Leadership Learning: Models of Team Leadership (Part III)

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 three of a three-part series that covers 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.

Preferred Model of Team Leadership

In this final part of the “Models of Team Leadership” series, I would like to lay out a model that I have used for a number of years with different teams. This model addresses how to properly engage team captains, non-captain leaders, and work to ensure the recurring cultivation of future leaders throughout the years. This model can always be modified to fit individual programs, but the most commonly used version is what I will display below.

  • Pick Captains
    • Make sure to read Part I of this series to see how I guide coaches in identifying and picking captains for their team. I am an advocate for a tri-captain model so that there are older and younger captains and there is always an odd number to serve as a tie breaker for decisions. To ensure “captain continuity” over the years, I ensure that captains are not all seniors. At least one of them should be internally considered a “captain in training” by the coaching staff. This should be someone who the coaches believe will be a strong captain in the future, but will spend the year learning, hands-on, from older captains. I am not an advocate for freshmen/first-year captains as they have not settled themselves yet, so captains are sophomores-seniors.

  • Identify 1-2 Leaders Per Class
    • Including the captains above, identify 1-2 leaders, per grade (including freshmen/first-years) to participate in your leadership development group. The non-captain leaders in this group can be identified using the characteristics in Part II of this series. This should be a privilege for players to serve on this leadership group and something they have earned through supporting their teammates, encouraging good behavior and sportsmanship, and adhering/understand the team’s culture and values. Coaches and captains should collaborate on which teammates should comprise the leadership group.

  • Create a Leadership Group
    • This group should be comprised of 4-8 players who have been identified as captains and non-captain leaders within the team. These leaders are those that have natural influence amongst their teammates, are situated within different friend groups on the team, and include seasoned and budding leaders. I have seen this group called a Leadership Committee, Leadership Team, Leadership Core, Team Leaders Group, etc. Regardless of the name, it is known by the entire team as the group of players who have been identified to represent their team and their class to the coaches and captains.

Structure of the Leadership Group

The best way I have seen this type of leadership group work is to adhere to the following recipe for success:

  • Start Meeting in the Fall Semester
    • Starting this group’s regular cadence of meeting within 2-3 weeks of the academic year beginning will allow the identified leaders to continuously work on their leadership development and create a strong basis before going into the traditional season in the spring. Note that these groups specifically work on building leadership knowledge, capacity, and skills and have nothing to do with volleyball or technical skills (this happens in a meeting room/classroom/online, not in a gym).

  • Non-Coach Leadership Mentor
    • Finding a consultant, campus partner, or skilled collaborator is usually the key to these type leadership groups working. Coaches should be involved throughout the process, but it has been proven that players will perform as more competent or advanced than they truly are to “impress” their coaches. Having an outside leadership consultant run these will allow leaders to be more vulnerable, authentic, and grow more rapidly. Coaches and leadership consultants must be in lockstep to ensure the leadership consultant is supporting the coach’s vision for the team.

  • Meet Regularly
    • I find it best practice for these groups to meet weekly throughout the fall and spring semesters. A time is locked in early in the semester that works for all leaders and the leadership consultant and then meetings happen unless they need to be cancelled or rescheduled. Fall semester meetings are often proactive in nature and used to set team culture, create team vision and values, work through individual leadership development assessments, and help leaders find where they fit within the larger leadership group. Spring meetings are reactive in nature and often address culture-related issues occurring on the team, specific players who are struggling and what actions need to be taken to best support them, and any other hinderance occurring that might have a negative impact of the team and their success.

  • Engage the Rest of the Team
    • I have found success in the leadership group being open and honest about the type of things they are working on when they meet. This allows the rest of the team remove the shroud of secrecy that may exist while having a “team within a team”. Leaders should not be discussing individual player situations or concerns brought up to the leadership group, but should rather discuss overall topics, themes, and gain insights from their teammates about things happening on the team.

  • All-Team Leadership Events
    • During a fall non-traditional season, it can be very impactful to bring in a leadership speaker, moderator, or consultant to engage the entire team in growing their leadership skills. This can revolve around communication skills (speaking and listening), giving and receiving feedback, strengths-based teamwork, trust building, or any other leadership skill that coaches and the leadership group identify. I would suggest these types of all-team leadership building events continue throughout the regular season and can cater to the teams’ competitive nature by using escape rooms, obstacle courses, or other team-based activities as long as the debrief specifically involves reflection around leadership skill growth.

  • Create Individual Leadership Development Plans
    • At the start of each semester, including going into the summer, the leadership consultant and coaches should work to create an action- and goal-oriented plan for each of the leaders in the leadership group. This should involve ways for them to work on their desired leadership skills (by reading leadership books, watching TedTalks, etc.), identify personal goals to become their best self (physical goals, academic goals, relational goal, etc.), and ways for the leadership group to hold themselves accountable throughout the year. This can include a leadership buddies’ program, meetings with a leadership mentor, or reflections throughout the semester on their progress.

To wrap up, team leaders are the ones who drive the culture of a program, even when the coach is not present. Investing in leaders within a team is not only the smart thing to do, but also the right thing to do. It will help players be better leaders within the institution, their friend groups, their families, and in their future careers. Leadership learning teaches skills that go far beyond the court and the campus. If this season in NCAA Division III Men’s Volleyball taught us anything, it is that anything is possible, great teams can lose to unranked teams, and culture matters. As much as coaches focus on skill, talent development, film, and practice plans, they should equally focus on leadership and player development throughout the year.

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 leadership, the mental game, team culture, and more!