Teaching Leadership Skills to Young People by George Block (2007)


My name is George Block. I am a retired swimming coach and a retired swimming parent. My last swimmer just graduated from college so I don’t have to read the newspapers in the stands during meets any more. Before I begin, I want to do a little survey in here. How many people are actually swim parents in this room? How many are coaches in this room? How many are parents of elementary-aged swimmers? How many parents of Middle school-aged swimmers? Finally, how many parents of High school-aged swimmers?

The information I am presenting is different for each group and since John gave you 14 things on his list of 10, I don’t have very much time to sort of cover each age group. So I am going to try and do it quickly. If you paid for this session you might want to get your money back. What I saw on the lecture list is “Teaching Swimmers Leadership.” You can’t teach swimmers leadership. Write that down and now you can leave. This was a really painful lesson for me to learn.

My real job is Assistant Athletic Director for a large school district in San Antonio, Texas. We are just approaching 90,000 students. We are building our tenth high school. It is a very interesting school district. It’s sort of a slice of pie on the northwest corner of San Antonio. At our innermost school districts we share a common garbage dump with the lowest income schools in Texas. At our outer areas we have two high schools that have active rodeo teams. We stretch from inner-city to suburban to rural so much so that we feel that we can predict the future of America. They said that Texas is going to be 50% Hispanic by 2020 and the United States is going to be 50% Hispanic by 2040. We were 50% Hispanic in 1710 and so we think we are the future of America for good and for ill. We see the challenges facing America right now and so it is a very interesting melting pot.

In about the early ‘80’s we felt that we hit our high point of student leadership. Towards the late 80’s into the early 90’s we felt that we were hitting the low point of student leadership. This wasn’t just pertaining to athletics, it was across the board. We had student elections that were uncontested. Many high schools had one person running for class President, and one person running for Student Body President. We had way too many multiple office holders. For example the Captain of the track team was President of the senior class and also President of the Spanish Honor Society. When you are doing that much in high school, you cannot get anything done. So we had a lot of indices of poor student leadership. Being in the education business we did all the typical education things. You think you can teach your way out of the problem so we sent kids to seminars and sent teachers to seminars and we did all this teaching stuff. We even looked at the educational literature on how to teach leadership. We did all that stuff and nothing made a difference. Everything that was out there in the educational marketplace was absolute bunk. We realized it was because you can’t teach leadership. Leadership can’t be learned; it can only be earned.

You would think that we would know this in San Antonio. We call ourselves Military City, USA. We have five military bases and I had even come to San Antonio because the army had cordially invited me. If you had a spouse or were in the Air Force yourself, you went through basic training at Lackland Air Force Base just outside of San Antonio. A number of my Assistants who coached with me, had also been with me through the Army. So we have known each other a long time, but for some reason, maybe because we didn’t want to bring that part of our background onto the swimming deck, we didn’t include that obvious leadership development model. But the military’s leadership development worked. I don’t even really know how we stumbled onto it but in looking at what leadership development models really work, we found that Marine Officer’s Basics Training actually works as the best educational model.

When we looked into the military models, especially Marine Officer’s Basic, we found four steps that fit neatly into an academic model. We equated each step to a year in school of either high school or college. What we found out is that if you don’t take all four steps that you lose credibility. In fact we had kids who were seniors in high school, wanted to be leaders and were very charismatic and maybe talented athletes, but had lost credibility with their teammates. We had kids in student government who were juniors or seniors and knew what their class should be doing and what should be done, but had lost the credibility with their peers to be able to lead. When you lose credibility you lose the ability to be a leader later on. So the only way we could develop a pool of potential leaders was to help our kids maintain their credibility using the three steps in this model that lead up to credibility.

The four steps to enabling potential leaders are: 1. Operations, 2. Cooperation, 3. Lead by Example, and 4 Lead by Voice. Operations means what is going on, what is happening; the specific details. What time is practice? What equipment do I need to bring? What paperwork do I need to bring? How do I enter a swim meet? How do I show up for a football game? What do I need at a track? What are the team’s traditions? What are team rules? When do we have Saturday practice? When don’t we have Saturday practice? All those things that just are basic to your team are operational. Most likely some of you probably have a senior who is still going “Oh I didn’t know we had practice on Saturday” or “Oh, I didn’t bring my hand paddles.” On the very first high school team I coached, I developed what I dubbed the “Peter Stanford Perpetual Freshman Award.” It was awarded to anyone who graduates still a freshman. We always had one who graduated still a freshman, and was never eligible to be a leader because he never got the operational stuff right. That is step one, it is stuff that every kid can learn, starting when they are eight. They should learn that basic operational stuff, but still you see a lack of the learning on your team, or you may even see it in your work place. If you don’t get that basic operational stuff you can never move up and complete step two. The Marines start out by giving everyone the same haircut, everyone walks in the same way, everyone marches in step, everyone wears the same clothes, everyone stacks their underwear the same way. Because of this you get the basic operational stuff correct. This is what we have to do with kids in our families. Cleaning your room is a basic operational task, as is knowing where your underwear goes? Probably not on the couch. Where do your socks go? Not on the lamp even though it dries them eventually. This is operational stuff in our homes and we can teach the operational stuff. Teams teach operational stuff, the Marines teach the operational basics and it must be mastered before you can move on to the next level.

The next level, I called Cooperation because it struck me from the Marines; the hard-assed Marines use the word cooperation. The other branches of the service use words like follower-ship; you have to be a follower before you could be a leader. The Marines want you to cooperate because they felt that everybody was a leader at different times. The Marines believe that it is your job to support the other person when they need to be a leader. It is a great lesson for the swimming pool, to support different leaders at different times. The ultimate leader on a team is the coach, but you may also have team captains. Additionally there may be unofficial leaders. Cooperating and following the leaders is vital because we all know that when it doesn’t happen you could get sophomores who think they know what is going on. Then cliques develop and the team starts breaking down. They begin competing against the official team leadership and then the team falls apart. So teaching athletes to cooperate with the coach, with the team captains and with the unofficial leaders is an important thing. You will get some who will fight back because they think they know what should be done. This can be the case especially if you have a swimmer who has been a successful club swimmer. They begin to think they know what to do, but you must teach them to cooperate with the team leaders so that when it is his or her turn to lead, the team will cooperate with them. They need to cooperate so that others will cooperate with them when it is their time. When the Marines are in Marine Basic Training they all take turns being leaders, and refer to it as “Officer’s Basic” because they all become Marine officers. When they take turns leading, they do not evaluate the leader, which surprised me. Instead they evaluate the followers. How well were they cooperating and supporting the leader? That was a huge lesson. This is what you want sophomores to do, be the best followers; the best cooperators, understanding there is a difference between following and cooperating. Following can be done by sheep, someone who cooperates with a group adds to it. You make the team better by helping. Leaders want cooperators.

The next level is leading by example. This is the ultimate point of attaining credibility because you have got to walk it before you can talk it. There are many ways to lead by example. Everyone who is a coach or has been a coach knows that. In swimming for example, the big dogs know they are going to have to lead the main set and the secondary set so often they do not want to lead the warm-up set. That is a great time for the coach to say to the little guy or the really good kicker, “Okay buddy, you are going to lead the kick set.” Even though the little guy is asking “What?”. A coach wants that little guy to step up and lead that kick set or the drill set. This is one way that they can start leading by example. Potential leaders can also start cooperating when the unofficial leader says, “You lead this one” or “Step up.” They may only be given a chance to lead a stroke drill set or maybe just lead pulling in the lane lines after practice. Whatever the opportunity to cooperate with the team leader and lead by example, a true leader will take that and do his or her best. Another way to lead in the third step is to be the first one at practice and the last one to leave. There are a million opportunities to lead by example. These opportunities become the best place to build credibility. There is a really crummy book by Rick Pitino called “Success is a Choice.” The book is terrible. It really is more of a collection of speeches, probably given by him to corporate groups. While the book is awful, each of the speeches is great. In one of them he states that being on time is a bad habit. This struck me as funny as I always thought that was a good habit. In the speech he goes on to talk about coaching at Kentucky. He had his office in the big arena where they hold the basketball games, Rupp Arena. There he was able to see everything from the Chicago Bulls come in for an exhibition game to the set up for a rock concert. He said he was really amazed the first time he ever saw Michael Jordan come in to prepare for a pre-season game. The game was at seven o’clock at night. Michael Jordan was there at one o’clock in the afternoon to warm-up. Coach Pitino said he didn’t even have his stuff off the court before Michael Jordan was there. Michael Jordan would come in and start his shoot-around and then Mike would go and get tapped. Then he would come back out, stretch and shoot around again. Next he would come out and do his workout and then he would actually come and do the official warm-up with the team. Jordan was there six hours before the game. When the Rolling Stones came through he figured they would just be smoking dope and eating Oreos in the back until it was time for the concert. But they were there the night before, tuning instruments, checking the sounds and getting things right. He said they were there the next morning practicing the day of the concert. He said he could barely hear during the Stone’s practice. Here they were there practicing on the morning of their concert and then they came back in later and practiced again before it started. Coach Pitino was impressed, because here were these smelly guys in tie-dyed t-shirts with long hair but they were there 24 hours before their concert, getting things right for the concert. He said if these guys are working twenty four-hours before their concert to get it right, you can’t show up 15 minutes before practice and get it right. If Michael Jordan can be there six hours in advance, you can be there an hour in advance. So being on time is actually being late, which was his whole point. This is part of leading by example.

If you get the operational part right, then you get the cooperation part right, and then you lead by example and you develop the credibility that will allow you to lead by voice. When you have the credibility and want or need to lead by voice, people will follow. We as a school district, we as coaches, and we as sponsors of student activities didn’t have leaders because we were letting our pool of potential leaders diminish. We hurt our future leaders, by not encouraging them to complete the Operational phase, the Co-operational phase and by not Leading By Example. When we needed them to Lead By Voice, they were there, but they lacked the credibility to be effective leaders. We realized as coaches, parents and as administrators that we could only try to maintain the pool of eligible leaders so that when it was their turn to step up they were able to do so.

I remember being on the phone talking to the football coach at Marshall High School about what we thought of all of this and how we were going to teach it. At that time we had an elementary PE program where the Third Graders would be bussed to the pool for swimming lessons over a two week period. This has since been cut, but at the time the elementary teacher would come over with her students and she would sit and do her homework or grade papers outside my office at a desk. During my conversation she began knocking on my door. I think her name was Mrs. Jones and she was like 104 years old, but she walked into my office and said, “Do you mind that I was eavesdropping on your conversation?” I thought to myself that it was a little late to object so I invited her in. She then said to me, “I just wanted to tell you that you can’t succeed.” Thinking she was just being negative I asked her to tell me why I couldn’t succeed. She gave me one of the most profound statements I had ever heard. She said, “Leadership is the flower. Responsibility is the seed. If you don’t get responsibility planted early, leadership never flowers.”

This exchange brought a memory of playing sixth grade basketball back to me. Herbert Hossenyager was our coach and we had all the typical sixth grade boys on the team. I remember it being Christmas Vacation and we had practice over the break. I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, but a bunch of us had decided that we were going to get this one guy by locking him in his locker and leave his clothes in the shower. We would then leave and he would be stuck in his locker. We had it pretty well set up and Cliff Benner and I had it planned out. We decided Cliff would bounce him, I would get the locker and Robbie Stark would get his clothes. When we left he was in there beating on the locker and trying to get out and his clothes were soaking in the shower and because it was Christmas it was freezing outside. While his mom waited for him, we all walked by and said “Hi” to her. The next day we all were at practice and afterward Mr. Hossenyager came in and asked if any of us had seen Robbie yesterday. We all agreed that he was here at practice, but we didn’t really see him after practice. Nobody saw him leave, and we assured Mr. Hossenyager that he hadn’t left with us but we had seen his mom waiting at the curb. Eventually the truth came out and we were all bent over the coach’s desk, and we had to do what we called “one cheeking it” through classes the rest of the day. The left cheek was so sore because fraternity paddles have cut outs, and when you get hit, your skin just gets sucked up into the Greek letter, which gives great welts later. So we were all “cheeking” it the rest of the day through school and I went home that night and for some reason I must have had the look on my face of righteous indignation. My dad asked me what was wrong, and I don’t know why, but I was stupid enough to answer. I said Mr. Hossenyager paddled me today. My dad was a stoutly built guy who played college football. I had no idea that he could actually turn into “elastic man” until he reached all the way across the table. He just stretched out his arm, it couldn’t have been more than two inches wide, he grabbed me and then pulled me to him. He said, “You made Mr. Hossenyager paddle you?” I replied that I didn’t make him; he was a sadist. He dragged me upstairs where he had the exact same paddle. I had no idea they were in the same fraternity. My Dad didn’t let me off the hook. He kept me on the hook. He didn’t bail me out. He didn’t go to the school and tell Mr. Hossenyager he was a sadist. He kept me fully responsible. He had reminded me painfully, by having me sleeping face down, that I was responsible. Mr. Hossenyager wasn’t responsible for what had led to the punishment, I was the one responsible for that. That was critical. It eventually became crystal clear, even though I didn’t get it at that moment while he was doing it. I actually thought my Dad was a freaking, sadist too. It became crystal clear when that teacher said, leadership is the flower; responsibility is the seed.

Fortunately for me, well not for me really, fortunately for my kids, my wife is a great parent. She bought baby books, I never actually read them, rather she would hand me little parts to read. Louise Bates Ames wrote a series of books relative to a child’s age. Things you should know about your two year old, then your three year old, etcetera. Those were so good that I actually still use them today with our swim school instructors, our 8 & Under and 10 & Under Coaches. The downside is that the books stop at age ten. Kids are still easy at 10. Eleven, Twelve, Sixteen is when they get difficult. Where is Louise for these ages? Granted, this is just George’s worthless opinion and since you didn’t pay for the session, it doesn’t matter that it is worthless.

I have found what I believe to be an excellent book for what happens after the age of ten. Nort Thornton got me to read this about ten years ago. He used it with his college team as mental training. The name of the book is QBQ or The Question Behind the Question by John G. Miller. You can buy it at any Barnes & Noble or find it on Amazon. It will take all of an hour to read and then another half an hour to re-read it. There are three processes behind the theory of QBQ. John titles them responsibility, accountability, and personal accountability. I just call it responsibility, but the book says that the way kids are taught accountability is by teaching them to ask better questions. The book goes on to further point out that we tend to adopt the victim mentality, and then blame others mentally. This is just so pervasive in society that it has become a part of the way we think and ask questions. But, if we can teach kids to ask better questions they will make better decisions, responsibility-oriented decisions. I developed this grid, after reading the book. It illustrates some of the verbal symptoms that are common with children and then highlights simple effective cures.

As a coach, I absolutely hated it when kids say “This sucks,” and not because they were usually talking about something that I did which would have been okay. It wasn’t even that I disliked profanity. My parents were from Chicago and my mom could usually out swear any sailor so that wasn’t it either. What bothered me so much about that statement is that it is so intellectually imprecise and it leads to sloppy thinking, which in turn begets sloppy action. I used to ask, “Exactly what is causing the vacuum here? If this sucks, someone is creating a vacuum and I want to know what is filling the vacuum? What is the problem? Define it clearly. Come up with a solution. I do not want to hear sloppy thinking in my pool because that leads to sloppy swimming and then you are going to really find out what sucks. I want clear thinking.” QBQ is very much like that. When you hear “Why?”, this is the worst question of all. That is victim thinking and it eventually it leads to questions like “Why does she do that?” “Why” questions are sloppy thinking. The antidote for “why” is “how.” Questions like “How can I help?” Or a question like “How can I make this better?” Instead of asking “Why does she always?” I should be asking, “How can I help her?” Why is the symptom and a how is a cure. Why has other variations such as “When will they?” To solve this it should instead be asked, “When can we?” All the W’s are whining words and I hate whining. When is procrastination. The when is the symptom and the disease is procrastination. The cure is “What can I do right now or How can I help?” The who ends up blaming which is the scape-goating symptom. Placing blame outside yourself is the complete opposite of personal responsibility or personal accountability.

While the book argues that the “Why’s” are the most destructive of the “W” words, I think the “Who’s” are more destructive. The “Who’s” are blaming. So it becomes the same thing, “What can I do to help with whatever the situation is?” Then there is a fourth question that I have added myself. It is non-specific, but occurs when people begin focusing on what they don’t have. Equipment, size, feet, pool, whatever it may be, it leads to both victim thinking and a scarcity mentality. In my mind the answer is “How can you succeed with what we have right now?” “What can we do to succeed with what we have here today?” We had a great talk earlier in the week about how to do a great dry-land program with no weights. The speaker covered stuff you can stick in your equipment bag so that every kid has it with them, slung over their shoulder with their Speedo and goggles. How can we succeed with what we have right now? No victim mentality. No scarcity mentality. How do we do it? Those are the sort of words that I look for, both as a coach and as a parent. I want to change those words so that the type of thinking can change into the process thinking that we want. I want to teach responsibility early, so that we can plant the seed of responsibility. We need to start getting our youth thinking about responsibility early. The bottom line is to switch from thinking in all the whys, whens, and whos, to think about making ad difference in the moment. When we do this we end up getting that what Tom Peters used to call a bias for action.

We want to give our kids a bias for action, because it is so easy for them to get the bias for the opposite. It is very easy for our youth to develop the bias to sit on the couch, watch TV, and talk on their cell phone simultaneously. We want to get them out of the bias of passivity, the bias of victimology, the bias of procrastination and get them to act. But this is difficult with kids. If you have multiple kids, you may have accidentally performed this little experiment. I know we have. My wife and three kids get in the car head downhill and then ask the question, “Where do you want to eat?” Kill me, okay, just kill me. Nobody has an idea, but everybody has a criticism. Not that place, not that place either. We could come up with a list of places not to eat, but we are going to starve to death. Yes, it would be good for me. Today our kids grow up in an environment of criticism. They are criticized by us, hell, that is our job. We get paid for it. They get criticized by teachers – they get criticized by coaches, but more often they are criticized by their peers. Criticized for what they do, what they wear what they eat, what they watch, and what they listen to is all wrong.

This is why kids are afraid to act, they are afraid they will get the same reaction. We don’t want to do that. So we have as parents and coaches have to teach them how to act in an environment of criticism. This is difficult because naturally what they want to do is perform the perfect action. We as adults know there is no perfect action. Especially when in the beginning, kids are going to act and make mistakes, but what is important is that they learn from it. They will try to do the right thing and it may or it may not work out. If it doesn’t you have to help them do the right thing and learn from it, but you must recognize the importance of the action. You in turn do something positive. We have to teach that when they see a negative situation they stop and act, not just walk by. Even if wrong they are going to at least try to be the Good Samaritan. They may not be a physician, but they can give a band-aid. Acting and learning from mistakes leads to future solutions. The process will help you to teach that they must be solution-oriented instead of “whining- oriented,” with a bias toward action. Acting in an environment of criticism takes courage; acting with courage builds confidence and confidence is one of those requisites for credible leaders. From what I have seen, confident athletes with a bias for action, who persistently ask accountable questions will make good decisions and they become great leaders.

Last spring in my position as athletic director I had two interesting situations present themselves to me. The first one came in the form of a phone call came from a mom whose child went to a party, and at that party someone brought both drugs and alcohol. Just as I was getting ready to squirm in my seat she told me that one of his teammates showed up, got all the Freshmen together and took them away. Oh my God, not only was I relieved, I was inspired. This kid who was a Junior, showed up, saw the situation, moved every single freshman to his car and took them to a see a movie. Awesome! Leading by example, he asked the right questions and made the right decision. That you want. That kid is going to be a real leader. Unfortunately, he will probably be too smart to ever run for president.

Later, at a school assembly, the San Antonio Police Department showed up. Holy crap! On the spot they let us know that they were there to present an award to a couple of our students. The kid was driving down the street and stopped his car in the middle of the street. He and his teammates jump out of the car. While his teammates start directing traffic the driver goes to assist a lady in a wheel chair who had fallen off the sidewalk into the street. These young men had parked their car across two lanes, directed traffic, picked up the lady, put her back in her wheelchair, administered First Aid and then wheeled her to where she needed to be! They were late to class and they got in trouble. The police knew about the incident and gave them an award. That is what we want to see when we teach kids to switch their thinking. We want to plant that seed of personal responsibility. Great things that surprise all of us will result from that seed.

As parents and as coaches that is what we really want. I tell our coaches all the time that to understand how wacky we are as parents we really only want one simple thing for our children. If we are really honest with ourselves, we want our kids when they leave us to be successful, happy, ethical people who have good families. That way before we are at room temperature we can be confident that our children are going to have a successful, happy, ethical life. That is mostly it, but what do we do on the way to this goal to measure this? We get their grade in algebra, a hundred freestyle time or an SAT score. We get things that are such indirect measures of what we really hope and aspire for our kids. It is no wonder, as parents, we are crazy. Our most important job, the one job we care the most about, is the job where we have the least direct and least effective measure of our success. So as parents we start putting ridiculous value on algebra grades. We put a ridiculous value on a hundred freestyle time. Consequently if I was still measured by my last hundred freestyle time I think I would be an 11 year old girl right now. A fat hairy one, but I would be an 11 year old girl. We measure bizarre things that have nothing to do with what we really want as parents.

For those who wear the hat as coaches, you can clean up that relationship a lot by talking about what really matters. Simply telling Suzy that you value that she was at practice today because our practices are always better when she is here, makes a difference. She may never win an Olympic medal, but she is always here on Christmas Eve to be the training partner for the person who will. Without her, Mary would not have won that medal. We really value Steve when he is here because he keeps everybody laughing. On our worst days when the pool is 40 degrees and when I ran over my dog on the way to practice, he keeps everybody laughing. He makes it okay. I really hate having Joan here because she is always here before I am. I tried to beat her here once so I came at 4:30 in the morning and she was here waiting for me. I don’t know how she knew, but she is always there, ready to pull off the pool covers before I am. I can’t tell you how much I value that, because she is here early I at least have somebody to talk to. As coaches we can talk to parents about all those things their kids do, which have nothing to do with swimming that indicate to parents that they are going to be successful. Things that tell parents that their children are going to have great relationships in their lives, and are becoming more mature and ethical people. That is what parents really care about.

That is why leadership really matters because this is the part that really matters. We want our kids to be leaders in the moment that it counts. They might not run for City Council, God help them, I hope they won’t. However, at some point each of us is asked to step up and lead. I tell our kids and families that the Olympic team has it easy. They know the exact date, the exact time and the exact place they will be asked to step up and do their best. They also have the best supporting cast around them. The best coaches, doctors, physical therapists, nutritionists, massage therapists and even somebody to carry their bag. The rest of us have no idea when that lady in the wheelchair is going to fall in the street and we have to stand tall and do our best. Everybody in life faces their own Olympics, everybody. The lucky ones, the ones who have it easy, are actually on the Olympic Team. The rest of us do not know when, where, how, but still we will be asked to step up and give our best. This is why accountability and leadership are critical because at some point everybody is going to be asked to lead.

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