Introduction: Michael Lawrence has been the Senior Assistant Coach at the Lake Forest Swim Club, Lake Forest, Illinois, since 1985. He is currently the Chairman of Illinois Swimming and has previously served as Administrative Vice-Chair, Rules and Legislation Chair, Technical Planning Chair, and Coaches Representative.
He is active in USA Swimming as a member of the Olympic International Operations and Senior Committees. He has been past Chair of the Age Group Planning Committee and a member of the Championship Site Selection, Coaches Continuing Education, Camps, and Club Development Committees.
Lawrence: Thanks to the ASCA and John Leonard for inviting me here to speak with you today. Leadership is a topic that I am very excited to talk to you about and I’m glad that you are here to hear me speak about it. Leadership is very important to teach young athletes.
A Call For Action
This week I sat through a number of meetings including the ASCA Board meeting and a meeting of the USA Swimming Steering Committee. I spoke to a number of other coaches about the direction of leadership in our sport. I spoke with Forbes, with John, with Mark, and with Richard. All of these conversations concerned leadership, coaching leadership.
During those conversations I learned how important it was for us as coaches to be involved in our sport and in guiding our sport. Last night, I was in an elevator coming down to the lobby, with Richard Quick. In our brief conversation he turned to me and said very passionately, “We can’t have age parents running world class swimming. We have to have better thinking running world swimming.”
I really felt challenged by that statement. Really challenged to help make a difference in the future of our sport. I felt so challenged that I rewrote parts of this presentation to incorporate that theme. Today I’m here re-committed to striving to be a leader and striving to teach leadership to young people.
I’ve been involved in swimming politics for almost as long as I’ve been coaching. Early in my coaching career I, like a lot of new coaches, wanted to be around some of the coaches who knew a lot more than I did I realized how little I knew. I started running with some of them during swim meets. One day as we were running along some of them were talking about their coaching experiences and difficulties. I look back now and see it was problem solving for them. A group of several professionals who had been doing this for fifteen or twenty years sharing a problem and figuring out how to solve it. Me, being brand new . . . I thought it was just another complaint session.
So I launched into my complaints about my small little club, my first job, three months after being there. Finally one of the older coaches turned to me and said, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” . . . “Well, I don’t know, I have this problem, this obstacle, this hurdle, and this problem.” . . . “Well, what are you going to do about it?” . . . “Well, see I have . . .” . . . “Well, what are you going to do about it?” . . . “Well what can I do?” . . . He said, “You have four choices: you can change your mind, you can change your situation—change jobs, you can change the problem, or you can shut up.”
For the rest of that run I took option number four as it was really the only one available to me then. I went back to the meet, thought about it, and came back the next day opting to work to change the problem. I decided that I had to work for change rather than ignore problem or be silent. The result of that one run of seventeen years ago has added a great deal to my life and a great deal to my coaching.
As soon as the topic of being involved politically comes up in a group of coaches half of us roll our eyes and say, I don’t have time. About twenty five percent of us roll their eyes and say, I have no interest. And about twenty five percent of us sit up on the edge of our chair, and say I don’t know how. I hope that there are at least twenty five percent who said I don’t know how and want some practical guidance. I hope I can offer that a bit of practical guidance. The other seventy five percent of you who feel that you don’t have time or interest . . . maybe I can say something here that will change that thought for you. Because I believe that doing a little, will make you a lot better coach. And, doing a little, to make change, will make you a much better person.
This is one of my passions in the sport. One of my passions . .
One of my passions is being on the deck with the athletes and getting to work. Another of my passions is to step away from the deck, put on dry shoes, and work equally as hard away from the pool to make changes in our sport. Out of a passion for leading has grown a passion to teaching leadership to young people. Not just letting them go through the program simply learning how to move their hands and feet. Not simply learning how to breath hard recover, breath hard, not simply learning how to race.
I have a passion for teaching leadership because I believe we build leaders through sport. I look around and I can’t see anything more important to do right now, then to teach leadership to young people and to build leaders. There’s nothing that I see that does that as effectively as good sport program, any sport 0program, if it’s approached properly. That is an obligation we have as coaches: to teach young people to be leaders. Leaders in their own life, leaders in their communities, leaders in their school, and leaders in the future.
Very few swimming coaches, myself included, have as much time to be as fully involved in everything as they would like. We all know that people complain about coaches: “They don’t come to meetings, they don’t follow through, they want control but they don’t do anything, they don’t show up, they complain after the decision is made”, and on and on and on. We’ve all heard this. We talk about our long hours, about how much time is taken up on the job, about other responsibilities, and most importantly, about the a lack of respect that we get from the other people involved in swimming.
That comment that Richard made me last night has focused me and challenged me to be a leader in the sport to help us to gain respect within the volunteer community we’re forced to work in.
Meeting The Challenge
I realized a long time ago that I couldn’t affect a lot of things in this sport. But what I did realize is that I could affect things that were right in front of my face. I could do something right here, every day. I could do something with the kids I work with. I could do something with my team, and eventually I could do something in Illinois; and who knows where the ripple stops.
All of us can do something right in front of our faces. That’s what I try and do: look right in front of my face and ask, “What can I do right here, right now, that’s important enough to make an impact on something a little bit bigger?”
I have a personal philosophy that is the title of this talk: Think Globally – Act Locally. It means taking steps in the smallest arena possible, the smallest arena in front of me; in order to affect the bigger arena. It means asking and answering what can I do, what can one man do – what can one woman do, what can I do. It means asking in a sincere and honest way with no ego then making a decision on what to do next. It means accepting that a lot of the questions that you’re going to face, a lot of the questions that are going to be asked, are going to be answered by other people. They’re going to be implemented by other people.
Decisions are going to be made that I don’t like. There are going to be larger groups, whether it’s the NGB, ASCA, the LSC, where the final decision may be made. I may never be a part of any of those. But right in front of me I can figure out how to impact that area in a positive way and influence the decision that is eventually going to be made. It means that I accept responsibility for change within the sphere that I can touch and that I then accept responsibility for those changes.
We all want to control our lives. We want to have freedom in our work and the joy of self-determination in our lives. As coaches we’ve got a lot of strings on us. If you take an active role on what’s right in front of your face, take a little bit more control over that, you gain a little bit more control over your life. Self-determination happens when you accept the responsibility for change, rather than accepting the dictates to change. That was the choice that I made. I could accept my situation, change my situation, change the problem, shut up. I choose to work for change.
We’re all happier through self-determination, both in the present and in the future. Accepting the responsibility of change, and changing ourselves, and changing our work environments puts us in a position to lead. Once you lead, no matter how small the arena, you gain a measure of freedom that results in a career of self-determination. To think globally and act locally it gives me that power of self-determination.
Coaches need to be leaders, we are role models. There are two role models for children. Their parents are their number one role model. We are the other role model. We see children a lot, sometimes more than their parents. By being a role model, being a leader, we can build leaders. Modeling the behavior that we want children to do is very fundamental in teaching, very fundamental in coaching. If we take leadership roles, if we act as leaders, we can teach children to be leaders.
The Value of Leadership
When we become leaders a number of things happen. The first thing that happens is you begin to enhance your image.
You begin to enhance your image within your club. Other people accept you as a leader and, therefore, the people that you work with in your club, perhaps should accept you as a leader, also. The image we have within the club is very important. Being in a leadership role does that for you. It helps you learn to contribute to groups. Contributing to a group is modeling behavior for young leaders. You begin to work with a lot of people that you don’t well. It forces you learn to work with those people and learn to contribute to a group.
Second, it gives you a multi-faceted identity. One of the dangers in coaching is being perceived as simply the person that says “This is how many lengths, and this is how I want you to do it, come back tomorrow and let’s do it again.” The identity of a leader is of somebody who walks away from the pool and does something important in our sport. Something that other people perceive as important gives you that multi-faceted identity. This is one way coaches can gain respect. There’s a danger being perceived as a person who has no other identity than as the person who gives them the lengths and how to do it, and come back tomorrow. This is something we can all avoid by becoming leaders.
About fourteen or fifteen years ago John Leonard spoke about working with parent groups. One of the things that he told us at the time is that is it’s very difficult to dislodge a multi-faceted leader. If you are someone that is perceived as a leader in your community, in your club, in your area, in the world; you become a very difficult to dislodge that person. This is important in terms of job security.
Being a leader as a coach has done some other things for me. It’s strengthened my management skills and given me a lot greater latitude for decision making in my club. These two things relate directly to image, directly to job security. Better management skills equals greater latitude to make decisions. Leadership has given me knew insights into problem solving. It has helped me see a bigger picture. It has given me a broader range of solutions, helped me recognize that there are many solutions.
One of the most important things I have gained is a resource network all over the country and, in some cases friends outside of this country. Whether it is a technical problem, a problem in the politics of sport, decision making, anything. I feel like I have a network of people to draw on. I want to tell you a little story here, about doing having a resource network . . .
Several years ago served on the search committee to find a Director for ICAR for USA Swimming. I was the only person on the committee that was not a Doctor, or Ph.D. It frightened me a little bit to be on there until I realized I had a different role. I didn’t have the role of evaluating resumes filled with research articles. Rather than be intimidated I decided take an action step: I made phone calls. It was the first time I had done that so I was a little timid but I did it anyway.
I called Mark Schubert and asked for his view of what should be happening in sports research in ICAR. Not who do you think should be the director, but what do you think we should be doing there. I called Dick Shoulberg, Gregg Troy, Pete Malone, Terry Stoddard, and Pat Hogan. Some of those people I knew well enough to call up and carry on a conversation. There are some of them that I had never talked to in my life. But in order to be leader in this capacity and to make a contribution to this group I had to get over my fear of calling up somebody like Mark Schubert, who I had never spoken to like this. I had to ask him questions and not be afraid. It helped me a lot to develop that resource network. Every one of those people was more than willing to help me out and answer questions. Nobody asked who were the candidates or who was the front-runner. They answered my questions and wished me luck in the job I had to do.
I’ve become a lot more pro-active solving problems. There is a greater likelihood of my being pro-active in seeking the solutions because I have confidence that there are people out there who can help me come to a solution. It’s helped me bring others into the solution. A critical part of leadership is that you bring others into the solution from the problem, that you bring others into leadership roles.
The Leadership Change
What is a leader? Simple, a leader is somebody who makes people better. If you’re a coach you make people better so you’re automatically a leader. Build on that. Build on the natural leadership role that we’ve been given to work with young people both in the pool and to work with them to be leaders in life.
There are a couple of really good books about leadership I would recommend Leadership Is An Art, by Max Depree and On Becoming a Leader, by Warren Bemis are two great books on the topic of leadership. There are some others out there by Peter Drucker and other people, also. These are two that I like a lot, and, would recommend to you.
A leader presses a group to make an impact. A leader doesn’t have to do the work. A leader brings people into the solution and then presses them, and presses them, and presses them. Presses them hard because people have a lot of talents that they aren’t always willing to let come out in a group. As a leader you have to push them hard to make sure that those talents come out. It is part of the responsibility of being a leader, to bring those traits out of people. If you take the job of a leader as standing at the front of the line to deliver the solution, you’re not really doing a good job.
Think of a stagecoach. A stagecoach has a lot of horses out there on a lot of reins. When you are driving a stagecoach you’ve got sixteen sets of reins there in hand. If you hold those reins as tightly as possible, because you are the leader, you are in control, that stagecoach is not going to do anything but go straight and it’s not going to go very far. You have to let the reins flow, in and out of your hands, allowing each horse to contribute to the group, in order to keep that … that stage coach moving in the right direction, and keep it moving efficiently. As a leader it’s important to have the reins in hand. It’s not important to hold them tightly.
A leader has to accept responsibility. A leader absolutely has to take responsibility and sometimes take more responsibility than you want to, particularly when things go bad. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a positive leadership trait that when something goes wrong you are able to step up, step in front of other people and say — even if it’s not your mistake—“I take responsibility for this”. It’s the way that you best respect the people that you work with: taking responsibility when things go wrong even if it might not be your fault.
Finally, a leader is someone who empowers others to make positive change. Positive change; I don’t believe in negative leadership. I believe groups and people want to make positive change and a leader is someone who empowers them, brings them into the solution, presses them hard, and allows them to make a positive impact.
Change takes an action step and you have to push those people to make that change. I want to offer a little practical guidance, not just talk about this. There are some things you need to do.
Taking An Action Step
First, you need to have a mentor. It is very important to look out there and realize that you can’t do a whole lot alone. Try and learn from other people. Three people really helped me as mentors. I don’t mean that I worked side by side with them and they guided me every day and I asked them what I should do next. I studied, watched, worked, and asked questions. When I had problems I walked up to them and asked them questions. Those people were John Leonard, Mark Schubert, and Doug Ingram.
John coached in Illinois. During the time that he coached there I asked him questions; I watched, I learned. When I started going to the USA Swimming convention I watched Mark Schubert.
Fifteen years ago swimming was different. There were coaches in those leadership roles that we’re void in right now. We need to have those coaches back in those leadership roles. Mark Schubert was a master in the House of Delegates and a master of Chairmanship of the Planning Committee. I watched and studied, and I didn’t always understand the issues. I didn’t always understand the decisions or agree with some of the things that were done or said. But, I studied and learned that you can press a group of people to get to a decision. The other person that I watched was Doug Ingram. Doug was the Chairman of OIO at that time and was equally a master of pressing a group.
Between those three men I learned a lot just by observing and asking questions. Just walking up and asking questions about something. Asking “Why would you do this with that group of people?” I learned a lot from those people and I’m very indebted to them for modeling that behavior for me… that behavior of leadership.
There are three things coaches need to do to be leaders and to be involved. The first is to take a step to get yourself involved. You have to take an action step. You have to get yourself involved. Second, you have to take a step to be successful. Third, after you’ve become successful then you need to take a step to leadership. You need to take that step to leadership. These are some simple things that I look at as what people need to do to get themselves involved and to get involved with limited risks
Steps To Involvement
First, make an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t discover that you’re not able to do something and that you’ve stretched yourself out too far. Second, make an honest self-appraisal of what you feel you can contribute. People can contribute different things. Some people can contribute money, some people can contribute ideas, and some people can stand in front of a group and contribute leadership. Some people can do something behind the scenes. But make an honest appraisal of what you feel like you can contribute.
Third, ask: “What needs to be done?” It doesn’t make sense to get involved to do something that is unimportant or doesn’t need to be done. You won’t get satisfaction out of it and it won’t be recognized as something that needs to be done. It will just be activity. Somebody can tell you something that needs to be done. Then ask: “Can I do this task?” It’s important that we don’t take on tasks that we can’t do. All that happens is you get frustrated and make other people unhappy. And, finally, seek a mentor. Find someone who can guide you through what you’re doing; lead you through the process of contributing
Steps To Success
After you’re involved in something it’s important to be successful. I don’t think anybody takes on a task wanting to be anything but successful. If you’re going to be involved in helping to make swimming better or do something in your team, you want to be successful doing it. These are a few things I have identified to help you be successful.
Make sure you have the skills to do the job. For example, if you are in your LSC, and somebody says, “We want to have this multi-media AV presentation at our banquet”, and you volunteer, you had better have the skills to do the job. We’ve all seen these things happen. People get seduced; they want to be in the glamour or the glitz. The work in the trenches is the work that really needs to be done but make sure that you have the skills to do the job.
Expect only personal satisfaction in return for a job well done. Often you’re going to do something and nobody is going to walk up and pat you on the back. You’re not going to get a raise. You’re not going to get anything except the satisfaction of a job well done. You’ve got to be committed and understand that right at the beginning. For me, the greatest satisfaction is the feeling that I have contributed something to the sport.
Do something that needs to be done. Don’t do something that’s cool or something that would be interesting. Dig down and find out what needs to be done. There is so much that needs to be done in our sport, whether it’s in our clubs, in our LSC’s, in the ASCA, in USA swimming, in FINA, where ever it is, there is so much to be done. We need more and more people who are willing to get down in the trenches and do the work.
Never stretch yourself further than your public safety net allows. This is very, very important in our environment. We need to make sure that we don’t stretch ourselves beyond our safety nets. The safety net for coaches in the political arena, the administrative arena, isn’t that big. What I mean by that is this: if you do something and it doesn’t turn out the way that you wanted it to, or doesn’t turn out the way other people wanted it to; you want to make sure that it is perceived as something that was well done, something that was important.
The safety net for example for a lawyer, an accountant, somebody who is on your LSC Board of Directors is much bigger than ours is. They can come in and say, “I really didn’t have time to do this project because I had a heavy case load”, or “It’s tax season”. People in the volunteer community tend to get away with that. We don’t have that latitude in coaching. If something happens and we can’t get the job done as coaches’ people just say, “That’s why we don’t have coaches involved in leadership roles in our sport”. Your safety net will expand as you become more and more involved and as you go into other kinds of leadership roles.
Steps to Leadership
Decision-making is what leadership is all about. In trying to be a leader you need to hone your group skills. Develop the management skills necessary for working with a group. Be deferential and respectful. You can’t expect to be a leader without respect for other people. You must be differential to other people’s opinions. As a leader your job ISN’T to tell people what to think. It’s to encourage them to think and then press the group to move forward with all of those thoughts.
At the same time, you have to be unafraid to respectfully express yourself. If you feel strongly on a matter you need to be able to say, “this is what I think is important in this situation.” You need to do it respectfully but don’t be afraid to express yourself.
You need to decide what is personally important. There’s a difference between something that’s personally important and being involved. You’ll approach what is personally important with passion. You will great satisfaction out of doing those things.
Finally, it is very important that we always respect the rights of others to be involved. There is so much that needs to be done, at every level of our sport. So much that we should not be concerned about who is involved, we should just be concerned whether all of us are involved. You need to respect the rights of others to be involved in that process, so that we can all make better changes.
Rights of Individuals In An Organization
The right to be needed. Being a leader means that you have respect for people who are involved. Respect everybody’s right to be needed. Nobody wants to be there unless somebody is going to tell him or her we need you.
The right to be involved. There’s too much to do to turn away people who want to be involved.
The right to be understood. Not everybody has the same experience, the same thought, not everybody brings the same issues forward. The organization has the responsibility to try and understand these various concerns and people who have brought them forward. It is the leader’s responsibility to respect that.
The right to affect one’s own destiny. People have a right to affect their own destiny. That is something we are struggling with and fighting for. We have a right to affect our destiny. What happens in a lot of the areas of swimming affects us, it affects our livelihood, it affects our happiness, it affects our athletes, it affects our lives. We have a right to affect our destiny.
I know that John Leonard was talking about this morning when he was talking about how organizations, such as FINA, have no respect for our right to affect our destiny. They have no respect for the athlete’s right to affect their destiny. And this happens in all levels of the sport. It is incumbent upon leadership; it is incumbent upon organizations, that we understand that people have the right to affect their destiny.
The right to be accountable. I’m phrasing that exactly like that because I don’t think you’re doing them any favors, if you don’t hold them accountable. So often in sport administration somebody takes on a project and they can’t quite get it done. Then we just kind of shrug our shoulders and maybe look the other way then we give them another project. Now that doesn’t get done and we try and cover that up. Pretty soon this person’s identity is someone who never gets anything done. I don’t think you have to hold people accountable by embarrassing them, by dressing them down in public but I do think that you can talk to people, you can tell them, and explain to them that they didn’t get the job done. Allow them the freedom to take responsibility for their actions, and allow them to be accountable. If we don’t do that, we don’t have a chance to change that person.
People have tremendous talents. If we allow them to express these and they fall short, and we hold them accountable, and the leader we takes responsibility to the group, we have an opportunity for this person to come back and contribute again. We have an opportunity for this person to change. I don’t think that you’re doing any body any favors if you don’t hold them accountable for something they said they were going to do. They’re adults. If you tell me you’re going to do something, I believe you. It would be disrespectful of me to say, “I don’t believe that you would do that.”
The right to make a commitment. I don’t want to take that away from anybody, they have a right to make a commitment to the organization. And we should encourage people to make a commitment, and not discourage them from doing that
The right to do their best. The number one job of the leader is empowering people to do their best because they have a right to do their best.
The Obligations of Leadership
The obligations of leadership are many. A leader needs to define the reality with a clear vision and communicate that to the people in the organization and communicate that to people around them. What is it we are trying to do?
A leader needs to identify, develop, and nurture future leaders. Too many people look at a leadership role, or an involvement role as a life time appointment. You’re there to do a job. If you’re in a leadership position you are there to do a job for a period of time. When you are done with that job perhaps you can find something else to do. We’re not there to keep others out of the process.
You have to provide and maintain momentum. People are looking to leaders to stand up and move the group. Some people look at leadership as standing in front of the group saying, “Follow me”. I believe that it is pushing very, very hard with people. There will be times when is important for the leader to step up and have the courage to be in the front of the group and move forward. But there are far many more times when what you have is press the group from behind and maintain the momentum of the organization.
Be publicly accountable. The leader has to be publicly accountable. Be unafraid to say, “I made a mistake, it’s my fault”. Holding people accountable and being accountable yourself is how organizations get stronger. Nobody respects a leader who won’t be accountable. You might be able to get away denying accountability once or twice but pretty soon nobody listens to your words. They don’t believe in your vision, they don’t believe in your leadership any more.
Enable others to reach their potential. Leadership is about enabling others to reach their potential. Allow people to identify their own potential. Create the kind of organization and be the kind of leader that encourages them to reach that. Don’t put chains on people. Allow them to use their talents. Identify their talents because people sometimes don’t believe in their talents.
Celebrate the skills and talents of others. Move them forward in an organization. Leadership is about celebrating the skills and talents of other people. It’s not about me celebrating my skills or talents. It’s about finding those in other people and allowing them to express those. It is about developing heroes, not being a hero. Seek confidence, seek support, work hard to have people believe in your vision, work hard with people to allow them to reach their potential. Work hard for people to understand what their role in an organization is.
A Call For Action
Right now I think that we need leadership more than ever in our sport. We’re heading into a whole new era of coaching, a whole new era of the sport. Mark talked about this earlier this morning. The demand for leadership has never been greater. We need be working to develop those leaders. The future of our sport is not going to be the same. The whole landscape has changed. Everything has changed. We need more leaders in the sport. Think globally – act locally.
It’s a simple philosophy for me, four little words I adopted a long time ago. It’s a cliché that’s used in the recycling or environmental movement. I know that; but it hasn’t changed my desire to use it to describe what I what I believe. It’s guided me through a lot of years of involvement in swimming. It’s taught me that doing something from the outside—outside of my team— is important to making a difference inside my team. I think that everybody can find the time to do something. Everybody can find the time to do something to help out at the local level.
There’s a tremendous amount of work to do at the National level and sometimes we feel like there’s not anything to do, all the good stuff is taken. All the big jobs, all the important stuff. But that’s not true. All it takes picking up the phone sometime and calling up someone in Colorado Springs— calling Steve, calling Rose, calling Tom— asking what needs to be done. It’s picking up the phone and calling somebody and asking, “What do you think I can do?” It’s calling up John Leonard and saying what can I do in the world of swimming to make things a little bit better and then taking great personal satisfaction in doing that.
It is important as coaches that we step away from the pool deck and build our lives as leaders so that we can model that behavior for young people. We can make a greater impact on the entire world of swimming. I owe a lot to swimming and I haven’t been involved as long as a lot of people in this audience.
I’ve done virtually every job there is to do in my LSC and now I’m the Chairman there. I would take any USA Swimming committee possible so that I would have a chance to be involved. I worked hard in all of those roles to try and make a contribution to swimming and took great satisfaction in that. I’ve gotten a lot back and, more importantly; the kids that I work with have gotten a lot back. I think that I model leadership behavior to them. It’s changed me a lot as a coach and it’s changed me a lot as a person.
But, I think that anybody can do it. And, anybody can do it in any situation. And, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, as long as you’re doing something with the thought of what’s in front of you is something you can do to impact a much greater picture. I want to encourage you as we close here, to get yourself involved in some way. It’s been very important to me, and I hope that everybody can “Think Globally and Act Locally” to make this sport a little bit better.