Empowering Those We Lead

“The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” -Alfie Kohn

One of the big themes in my writing and podcasts is the importance of empowering those we lead. We must empower them to be leaders and to take ownership of the team. We should always ask ourselves: Are we educating them, encouraging them, and advocating for them to build the team they want to play for?

However, this does not mean we must surrender our power, our choices, and our responsibility to maintain high standards. We need to realize what is within our control and what is not. What choices and decisions are our responsibility as the leader of the team?

Our Choices

Let’s think for a second. You have two players: John and Patrick. John is the least talented of 15 players trying out for your program, but he is the most grateful, hardworking, and respectful person on the team. Patrick is the most talented person in your program, but he is the most ungrateful, lazy, and disrespectful person on the team.

Who makes the team? Who plays for you?

We do not have control over their effort or attitude, but we do have control over who we allow on our team, who plays in the game, and who has the opportunity to practice. We always have a choice in those areas. We may not like the immediate results or consequences of failing to play our most talented player, or cutting a talented player with a bad attitude. But we still have a choice. Just like we must decide on our core values, we must decide on our non-negotiables. We need some standards.

We need to ask ourselves: Who we are we willing to coach? Who are we not willing to coach?

Years ago, I had a hard choice to make. My most talented and athletic senior had been the source of much conflict over the last few years. Undeniably, this individual had one of the worst attitudes, and was incredibly cancerous to the culture of the program. Still, as a coach, I was tempted for many reasons to let this player back on the team. Not only was he talented, but he was a rising senior who had played for me the last two seasons. I didn’t want to upset him or others.

The hard part was that I knew that the conflict I experienced with this player was partially due to my coaching. I knew that a stronger, more transformational coach might have been able to help this individual and build a positive relationship.

I thought: Maybe I can turn it around this season?

After much deliberation and consideration, I let this player know that I thought it was in his best interest, and the best interest of the team, for him to focus on his academics and the upcoming football season.

As hard as that decision was, I am still proud of the way I communicated it to that young man. I had made the decision that I was unwilling, and even incapable of coaching him, but I communicated it to him in a way that still showed him respect.

HOW we do something is more important than WHAT we do.

WHAT rules and non-negotiables we set are less important than HOW we enforce them.

John Wooden’s Rules

  1. Be on time

  2. Be neat and clean

  3. No profanity

  4. Never criticize a teammate

Wooden says that when he started out in coaching, he had a lot of rules and few suggestions. Over time, he had fewer rules and more suggestions, and therefore, he became better and better as a coach!

People get really hung up on the idea of his few rules, and what rules he picked. I think what is more important is that he 1) stuck to these rules and 2) enforced these rules out of love, not fear.

An example of this is the story of when former UCLA player Bill Walton showed up to the bus for the game against their rivals (USC) not looking “neat and clean”. Bill was the best player in college at the time, and arguably one of the best college players of all time. Coach Wooden calmly let Bill know that he would not be traveling with the team, as he looked “unkempt”. Bill had to rush off to clean himself up and then catch a ride to the game!

The most powerful part of this story has nothing to do with what the rule was, or why Wooden believed it was important, it is how he enforced the rule! He did it from a place of love, not fear or control.

“Success is more likely when love is present in your heart for the people who make your organization a real team, that is, a family. A leader who tries to lead without love will turn around one day and find there is nobody following.” – John Wooden

So, who are we willing to coach?

I do not think that there is a clear right or wrong choice. But we do need to have non-negotiables. We need to have rules that we do hold them accountable to. And the consequences for breaking those rules needs to be a loss of privilege and opportunity: removal from a game, practice, or even the team.

A lack of ability requires more time and energy to develop a player’s skills. A lack of character requires a lot more time, energy, and love to help them grow. Remember, we get what we tolerate, and as my friend Jamie Gilbert says, “Our choice creates our challenge.”

So, we must be willing to work through the challenges if we choose someone who challenges us. Working through those challenges requires us to maintain our standards while still operating with love. And that is not easy. But ultimately, it is worth it.

-J.P. Nerbun

Get Practical Tools to Build Your Culture

✓ Calling Up Culture and Leadership Guide (PDF)

✓ 5 Ways Any Leader Can Improve Their Culture (PDF)

✓ Culture Transformation Kit (PDF)

✓ Weekly Newsletter with Articles + Podcast Notes

Thank you for requesting access to your practical tools to build your culture. They will arrive in your inbox shortly.