rhode Island College, I took over a very talented team that was starting to have success, but had never really taken the next step to win championships. I also took over a group that had been through a lot together – I was their third coach in three years, and the core of the team had been together for at least two seasons. I also had a very talented freshmen class. That team was on the cusp of winning, and we just needed to come together with the right approach. I was a new head coach, so I learned a ton about leadership from that group. You can read all about it here.
At Maine I took over a team that had been beaten down by losing. The program had no recent success, very limited talent, and no real culture that everyone believed in. It was essentially starting from scratch. Everyone in the program expected to lose, to the point where they were used to it and numb to it. Everyone around the program expected us to lose as well. The talent wasn’t good, the approach wasn’t good – there was really nothing to build around, except a new beginning.
At RIC I was able to challenge our guys with expectations and follow that up with a demanding approach and a high level of accountability. At Maine, I had to learn to coach with empathy. The guys at RIC were eager to attack a new approach because they knew they had the talent to win and win big. I likened the Maine program when I got there to a dog that had been beaten. He would come close to you and wanted to trust you, but once you reached out your hand to give him some food, he’d back away scared for fear of getting hit. Losing had beaten the Maine program down to where I couldn’t just hit the ground running.
Of course I had to build trust at both places – any new leader does. But going about how I did that was very different. At RIC I could use basketball and our approach to build trust, because our guys were ready for that. This is how hard we are going to compete, this is what I expect out of you – and when they started to see it in action and saw I was consistent, the buy-in started to come. At Maine I couldn’t build trust on the court until I built it off the court. I had to spend much more time getting to know my players away from the gym, because the gym wasn’t generally a positive experience for them. One of the mistakes I made at Maine was thinking I could get them bought in to what we were going to do on the basketball court, similar to what we did at RIC. But that group wasn’t ready to buy in to that. We had to get to the same place mentally before we could start that process.
It’s a great challenge for a leader to take over a new organization and figure out the best approach. You have to understand your team and the environment first. So much of the situation has an impact on what will work and what won’t – the people, the organization around you, the expectations, finding alignment with the school. While you have to stay true to who you are, if you aren’t adapting your leadership approach to your new situation, you likely won’t get the right response.
There are thousands of different leadership books and I enjoy reading a lot of them. It’s interesting to me that such an important topic can have so many different paths to success. Don’t look for an approach that you can adopt and try to simulate in your current position. Find what resonates for you, what will fit with your current organization, and make it your own. If your approach doesn’t fit your situation, and your team doesn’t see it as authentic, it doesn’t matter how much success it led to elsewhere. It won’t work for you.
Building a culture at RIC vs. taking over at Maine