The message they receive is more important than the message you send. You may think you are being direct and clear, but if what they are hearing is different than what you are trying to say, it’s on you. Your job as a leader is not to make sure you send the right message, it’s to make sure they hear it.

I first learned that lesson in my second year as a head coach. I didn’t think our team was tough enough, and I was trying to set a different tone in practice when we came back after Christmas break. I thought I was clear about the message I was sending, but it wasn’t the same message they were receiving.

This is from my book “Entitled To Nothing.”

Keep Listening

That January provided another great lesson in leadership for me, a reminder of the importance of listening.

As promised, when we came back to practice, I set a different tone. Practice was more intense. I was relentless with every toughness play and I had no let up. Our guys were coming back from a long break, so it was a little shocking for them. And I was fine with that. We needed to get tougher.

The problem was the extended break, combined with the new tone I was trying to set, led to some miserable practices. We were awful. The guys were out of playing shape after too many days off, and I kept driving them harder. I didn’t have a lot of patience or let up, because I knew we had to be tougher. The combination didn’t work, and for two days of practice everyone was miserable. I was convinced, however, that the new tone was something they needed to get used to.

After that second miserable practice, after the guys had gone home, I got a phone call in the office from Kinsey Durgin. Kinsey was unquestionably a team leader and also one of the best players in the league. His phone call turned out to be a very important conversa‐ tion in my development as a head coach.

Kinsey started out by telling me how much he loved playing for me, and how everyone on the team felt the same way. He said the entire team was bought in to what we were doing, but for the last two days they noticed a different tone, and everyone was miserable.

“We all love playing for you. But the last two days haven’t been the same. We feel like you are giving up on us, and you don’t believe in us. We’ve had coaches give up on us before, and guys are afraid that is happening again. So, please don’t give up on us.”

I was taken aback. Kinsey and I had a great relationship, and the conversation was very cordial. But at first, I wasn’t very comfortable. One of my players was basically calling me out as a coach and giving me constructive criticism. My first reaction was to defend myself. I was the head coach, right? Players don’t tell the coach what to do. I was a little tense. Fortunately, I didn’t get defensive.

We talked about why I was setting a different tone, because I didn’t think we were tough enough. He agreed that we needed to get tougher, but he didn’t think the guys were bought in to how we were going about it. The tougher tone was making everybody unhappy, and the tone was very negative. More importantly some of the guys were starting to turn on me and give up on the team. My approach was making us worse, not better.

I wasn’t sure how to react. We had a good conversation, but I defi‐ nitely felt like as the head coach my players shouldn’t be telling me what to do. My ego was definitely bruised. I needed to figure out what to do. Luckily, I didn’t respond in any way right on the phone, probably out of shock. Phil Jackson says, “When in doubt, do noth‐ ing,” and luckily, I followed that advice. Because I didn’t know what to do.

The next day I spoke to the team about the conversation I had with Kinsey. I thanked him for calling me to talk, and I apologized for the tone that I had set in the first two practices after the break. I made it very clear that I would never give up on them. I again explained what I was doing and why I was doing it. I reiterated the point that we needed to get tougher to win the league, and the players agreed. I asked them how we were going to get there.

We came to an understanding that they would hold each other accountable for all of the toughness plays on a daily basis. I would make sure I pointed them out and coached them on it, but they would have to take responsibility. They needed to correct the behavior and make sure it was unacceptable. In return, I would make sure the tone stayed positive. I’d still coach them and hold them accountable, but I wouldn’t get negative about it. They were going to take even more ownership. I had to give them the room.

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it at first. I was glad we had the conversation, and it felt good to have my team back. The guys were much better in practice moving forward and competed at a high level. The atmosphere was positive and fun. But I still wasn’t entirely sure that we’d be able to get tougher. I’d point out the soft plays in practice and I’d say “How are we going to change the behavior guys? How do you want to do it?” I tried not to yell or get too negative, and the point was more “you told me you were going to correct it, so what are we going to do about it?” It was risky as a coach, because I still didn’t think we were tough enough. But it felt good to get my team back. And little did I know we were creating more trust and ownership.

The Lesson They Receive

One other important leadership lesson I reinforced that week was that the message you deliver isn’t nearly as important as the message your team receives. I had explained clearly to our group what we were going to do that January, and they were on board with it. I gave them the why. But when I got to executing the plan, the message they were receiving was very different from the one I was trying to deliver. I thought I was showing them we needed to be tougher. They thought I no longer believed in them, that I was giving up on them.

It didn’t matter what message I thought I was delivering because it wasn’t getting across that way. What really matters is the message they are receiving, no matter what you think you are saying to them. That responsibility falls not on your team, but on you as the leader.