Earned Leadership: A Model for Adolescent Leadership Development


By George Block, Alamo Area Aquatics, former ASCA President

At the 1997 ASCA Awards Coach Tim Welsh (Men’s Coach, University of Notre Dame) challenged the coaches of America to learn as much as we could about leadership in the coming year and return a year later ready to share the collective information we had acquired. The coaching staff of Alamo Area Aquatics took him seriously.

Coach Bill Thomas (now with Titan Aquatics) did an incredibly thorough review of the literature. Coach Thomas read or reviewed theory and research from Education, Business, Psychology and the Military. Many of his adaptations of these works appeared in American Swimming.

Based on Coach Thomas’ research and his own military career, Coach Todd Erickson developed a four-stage approach to leadership development in high-school-aged swimmers. Coach Erickson is a retired Air Force Lt. Col. with extensive leadership development experience, training recruits and officers only slightly older than high school swimmers.

Stage One was a once-a-week, classroom-style introduction to the theory and practice of personal leadership for all of our freshmen and anyone new to our program. Stage Two was a Team Captains’ Seminar for all formal and informal team leaders. Stage Three was a Team Day, comprised of team building, competitive activities, where the winner would be the team that could work together the best. Stage Four was a Community Service Activity.

In the first year of Stage One, every athlete in our program was exposed to the formal, academic information and theory on leadership. Coach Erickson personally developed this phase of the program. After the first year, Coach Erickson has targeted freshmen and “new” swimmers.

Stage Two, the Team Captains’ Seminar, focused on the formal role of the Team Captain throughout the year, specific duties during Team Day Activities, and an extensive problem-solving session. The problem solving session was the highlight of the day. Team Captains and informal leaders from both high school and club settings were mixed into groups chaired by a coach other than their own.

The role of the coach was merely to moderate the meeting, make sure everyone was able to participate, keep the discussions largely on-task and take detailed notes of their group’s solutions and recommendations. Each group was given a different, real problem that was affecting swimming at some level in their environment. Problems ranged from integrating swimming and high school water polo to facility problems. A commitment was made in advance that as many of their “solutions” would be implemented as possible.

Stage Three was collaboratively developed by Coaches Kurt Swanson, Steve Gordon and Jack Alexander. Coach Alexander is an Elementary Physical Education teacher in his non-swimming life and contributed a number of Elementary PE games and Team Building activities. Coach Gordon has worked for a number of years in the Boys’ and Girls’ Club system and currently works in a school for emotionally disturbed middle school students.

Both of these work situations have exposed him to many collaborative and cooperative games and activities that he contributed to the mix.

Coach Swanson designed Stage Three to reward captains that could lead and teams that could follow, work together and cooperate.

The Final Stage, Community Service, was designed by Coach Erickson to both teach that real leadership is for a cause greater than oneself and to raise the profile of each team within their community by earning positive public relations through their project.

Both club and high school coaches met together during the 1997, ‘98 and ‘99 seasons to review the progress, discuss problems and refine the stages of the Leadership project each year. Depressingly, the senior class of 1999 produced the weakest senior leadership in well over a decade. After three years of highly organized effort, there seemed to be nothing to show for the commitment of the coaches to this project.

Interestingly, when reviewed as individuals, there seemed to be at least one key component missing from each member of the senior class who was not able to contribute senior leadership to their team. It seemed that failure to attain leadership status was also a failure to have completed a developmental task in the leadership development continuum.

Thomas Ricks’ book, The Making of the Corps, was the leadership development model our coaches wanted to follow, but all bemoaned their inability to be as tough as drill instructors or weed out those unsuitable to be either high-level swimmers, leaders, or both.

In spite of the predominance of military backgrounds on our coaching staff, we all confused methods with results. We worried about not having the “hammer” that Marine DIs have (or perhaps the entire toolbox), while ignoring the commonality of our desired outcomes.

The same outcomes that are desired – and attained – by the Marine Drill Instructors are those that will successfully develop leadership in high school, club and collegiate swimmers and teams. These outcomes fit neatly into our four-year educational cycle and provide both objectives and markers.

The four-phases of adolescent leadership development are:

  • Operations
  • Cooperation
  • Leading by Example
  • Leading by Voice.

An article by South Bend Tribune sports writer, Al Lesar, pointed out those phases in a real-life example of a back-up running back at the University of Notre Dame.

Watching Autry Denson run wild last season taught Tony Fisher all he needed to know about playing football at Notre Dame…

When Driver was a freshman, he was the guy who rarely played…

“My little experience last year will help me out this year,” Fisher said. “I’ll know what to expect…(operations)

That learning process may be paying dividends already…Fisher has been impressive enough to have seen a good deal of playing time…

…”Four of us tailbacks are battling for the same position. Really, I don’t think it’s all about who’s starting. I think it’s more a matter of who is adjusting the best. We’re trying to help each other through the ups and downs. (cooperation)

…”Getting to know those guys and having them help me pick up my game is going to be an advantage for me.”

…While last year’s scheme revolved around Denson, this year’s focal point will be on the quarterback, Jarious Jackson.

“Jarious is our leader, that’s where it all starts,” Fisher said. “But it takes all 11 on the same page to make things work..”.. (cooperation)

…”This year I can be a leader by my actions. (leading by example)

I think it may take another year before I can be a vocal leader.” (leading by voice).

But like everything else, his time may be coming.

Mr. Lesar neatly, if inadvertently, laid out the progression by which a lost freshman becomes a senior leader. What our staff learned was that we could not “technique” leadership. Leadership, like fitness, strength or skill has to be earned at every step, and each step must be progressive and built on the step before.

Operations is where leadership begins. The freshman must learn the system. They must learn how things work, what the expectations of the coach and team are, what the team traditions mean, what equipment to bring; etc. No one respects or follows the “space-head” senior who never seems to know what is going on.

Unless they know what time practice is over Christmas vacation, what equipment to bring on team trips, and the order of events for a dual meet, they have no chance of developing into leaders.

Responsibility is the basis of leadership and operations are the basis of personal responsibility. Until they learn to operate on their own (“I’ll know what to expect.”), they will not be able to advance to the next step of cooperating with each other and their team leaders.

Cooperation is the stage at which they begin to take responsibility not only for themselves, but also for each other (“We’re trying to help each other through the ups and downs.”). Responsibility for someone or something outside of oneself is the beginning of leadership. It is also the stage at which they begin to build the credibility to become team leaders later.

If they do not willingly support their team leaders (“Jarious is our leader, that’s where it all starts…”), if they do not willingly support their teammates (“It takes all 11 on the same page to make things work.”), there is little or no chance that their teammates will support them. They will not have their teammates’ support in daily training or competition, and they will not have earned their support in any of their future leadership attempts.

Athletes who know what is going on and are diligent trainers will not be able to lead if they do not support both their teammates and their team leaders. Lone wolves are not able to rejoin the pack as leaders. Often they are not even allowed to rejoin.

Leading by example may be the most critical step in developing future leaders. It is at this step that the credibility that is critical for leadership is developed (“This year, I can be a leader by my actions. I think it may take another year before I can be a vocal leader.”).

Swimmers who always push off early or late have no credibility when chiding their teammates to leave on time. Athletes who are frequently late to or absent from practice have no credibility when telling their teammates to be on time. As James Kouzes and Barry Posner pointed out in their seminal book Credibility,“Credibility is the foundation of all working relationships – and all relationships that work.”

Leading by voice is what we most commonly think of when we think of leadership, but it is really only the final stage in a continuum of development. No one, athlete or politician, can move directly to that stage. Kouzes and Posner tell us that competence and honesty are the foundations of credibility.

Competence (operations) and honesty (cooperation and leading by example) allow the future leader to earn the leader’s voice. We tried to short-circuit that process by teaching leadership. The lesson to us was that leadership can’t be learned, it must be earned. The coach’s role is making sure the opportunities for earning leadership are present every day and following their athletes to make sure that they are on track for senior leadership.

Freshmen must develop competence in operations. They must learn how things work. Whenever they are “lost,” extra time must be put in with them to get them back on track, because the damage is not only to their current performance, but to their future ability to lead when they are needed to do so.

Sophomores must learn to cooperate. Cooperation is both “followership” and “support.” They must follow and support their coaches. They must follow their team leaders and support their teammates. Sophomores must be the vocal “cheerleaders” on the team. “What goes around, comes around.” Like pure karma, support given will be support received, and the followers will be followed.

Juniors must lead by example. This is their credibility year. In season and out of season, this is where the followers earn their leadership voice. Just as the coach monitored operations in the freshmen and cooperation in the sophomores, the coach must help, encourage and demand that juniors become the leaders by example. Only those that do can ever become the ultimate leaders by voice.

In addition to our folly of thinking that leadership was just techniques to be learned, we fell into two other misconceptions. We mistook charisma for leadership and we confused leading with misleading (Leadership Without Easy Answers,Heifetz).

Coaches could see the charisma in an athlete and wonder why that athlete was not able to lead. We had “taught” him/her how, but it was not about learning leadership from us, it was about earning leadership from their teammates. In the same vein, we bemoaned the seniors who “led the wrong way.” They were not leading;they were misleading.

When the time came for real leadership, they were not able to provide it. In fact, we coaches were resented for allowing them to continue as members of the team, by the same athletes who seemed to willingly follow their misleading during the season. Our (lack of) leadership was called to task.

Although we are not able to use the same methods as the Marines, we want to achieve the same objectives and can use many of the same objectives. Like the DIs, coaches are responsible for ensuring that their troops master the steps toward leadership.

Freshmen must learn the team’s operations. Sophomores must cooperate with the coaches, their teammates and their team leaders. Juniors must turn into leaders by example. If all these steps are mastered, we will have no shortage of senior leaders that can speak up, will know what to say and will say the right thing.

Our job is to keep them on the path of earning leadership.

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