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Rethink Your Leadership Hierarchy


One memory I still hold from my days playing high school football is one that most high school athletes from the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s can relate to.  As a young freshman, I was sitting with other freshmen athletes at a lunch table in the loud cafeteria when we were approached by three senior football players.  To us they looked like redwood trees; they were big and scary. They proceeded to set their empty lunch trays down on our table and tell us that we were to clean up their mess as they walked out of the cafeteria.  We did. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, after all, we were freshmen and freshmen were there to do the dirty work. This mentality was echoed by our coaches who allowed the seniors to make unwritten rules like, “seniors don’t clean up the field after practice.”

Fast forward three years.  I was the imposing figure as a senior captain of a football team whose entire coaching staff had been turned over.  What I was unaware of was that the culture was about to change. Myself and two other senior football players finished our lunch, and much has been the tradition, dropped our empty trays off at the freshmen’s table telling them to clean it up.  They did. That same day when practice was done, our new head coach asked myself and a couple other seniors to stay after practice. He then told us that he had heard about this lunchroom incident earlier in the day and proceeded to have us run 100 yard sprints with updowns on his whistle.  That might have been the only time I threw up during conditioning.

What our new coach was telling us was that the freshmen were not our servants, they were our brothers.  We were not to take advantage of our position as seniors, but we were to lead with it. That was the start of a positive culture change in our high school program.

In most places and programs we see the bottom rung of the leadership hierarchy as a servant.  One who does what he or she is told and is there to follow the leaders. We have also been told since we were young that the best way to lead is “lead by example.”  The hierarchy of leadership then resembles the culture I experienced as a young student athlete. This lead to intimidation in the weight room, practice, hallways, and an unsuccessful football program.  The more I learn about leadership, the more my understanding of what it means to be a good leader changes. 

The idea of servant leadership has exploded in the last 10 years and I think that coaches are on board with the idea of promoting servant leaders.  This is not only hard to do but also is a really hard concept for young athletes to wrap their head around. Simon Sinek describes this idea of servant well in his TED Talk titled “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.”  The problem with only focusing on servant leadership is that very few will actually become true servant leaders.  Even a few servant leaders is great and will help your program tremendously. I think the downfall of this focus is the rest of your leadership hierarchy is mostly misunderstood or downright ignored.  This allows members of the team to fall out of the hierarchy and become detrimental to the team. To develop leadership in your culture you need to make it clear what all levels of leadership look like and how each level of leadership needs to be developed, like rungs of a ladder that need to be climbed one at a time.  Members in your program need to understand that if they fall underneath the bottom rung of leadership they are actually a negative leader who is detrimental to the program.

The more familiar part of the new leadership hierarchy is the top and the bottom of the diagram.  Your student athletes need to understand that the old adage of “leading by example” is not the pinnacle of leadership but the baseline of being a student athlete.  Leading by example means you work hard and do the right thing all the time. This is what every student athlete should be doing all day every day. Simply being a student athletes means that you adhere to a higher standard of conduct.  This “leading by example” doesn’t help anyone else but the individual that is doing the “leading by example.” It does not help anyone else on the team. We love these kids and they are good teammates, but they are not great leaders.  

The top of our new leadership hierarchy is now a servant.  One who is a true servant is someone who does not simply “do what they are told” but are willing to sacrifice their own time and energy to assist others and to make the lives of others better and easier.  This helps everyone around them and is the hardest thing to do in the new hierarchy of leadership. A servant leader is one who will show that lowly freshman that doesn’t play much that he cares about him and is there to help him and make his experience better and easier.  It could mean that he asks an underclassman if he needs a ride to practice or that he helps him in the weightroom. 

The key to the new hierarchy of leadership is that the best leaders are the ones who are willing to sacrifice their time, energy and resources to lift others and make it easier for the ones who come behind them.  This form of leadership benefits everyone and the team achieves more. “Servant Leaders” go out of their way to show that they care about everyone, including the freshmen. In this model the seniors clean up the field.  Simon Sinek would compare this top form of leadership to a parent caring for their children. There are rungs in between this “servant leader” and the bottom. These can change based on your values and beliefs. The bottom of the leadership hierarchy remains as the “lead by example” mentality.  This is good, but only benefits the individual. Anyone who falls below “lead by example” is a detriment to your team. These individuals need to be shown that the team cares about them and wants them on board with the team. Unfortunately, if an individual cannot and will not aspire to “lead by example” then sometimes they are just not cut out to live the life of a student athlete.  It’s time to flip the leadership hierarchy and start developing successful student athletes.