Effective leadership is something all teams and organizations strive to secure, but are we all in agreement when it comes to defining leadership and what it does (and doesn’t) entail? To what extent does successful leadership impact a team in positive ways, and what is the damage poor leadership causes for an otherwise talented team? Why do we sometimes give too much credit to a charismatic leader, and not enough credit to leaders with more subdued personalities? And when it comes to the psychology of leadership, how much of team success is due to the leader, the players, or just plain luck?
As you might imagine, while there are many different psychology definitions when it comes to leadership, most tend to center around the ability to influence others to work together and pursue a common goal. How leaders lead their teams varies greatly, with some leaders more authoritarian, and others more democratic. The means in which leaders build relationships, create rules, and dole out consequences also varies from leader to leader, creating yet another layer to examine when it comes to the impact leaders have on team outcomes.
One important understanding about successful leadership is that leadership is an active process focused on getting people to join in the mission, not just obediently follow along. What this means is that leaders must work hard on a daily basis to engage, empower, support, and reinforce team members, not simply scare team members into doing the job. Successful leaders build rapport and cultivate intrinsic motivation within each team member, often leading to identity development and team pride.
It is also important to note that successful leadership involves many factors, including some that are not always under the leader’s control. Some of these challenges include the specific task(s), the health of the team, the support of the school/community, previous history, and even luck. How a leader navigates these realities is largely based on his or her own mental health, optimism, and resiliency, along with the strength of his or her interpersonal skills and getting team members to adopt similar, healthy views of what it takes to be successful. Leadership, therefore, is an active dynamic process that involves many variables and unique human relationships, and not a cookie-cutter template that can be generically applied to all team situations.
Tips to help strengthen leadership
Regardless of whether you coach pro, college, high school, or youth sports, there are a few important aspects of effective leadership that can be used to increase team chemistry and maximize team productivity:
- “Players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This quote is a great reminder that players first and foremost want to be appreciated as people, not athletes. When you take time out to get to know your players by asking about school, their interests, and goals they have beyond sports, only then will you begin to truly understand what makes them go — from there it’s a lot easier to get them to buy-in to what you are asking of them as a leader of the team.
- Use team meetings strategically. Use team meetings as you would add a few hot peppers to a pot of chili (in other words, sparingly!). Leaders who over-rely on team meetings run the risk of the team not feeling trusted that they can get the job done and can offset progress that would otherwise be made.
- Be aware of the dangers of groupthink. Groupthink is defined as the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility. Put in different terms, groupthink occurs when a leader has such a strong presence that team members fear speaking up with different ideas, and consequently don’t speak up at all. Leaders often read team silence as a sign everything is great, when in reality if players felt more comfortable they might actually offer up important, constructive ideas for helping the team.
- Use positive reinforcement regularly. Everyone loves genuine positive reinforcement, so make it a point to find the good things your players do and support their efforts through hearty praise. Positive reinforcement can lead to increased self-confidence, stronger motivation, and greater resiliency — all qualities regularly found in peak performers.
- Use active listening. When you invite your players to talk (and you should as often as you can), be sure to remain quiet and listen to what they have to offer in terms of improving the team. Clarify what you do not understand, and summarize back to them what you think you are hearing them suggest. Listening to players builds great rapport, leading to stronger and more efficient team dynamics.
Leadership is more than just shouting out commands to the team and expecting them to run through walls for you. Today’s successful leaders rely on interpersonal communications skills that are built on trust, honesty, and respect, and leaders who follow this approach generally see their teams outperform what others think they are capable of achieving. The tips provided in this column may seem basic — and arguably they are — but they can also provide for a great return on investment if you apply them with genuineness and sincerity.