Leadership Learning: Models of Team Leadership (Part II)

Throughout my years of working alongside collegiate teams and their coaches, I have
had the privilege of seeing a) leadership models which work, and b) models that aren’t as
effective (in my opinion). I have been asked a lot this year about which models of team
leadership I have seen be most successful and which I recommend, so I decided to lay out some
aspects of effective team leadership I have learned over the years.

Disclaimer: There are many ways in which team leadership can be great, functional, and effective, so my way is not the only way. I am simply offering a provenly-effective model for which I have used in hopes that it will either help you and your team or allow you to mold your leadership model to best serve your team. This is part two of a three-part series that will cover Identifying Leaders and Team Captains (Part I), Non-Captain Leaders & Cultivating Future Leaders (Part II), and my preferred Model of Team Leadership (Part III) to wrap it up.

Non-Captain Leaders

As I mentioned in Part I of this series, the most effective leaders on a team are not always the ones with the title of “Captain” and they most certainly do not have to be the most senior players. Non-captain leaders are some of the most essential parts of having a healthy team culture and ensuring your team is fully bought in. Almost every coach I have met has told me about the leaders on the team and first points out who the “official” leaders are and then tells me about who the “unofficial” leaders are. These “unofficial leaders” are usually the players who have some/all of the following characteristics:

  • Speak up when they see something wrong or another player struggling in practice or a game
    • These players cannot sit and silently watch their team struggle as they realize that a team is only as strong as their most struggling brother. They may not always speak up publicly in front of the entire team, but instead may have intentional one-on-one conversations with players in need.
  • Show interest and care about aspects of the team that go beyond their individual play
    • Many of these types of leaders ask questions about why decisions are made, the decision making process overall, and seek to better understand how the team functions. They do this in a truly inquisitive way, not challenging authority. These players might stay after practice to talk strategy, bring external learning into the conversation, and tend to watch a lot of film for fun.
  • Volunteer to help with team logistics, when needed
    • Whether it be helping choose which practice jersey to wear, what food is being ordered for an away game, or when to schedule open gyms in the off season, these leaders tend to take the initiative to help organize and add value to team decisions. This is often seen in the off season while trying to organically get teammates together to play and grow in community.
  • Come alive in team huddles during a game
    • There is always that one player that just turns into a different person and truly comes alive during the exact moment motivation is needed during a game. Sometimes that is the actual Captain, but it’s more often a quieter leader on the team that brings everyone together and gives an Emmy-award winning speech to re-energize the team for the final stretch.
  • Lead by example academically and offer support to teammates
    • Many teams have a player who steps up to keep the team academically-focused and on track. That may be hosting official/unofficial study tables, meeting with first-year players to help them organize their assignments, or reaching out to players with academic struggles to support them however needed.
  • Openly talk about team culture and mission in an authentic way
    • These players are champions of the team’s culture and mission in a truly authentic way. These guys are the ones who always volunteer to tour a recruit, lead conversations in player meetings with recruits, and are some of the first to reach out to newly committed players. They do this because they want to ensure the new players joining the team match the team’s culture.

Non-Captain leaders can be new freshmen that join the team and have natural leadership acumen or players that find their voice throughout their years playing. Either way, ensuring that you are engaging and cultivating non-Captain leaders is essential to a team’s success. If you need to do work getting your team on the same page, make sure that you are involving all of your team leaders, official and unofficial, in the process.

Cultivating Future Leaders

The best teams in the country, across all sports, focus on cultivating future leadership throughout the entire year. This happens with coaches more often than players, but team leaders should always be looking to new players on the team to see who might lead the team once they’re gone. I have met with way too many teams that tell me about “high leadership turnover” from graduating all of their leaders and how they have to “start all over again with a new group of leaders”. This is usually a mistake a head coach makes only once until they realize they need to focus more on cultivating leadership throughout classes to ensure continuity.

In the first part of the series, I mentioned that some coaches have told me that they begin identifying future leaders as early as the recruitment cycle. While this can be effective, there is not usually a plan for those budding leaders once they join the team. Whether it be during recruitment, in a player’s first semester, or once a player comes out of their shell, coaches and team leaders should have a program set up so that future leaders can learn before they are put in charge. I have seen this happen in a few ways, and since I have been given feedback that people like lists, we will keep this trend going:

  • Having under-class leaders meet regularly with upper-class leaders
    • I have worked with a number of teams that create “leadership buddy” programs that connect a Captain or more senior leaders with a younger, budding, leader on the team. This often looks like grabbing a meal or coffee on a regular basis, talking about team-related topics, and the older leader imposing some of their wisdom on the younger leader.
  • Hosting a leadership book club across all classes of leaders
    • A number of programs I have worked alongside over the years have hosted book clubs with team leaders across all classes. These tend to be very effective purely based on getting all the team leaders into one room and having a common purpose. Coaches tend to ask me which books I recommend for this type of group, but the answer is the book doesn’t necessarily matter. As long as the book has a sound leadership base and matches the team’s culture, the conversations will be less about the specifics of the author’s words and more about the topics and application to the team. There are some books written specifically for athletes, others using a corporate/business leadership model, and others that just generally talk about leadership. In addition to books, I have seen a few teams do this but with videos/Ted Talks on leadership as their preferred medium.
  • Bringing in leadership speakers or engaging in leadership retreats
    • It is very common for athletic departments to bring in speakers to talk to students about the dangers of hazing, sexual assault prevention, substance abuse in college, etc., but there are also a number of programs that bring in leadership speakers or consultants to help individually work with their teams to form and cultivate leaders. This can be all-team activities around trust, communication, goal setting, or they can be guided discussions with team leaders on how to navigate the complexities of being a Captain. Some programs also engage in leadership or team culture retreats where they spend time as a team, without volleyballs or nets, to discuss, debate, and decide the team’s goals and culture for the year. When orchestrated correctly, these types of activities can help bring a team from good to great.
  • Involving former player/alumni leaders
    • A few programs I know have brought back program alumni who have previously served in leadership roles to meet and offer their assistance to current and future leaders. This is a great way to continually engage program alumni and also have a mutually-beneficial outcome for team leaders. There is something about talking to someone who has literally been in your shoes that helps emerging leaders feel confident in their decision making.

I cannot stress enough that cultivating future leaders, whether they become Captains in the future or not, is one of the most important things a program can do. If you are looking for consistency in your team and an unwavering commitment to culture from players, leadership cultivation is the key to success. Even if a program is only able to do one of the listed items above, it is better than starting from scratch each year and identifying and re-training leaders.

The next part in this series will introduce a model of team leadership that has proven
successful within multiple programs. There are a number of ways to implement it, but I want to share it with you all to help get the ball rolling within your programs.

As always, if this resonates with you or you have questions/comments about this topic, feel free to email me at mark@frogjumpvolleyball.com. I love connecting with players and coaches throughout the landscape to talk about all things leadership, mental game, and more! Hope to connect soon and be on the lookout for Part III of this series!