Hard lessons in leadership

I will never forget the bus ride home from the state championship my first year coaching dance team. It was very quiet, even though the bus was full of teenagers. I closed my eyes, and thought back to every misstep I had taken that year: trying to choreograph AND coach AND design costuming AND, AND, AND attempting to do a lot of the work and claiming to be the expert on everything (my sister coached with me and was also doing a tremendous amount of work). I frantically changed choreography over and over again, trying to pull some miraculous Hail Marys, ultimately creating confusion and hesitation in my athletes. “This wasn’t supposed to be SO hard” I thought to myself. The word “coach” was just a part time role, and I thought I could rule the team by telling them what to do and ordering costumes. And yet, bossing them around wasn’t working. I didn’t have a strategy or a philosophy, and I certainly couldn’t do all that it took to be a successful team.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in my athletic director’s office, defeated, and he offered a leadership workshop with Proactive Coaching. This was the first time I connected the words leadership and coach. And in that workshop, I began to connect that the ways I talk to my team, how I strategize, and how I motivate makes a huge difference in the success of our organization. How to be a leader. This began my obsession: I read a dozen books on my next vacation that our football coach recommended, highlighted like crazy, and fell in love with the art of motivating and creating great teams.

This excitement for a do-over was met with a huge challenge: I had already lost the trust of my kids, especially the team leaders. They stayed on the team because they loved the program, but they decided that in order to look good, they had to take matters into their own hands. It all came to a head a few months after Team 2 was created.

That summer, at our annual dance camp, there was a guest speaker to talk about “team”, and I walked into a hushed conversation between the guest speaker and my athletes. They turned and looked at me guiltily: it was obvious they were talking about me. My ego came up to the surface, and I dismissed the team and asked the leaders to stay behind. This is when I learned my next lesson as a leader: if you aren’t vulnerable and honest with your team, it continues to grow the divide between leader and team. They had a LOT of valid concerns and frustrations. I was still leading from a place of fear, and they were still obviously wounded from the last year. What was so amazing was their innate desire to be successful (which is sometimes the hardest part!). I remember telling them that I also wanted the team to succeed, and that we needed to be honest with each other in order to work together. The day ended with my sitting in a hotel room with the kids, crying out of vulnerability overload, sharing our desire to work together to have a great season.

That year I worked with leaders that ended up being on the coaching staff as well as great friends. We communicated openly, worked through the five stages of development, and collaborated to ensure success. We repaired the skepticism of our community and parents by focusing on our controllables. Our seniors took ownership of the season.

From there, I expanded our team of experts: we hired personal trainers to work on their strength (TRYING to mitigate injuries, and admitting that I didn’t have a degree in physiology), found the best choreographers in the United States (admitting again that my creative brain didn’t work on the dance floor), brought in motivational speakers to motivate the team (it helps to hear it from someone else, amiright?!), and hired dance teachers and studios to work on the basics and advanced technique. Knowing that I was working with teenagers who had other priorities (school, working, family), my goal was always figure out how we work smarter not harder, so we adjusted the amount of time spent together, practice planned like crazy, and communicated with students and parents about our efforts. My role was no longer about how I create success for them, but how I provide all the tools for success, and then allow the individual and team to own it.

Ultimately, what I learned was that….

Being a Leader does not mean you should be the expert in everyone’s role, or that people want to be bossed around. In fact, if you’re a great coach/leader, you can lead in something you’re NOT an expert in (I was not a dance expert, my dancers surpassed my ability by a long shot).

Being a leader does mean that you should have a strategy about how to connect your team in a meaningful way, which will support them in their best work.

What do you envision for your team? How do you want them to work together? What is the end product?

What does it look like to have a highly effective team? How do you define that for yourself, and how does your organization define it? Do they align?

What are you not an expert in, and how do you advocate for additional support? How do you create a sense of ownership by asking for help from your leaders?

How do you work smarter, not harder? Cut the fat, encourage balance in schedules, and help people to feel like everything they do has a purpose?

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