Leadership is not always comfortable. In fact, it rarely is for the majority of the group. Leadership is not great chemistry and everyone enjoying each other’s company. When things are going well and everyone is happy, impactful leadership generally isn’t necessary. Great leadership involves confronting bad behavior, and often leaves those in charge out on their own. Leadership can be very lonely. Great leaders have to be comfortable being alone.
One of my first lessons in leadership as a head coach came in my first year at Rhode Island College. It was maybe a week or two after I had taken the job, and I was still getting to know my players. I would often see them in the recreation center where my office was in the afternoon as they were gathering to play pick-up, and I’d get a chance to talk with them before they played.
On this particular day I had been recruiting the day before, so I hadn’t seen them before or after their pick-up games. Our only senior (who would turn out to be my first captain) Kevin Payette came by the office before heading into the gym, and I asked him how the pick-up games yesterday had been. He said “They were crap, coach, to be honest. It was sloppy, guys weren’t competing hard, there was a lot of arguing going on. They weren’t very good.” I replied, only half-serious, “So what are we going to do about that?” Figuring I’d get a quizzical look, I was kind of surprised with what I heard. “We got up this morning at 7 AM and ran as a team, Coach. We took care of it.”
I was pretty surprised. I remember thinking “wow, we might have something here.” What type of team, especially one that came back to school in September without a coach when their coach took another job in August, gets together to run at 7 AM because their pick-up games were sloppy? That was one of my first lessons in ownership. KP and the rest of the team had taken ownership of the program in the fall when there was a coaching transition. They set their own standards for their team, and when they didn’t live up to them their were consequences. Everyone who was a part of the team or who was planning on trying out showed up to run at 7 AM that morning.
The maturity and level of ownership were really impressive. But what really struck me when I had that conversation with KP was the risk he had to take to confront the bad behavior. First of all, confrontation isn’t easy for most. Many of just just try and avoid it at all costs. But confrontation is essential to good leadership. If you want to implement change you have to confront bad behavior. And when you do, especially if you don’t have a lot of support, leadership can be very lonely. Do you think the 20+ guys who were playing that day felt some sloppy pick-up games were worth getting up at 7 AM for? I’m sure it wasn’t a popular decision in that gym, but it was the right one, and it was important. We have standards here, and if we don’t live up to them there are consequences.
The right leadership choices don’t always feel good. Leadership takes guts. You have to be willing to go against what’s popular to do what is right. In fact, many of the most important leadership decisions I have made didn’t feel very good. But I knew what I was doing was important, and I was convinced it was right.
Leadership will often lead you to confrontation, and it will be very lonely at times. You have to have the conviction in your beliefs and the mental capacity to handle the way it feels. When it comes to strong leadership, confrontation and solitude often come with the territory. Embrace it.