As a coach of youth sports, a manager of several departments, branches and territories, a father of four and a self-proclaimed “leadership junkie” I’ve seen my share of good and poor leadership (and have made several great and poor decisions myself). Good leaders have good teams. Poor leaders do not retain employees or hit goals.
After studying the works of a some captains that I deem great, a few things seem to be congruent with all of them. Let’s see if you can figure out what they are.
John Wooden, Head Coach, UCLA Bruins Men’s Basketball 1945-78
Wooden was known by fans as the Wizard of Westwood, but is known in leadership ranks as the best of the best. His concise words of wisdom were not only honey-tounged and witty, but essential building blocks of leadership. See a small collection of his quotes here. His Pyramid of Success hangs on my Allée office wall and I reference it quite often (especially when the going gets tough). Print it out for your wall here.
It’s not just quips and diagrams that made Wooden great. The fact that he was able to get the absolute most out of talented, yet sometimes egotistical young basketball players was his greatest achievement. Wooden always classified himself as a teacher and preached respect and excellence. His foundation for success was hard work, enthusiasm and effective communication. Players from all around the country came to play for Wooden. He was sought out and to a certain extent, he was recruited by the kids.
Ray Kroc, Owner and CEO, McDonald’s
If you lead any kind of group or plan to at some point and have not read John C. Maxwell’s “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” grab it soon and throw some knowledge in your brain. In this book Maxwell highlights the qualities of good leadership along with some very famous examples of what to do and avoid. My favorite example in the book is that of Dick and Maurice McDonald, who were the original founders of McDonald’s Hamburgers.
The McDonald brothers were pioneers in the assembly line “fast food” industry and their original restaurant in San Bernadino, CA was a smashing success. But when it came time to franchise the restaurant and expand in 1952, it was a miserable failure. Enter Ray Kroc the milkshake vendor. Kroc saw firsthand what the McDonalds had put in motion through distributing his milkshakes, and where the McDonald brothers had failed, Kroc excelled. After working excruciatingly long hours and nearly going broke in the process, Kroc organized and developed the McDonald’s System Inc. and created a model store to base the franchises off of. Kroc took a great idea and did the dirty work. Where the McDonald brothers’ leadership stalled, unable to make it beyond the kitchen doors, Kroc’s leadership ability soared. Kroc purchased the company from the McDonald’s in 1961 and never looked back.
Kelly Patton, former North Director, Independent Dealer Division, Akzo Nobel
If I didn’t mention one of the best bosses from my personal life it would be a crime. Kelly took me under her wing when I was hired as an independent dealer sales representative for Akzo Nobel after our local company-owned paint stores were sold to a dealer. Although Kelly lived in the Cleveland, OH area and I lived in Minnesota, she took as much time as possible assisting me and showing me the ropes in a completely new endeavor. It was a baptism by fire as we called it. A new position, unlike anything the company had ever done, and it starts…..now.
I mention Kelly as a great leader because she was the one you would get emails from at three in the morning (whether that was wake up time or bed time I wasn’t sure) and she would always, and I stress always go to bat for you, answer any questions, and pull the strings to get you what you needed. Her vision of leadership was never preachy, she always praised her team to no end, and her team was consistently the leaders in sales company wide. Kelly got things done for you. Kelly’s team got results.
So, what do these leaders have in common?
Not so fast, I need to tell you a story from my own memory. (Hang with me, we’re almost there!)
Somewhere near the year 2000, I was coaching soccer for Hopkins Dynamo. It was nearing the stretch run of a successful season and most of the players were having a fabulous time. One kid was not. His name was Mitch, and he never said a word at practices or games. In the two years I coached Mitch he rarely, if ever, smiled, laughed or ran faster than a jog. At first I chalked it up to inexperience and shyness. But later I found that it was just boredom.
One evening during a game, Mitch effortlessly let a player with the ball pass him. It was painfully obvious that he no longer cared. I pulled him aside and asked him what was bugging him. He gave me the standard 14-year old answer “Nothing.” I pressed on, and the conversation went a little like this.
Me: “Mitch do you want to be here right now?”
Mitch: “Not really.”
Me: “Do you like soccer?”
Mitch: “Not really.”
Me: “What do you like, Mitch?”
Mitch: “I like wrestling I guess.”
Me: “Wrestling, that’s great! What I want you to do when I put you back on the field in a minute, is to just follow number six around. He’s been killing us all game. Then when he gets the ball, knock him over. No cheap shots or anything, but play physical, like wrestling.”
As you can probably imagine, Mitch found his soccer outlet. He was never a great soccer star, and he may not have touched the ball again for the rest of the season, but he became an integral part of our defense. He had fun and even smiled a time or two. When I think of all the victories from my 15-year coaching career, Mitch becoming a valued player sticks out in my mind the most.
If you haven’t figured it out, I’ll clue you in: Great leaders get the most out of their players, employees, teams and organizations. They have figured out a way to squeeze the most juice out of every person and opportunity. You can only get the best out of your people if they get the best out of you. If you cut corners, show up late and leave early, or hold your positional title as your reason to lead, you won’t hit those numbers and you’ll lose valuable employees (they are all free agents you know, more on that next time).
If you’re not a great leader, or it’s something you know you need to work on, get to it. Time is of the essence. A lack of great leadership means a poorly run organization, and I don’t need to tell you what happens to a poorly run organization in our current economy. There are hundreds of great books and classes on leadership, but my best advice is to pick a leadership mentor. You don’t have to call them that, but find a leader you look up to and ask them out to coffee or lunch and pick their brain. It’s amazing what that kind of conversation can do.
And for all of those great navigators out there, don’t rest on your laurels. Try to groom that next leader in your organization. Give out the advice and knowledge they crave to hear, and not just about how to sell the product or win the job, but what the daily keys to your success are.
Because I’m here to tell you, it’s pretty great to see them smile.