Great Leaders are Strong Mentors

We Don’t Know that We Don’t Know

Many sports leaders unwittingly build a wall between themselves and the common rank and file member of the coaching fraternity. They may wish to be influential with all stake holders, but the way they carry themselves acts to prevent it. Quite a few walk around with scales on their eyes, the scales that weigh the value of objects, to check them for an equal transaction. When each encounter becomes a transaction, their leadership is diminished. Those that are looking to make the best use of their own time, by engaging only in transactions that are win/win, or benefit them more than the other, don’t really advance the health of the body they lead. The systems they then put in place have a tit for tat, quid pro quo status quo. Then people scratch their heads and wonder at the greying of the organization.

Good Intentions

I have been recruited numerous times to serve on boards and in other leadership positions, because “It will be good for your career”. Which on the face of it seems like a worthwhile endeavor, but my experience has shown that a lot of effort goes into a developing plans that can be wasted by the next level in the organization. So, instead I save my energy for what will make a real impact.

I’m thankful for those who serve in that capacity, gaining the access they do, running the events they run, but there also seems to be a corresponding punitive measure if one does not get involved in that way. In my own case, I turned down some offers, because I had school aged children at home that needed a father’s attention. In other cases, I resigned, or did not accept the invitation because of deep systemic political problems in the organization, with some dysfunction thrown in for good measure. When I share my concerns about the problems with say election fraud, backroom deals, hidden agendas, and conflicts of interest, I generally get that glazed over look from those in charge, or a tacit ‘We will look into it’. Why is all this important?

Missing the Mark of True Leadership

When so called leaders are so preoccupied with currying political influence, then they are off the mission of developing the people in their organization. What’s really missing in sports leadership is mentorship, not the mentorship of trying to climb the ladder and gain political favor, nor the mentorship from an expert who attempts to fill the neophyte with knowledge, but a true relationship of development in that person based on listening and trust.

Various organizations offer a type of mentorship, but much of it goes begging. Why does this happen? From what I see, the main cause is a lack of full sincerity by just enough so called mentors that it seems to sully the effort. True mentors necessarily take the time to really listen to, and understand the person they are mentoring. The best mentors are not simply checking off a box on a to-do list that includes spending x number of minutes talking to a client. They instead are fully engaged and really care about the outcomes of the mentee.

Bad mentors give off an air of lording it over their pupil, as if they are the source of all knowledge, and that the student would do well to accept everything they say. The bad mentor will often say ‘yes, but…’, even when the one who wants to grow has entered into the first stage of discovery. A good mentor will fully explore the discovery with their charge, prior to helping them to think about what is the next logical progression from where they are.

Value the Challenge a Strong Upstart Can Pose

Almost a year ago, I was at a conference, speaking. I had finished my presentation and a challenging question came from the group of coaches. The tone of the questioner was one of disagreement and mildly argumentative to the point I was making about athlete centered coaching. I enjoyed the challenge, and answered as fully as I could at the moment. It was a valuable moment, because I know that when on person asks a question, many times there are others thinking along the same lines, so it presented me with an opportunity to fill in the information people really wanted. For those who didn’t think of the question, it would help them to understand how to deal with push back from others, should they want to teach what I was teaching. What happened after the talk was also interesting.

I was talking with two veteran coaches, both of whom affirmed that I had ‘taught that young coach a lesson’. The tone of which seemed to indicate that I had really showed the younger coach who knows more, I do, and that they should follow my wisdom. I shot back to these coaches saying what I expressed above, and that the younger coach had brought a lot of value to the situation with his question. There was a non-verbal look of acknowledgment, that I was correct in my assessment although we did not talk much further on the topic. This indicates part of the problem in our sports culture, where we often have a ‘you need to pay your dues’ type of attitude. Instead, what is far better is to value all points of view, realize that younger coaches can offer some incredibly valuable insights, some very pure logic and amazing innovation.

The Hidden Hand

In what can be described as a hidden hand guiding all things, this young coach then met up with Styrling in another state, and told his story of the interaction. What the young coach did not know, is that Styrling and I are great friends and business partners, and I had already told him the story. So, this young coach was amazed when Styrling said “Oh,you are THAT coach!”. As a result, both Styrling and I have struck up a friendship with this guy, and while not an official mentoring relationship, one of collegiality and mutual support. Still later, we met up with him at a major tennis conference, and continued to nurture this new found friendship. I believe this young guy was relieved to meet with me later, finding that I was not at all put off by his question, from nearly a year earlier. A few months later we spent some quality time at a major tennis tournament sharing a lot of good information, and doing a great interview telling the story of how we became friends.


In an alternate universe, this young coach would have been left out in the cold, waiting for the time when they could receive acknowledgement by paying their dues, learning to show the proper amount of respect to a superior more knowledgeable and experienced master.


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