The definition of leadership seems to be so broad in popular literature, educational settings and “coachspeak” that I often wonder if the word has lost its power. After all, if leadership stands for everything then it really stands for nothing.

In my time coaching, I have tried to dumb the word down to its “Webster” form. “Leaders are people who teammates follow. It’s simple enough to understand and, at its core, I think it is the most important part of leadership. When my students and athletes claim themselves a good leader, I enjoy asking the rejoinder : Are people following you? If nobody is following, then you are not a leader.

So the real question becomes: ‘What must our athletes do to be followed?” My opinion changed so many times and so drastically until I read a book called “The Captain Class” by Sam Walker. In the book, Walker explains the research methodology he used to find the 16 greatest sports organizations of all time. He then explains how his research brought him straight to a conclusion he never expected (nor wanted); He claims that the greatest teams share one major quality: A captain who checks the boxes on 8 key characteristics and that the unprecedented success of each team followed (almost perfectly) the career of that individual as the captain. The research is compelling, but, more importantly, the characteristics shed light into what people are drawn to follow.

For years I saw leaders in the form of GI Joe – physically superior, standing at the front, confrontational and vocal. As a result, I twisted every captain who I ever had into the military image I had in my head. But the captain Walker highlights looks nothing like this figure – Walker’s research points to a man or woman who is an introvert off the field, who plays with uncontainable passion on the field and would give up every extrinsic reward for the betterment of him or her teammates; Bill Russell, Carly Overbeck, and Jack Lambert, to name a few.

This changed my opinion on what it meant to develop a leader. For one, I moved from seeing leadership as far less nature and far more nurture. But also, I began to realize that all teammates respect two things: someone who deeply cares about them and deeply cares about the game. Perhaps the more important question is not so much, “what does a leader look like?” but “does he/she earn respect?”

Ego is the big hurdle to overcome for any leadership development. How we teach our young athletes the value of selflessness and care for one another is the greatest thing we can do to build leadership. Today, I see leadership as a young man or woman saying to their teammates: “I know who you are, I think I can help you, and I am willing to sacrifice to do it”. This is the universal language of a person who gets followed.

Until next time!

– Ryan Klipstein