United We Lead

January 29, 2015
If you're counting on team captains to make a difference on your squad, consider this concept: shared leadership.
By Dr. Philip Willenbrock

Philip Willenbrock, EdD, is the former Head Football Coach at the University of Puget Sound. He has also coached at the NCAA Division II and high school levels and served as an adjunct faculty member at Seattle University. He welcomes comments and questions about this article and can be reached at: [email protected] or sharedteamleadership.com.

From tennis to football, in high schools and colleges, just about every team has them: captains. And coaches, myself included, typically put great faith in these student-athlete leaders.

Most coaches would go so far as to say that peer leadership is a critical aspect of team performance. After a difficult season, we often express disappointment with the leadership exhibited by captains. Following great seasons, we have high praise for our team leaders.

But how much time do we put into thinking about the structure and success of our team captaincy model? Peer leadership has a great impact on a team's chemistry and competitiveness--and ultimately a coach's job security--yet we place this responsibility in the hands of one or two young people who may or may not be "all-in" with the program.

This dichotomy got me thinking about how to make team captains more effective. Through 20 years of coaching football at the NCAA Division II, Division III, and high school levels, including nine as head coach, I have been intrigued by improving team leadership, and I was interested in exploring a new model.

After some research and experiments, I feel I've found an exciting new concept. Called "shared team leadership," it spreads captain responsibilities among a group of athletes and teaches them how to be effective leaders. Implementing the idea with the football team at the University of Puget Sound was a great success, for both coaches and student-athletes.

My initial research into the topic of team captains found that many coaches are frustrated by the quality of team leadership on their squads. I also learned that team captains often do not understand their role or have not been counseled on leadership principles.

Part of the problem is the way we choose captains. In most instances, team captains are assigned by the head coach or elected by team members. My research and experience found that neither system consistently works well. Individual popularity and athletic ability earns certain individuals captaincy, but that doesn't mean they will be effective in their roles.

Recognizing the shortcomings of our current selection systems, I looked at leadership models used in the business world and was intrigued by the idea of shared leadership. What if, instead of the traditional model of one, two, or three captains, a larger group of team members take on the role? This is the basic premise behind shared leadership.

Used successfully in the business world, shared leadership is defined by Pearce and Conger in Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership, as an interactive influence process in a group or team, which may include peer leadership and influence among and between members of the group. Shared leadership practitioners believe that no single individual possesses the capacity to effectively play all possible leadership roles within an organization. Instead, leadership should be spread among many individuals, allowing each to use their own strengths to assist peers.

On a sports team, this means that the responsibility of captaincy is taken on by not just a few of the top athletes, but by a whole segment of the team, such as all the seniors. This group works together to foster teamwork and camaraderie, with each student-athlete bringing his or her unique qualities to the table to help lead the team.

In 2002, I took over a football program at Puget Sound that had seen only one winning season in nearly 20 years. But from 2004 to 2008, the team experienced its most successful and consistent performance since the early 1980s. While numerous factors contribute to a team's competitiveness, a major factor impacting the cultural change within our program was the introduction of shared team leadership.

The traditional captain system had proven ineffective in my first seasons at Puget Sound, producing poor peer team leadership and a senior class not aligned with the program's philosophy. So starting in the fall of 2004, we decided to challenge the entire senior class to share in the leadership of the team. Because all seniors have social power based on their class status, this was a good group to hand the leadership reins to. We called them the Leadership Group, or LG.

The experiment proved successful, and we committed to using shared leadership from then on. While starting with rudimentary principles, the idea evolved over time into a seamless system beginning anew each year as seniors left and juniors were elevated to the new leadership team.

What were the benefits of this approach? The first was that the system brought greater team unity by developing a community rather than a collection of segmented groups within the team. Because there was sharing of information and collective decision-making among a large segment, our players bought in to the entire program. This led to a climate of trust and respect.

Second, it furthered the leadership skills of my student-athletes. Through this program, we taught our student-athletes specifics on how to lead effectively. Most institutions today want to teach leadership to their students, and this gave us a structure to do so.

I also liked that shared leadership has the potential to teach every student-athlete in a program leadership skills. Instead of allowing just a few athletes to be captains, everyone is afforded the opportunity. That provides more learning opportunities for more individuals--and also can uncover a great leader who would otherwise go unnoticed. And don't dismiss the increased satisfaction players experience when they're able to feel included as a leader.

Shared leadership offers the additional benefit of developing maturity and responsibility in young people, which may curtail off-field problems. When team members are given responsibility, there are more likely to take ownership of their actions and toe the line.

The only problem we found was that sometimes there was a perceived absence of a leadership voice. Some players like to be able to point to one or two specific teammates to lead them, and they wondered who to turn to when they had a problem. We corrected this by appointing game captains to take the lead on key issues during each week.

Some coaches fear that shared leadership takes the head coach out of the picture, but this is not the case at all. The head coach still remains at the top of the organization with final approval or veto power on all actions.

Implementing shared leadership is not difficult, but it does take a commitment by the coaching staff. Coaches must buy into the concept that every senior has an important role on the team and put time aside for teaching leadership skills. Here's a rundown of the steps I took with our Leadership Group:

Get to Know Players: An initial action for me each year was to learn more about every senior and understand him better on a personal level. During the spring semester, I scheduled a one-hour lunch meeting with each senior. I asked about his future plans, family issues, goals, aspirations, and friendships--anything but football. By establishing a dialogue with no hidden agenda, trust was developed in our relationship. Learning more about each individual allowed me to take opportunities for brief but thoughtful conversations throughout his senior year.

Implement Curriculum: In addition to one-on-one meetings, I met with the full group weekly during the spring semester to talk about leadership. I presented ideas on leadership, team dynamics, and decision making. We also discussed team policies and shared thoughts on what changes, if any, needed to be made.

After a few years, I formalized the meetings through a 16-week seminar addressing issues in Character, Leadership, Actualization, Synergy, and program Sustainability (C.L.A.S.S.). The curriculum covers issues from leadership principles to decision making. (See "Top Topics" below for a closer look.)

Providing a clear agenda for each meeting was important to stay on topic. We also asked everyone to follow these simple but important rules:

• Withhold judgment about another person's values.
• Respect individual differences and divergent views.
• Speak personally and specifically rather than generally.
• Eliminate personal prejudice, expectations, biases, and the need to control the discussion.
• Listen when others speak.

Organizational Change: The group established team goals for the season and a list of things they needed to stop doing, start doing, and continue doing in order to meet behavioral expectations. This was an important organizational change strategy that clearly identified key behavioral objectives and alterations to team culture.

Some examples of STOP areas included: making excuses, poor practice tempo, and complacency. Some examples of START areas included: getting together socially more often as a team, community service activities, and 100-percent team attendance at off-season training sessions. Some CONTINUE examples included: doing more than what is asked, maintaining competitiveness, and holding team-building activities.

Give Each a Voice: LG members each took turns addressing the team following a spring practice or workout through a three- to five-minute talk, helping to establish their accountability for leadership and sense of influence. We identified 10 character traits--responsibility, trust, self-control, balance, respect, forgiveness, fairness, integrity, sacrifice, and perseverance--as program keystones. Each LG member chose the day he would speak to the team and the term he wanted to talk about.

Courageous Conversations: Throughout the year, LG members and I engaged in courageous conversations with each other about attitudes, assumptions, habits, and behaviors. Some of the sessions were discussions on issues and others were called to handle disciplinary situations.

I would introduce the question or topic, then let a senior lead the discussion or make the final recommendation for discipline. As head coach, I always had veto power, but enabling the team to wrestle with these concepts in a democratic setting taught them how to reach consensus.

These conversations were key in creating a sense of community among the senior class. They all needed to be on the same page for shared leadership to work. One such conversation led to the dismissal of a returning all-conference player who would not buy in to the direction of the program as a senior. While we were concerned about losing a player of his caliber, it turned out to be positive. None of the staff realized this player was undermining the program, but the leadership team did. They saw that his negative attitude was doing more harm than good. This decision was a significant turning point in the football program.

Leadership Pods: During fall practice, I divided the team into 14 pods, each led by a senior. This structural change immediately placed every senior in an equal leadership role. The pods were used to create a daily line of communication among all team members.

Pod members were assigned lockers near each other, warmed up together, and operated as a team for the entire fall. Fun situations were organized where pods would be pitted against each other in competitions. The pod leader was responsible for assessing the "heartbeat" of each member of his pod and addressing any necessary issues. If one of his pod members needed to run after practice, missed a study session, or required extra discipline, the pod leader would enforce such activity.

Communication: I met with the LG as necessary throughout the early part of the season to discuss issues of team morale, effort, and chemistry. The group would tell me when it thought we might need to lighten up practices, if some players were burned out, if any freshmen were talking about quitting, if there was any after hours behavior detrimental to the team, and other similar issues.

At the beginning, LG members hesitated to reveal such information for fear of "telling on someone." But when they realized it would help keep the team on track, they were willing to bring up issues that I could address one-on-one with a player when necessary.

Team Building: Seniors were divided into six groups, with each group responsible for organizing one fall team-building activity. Coaches were not present, but due to the leadership curriculum, LG members knew the type and format of programs that would benefit team chemistry and keep everyone engaged. Some examples were: bowling and pizza night, volunteer activity at the local boys and girls club, board game night, and a whiffle ball tournament. With any of the competitive activities, teams remained in their pods.

Game-Week Captains: Twice during the season, each senior served as a game captain, becoming responsible for team decisions on discipline, motivation, and team building and representing the team to the media. If a team member had a significant policy violation or interpersonal issue, the game-week captains acted as LG meeting facilitators.

Reflection: Every Sunday, we had meetings with the LG where we discussed previous and upcoming weeks. I started with a leadership quote or story, which sparked a brief conversation about the team's morale after the game on Saturday. We then discussed organizational issues from the past week and established our main message points for the next week and opponent.

In addition, Sunday meetings enabled game-week captains to discuss any leadership challenges they faced. Most revolved around principles like motivation, execution, communication, and discipline. This process of reflecting on leadership ensures that there will be improvement when the next opportunity arises.

While the above structure worked well for us year in and out, we did tweak it based on the senior LG. One year when I felt that our senior leadership skills were weak, I named one player as an every-game captain along with the two weekly captains. Some years I had to be present for many of the off-season discussions, while in other years, the group was capable of handling most any issue on its own. There is great flexibility to the system to adapt to the uniqueness of each group as they ascend to leadership.

A shared leadership model may be the key to solving any team dynamics problems your coaches have been facing. With a little planning, any team can find great rewards, both on the field and off, through this concept.

Sidebar: Top Topics
To teach our seniors how to tackle their leadership roles, I implemented a curriculum that includes 16 topics, with only minor facilitation needed by a coach. The program progresses from general principles of character and self-leadership to aspects of team leadership dynamics and decision making. It can be implemented as a 16-week off-season curriculum, or a 16-hour weekend retreat.

Below are the 16 topics addressed:

• General qualities of leadership and personal perspectives
• Shared leadership principles and personal leadership strengths
• Principles of leadership and team captain traits
• Organizational leadership and personal priorities
• Self leadership, including how to be an effective leader
• Servant leadership
• Team leadership dynamics
• Team expectations and developing a shared vision
• Community building and culture change strategies
• Character
• Dealing with the reality of the situation
• Goal setting
• Decision making strategies
• Leading in conflict and learning from failures
• Class
• Team building strategies
SEARCH for Products
SEARCH for Vendors

Lockers That Work

Looking for lockers for your team rooms? All-Star sport lockers from List Industries have raised the bar with their quality, functionality, and durability. All-Star locker feature List’s exclusive Hollow-T framing system that has ½” 13-gauge flattened expanded metal sides for maximum ventilation, safety, and rigidity. Plus, interlocking body components create a sturdy sports locker that … CLICK TO READ MORE...

Moving Up to the Pros

After years of success serving the college athletic market, G2L Window Systems got the call up to the pros. A G2L system was installed in one of the suites at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles. G2L Window Systems feature frameless, open-air design that allows fans to enjoy the sounds and smells of … CLICK TO READ MORE...

Record Boards Suited for the Diamond

Baseball and softball season is just around the corner, so this a perfect time to think about the best way celebrate the accomplishments of these teams. Austin Plastics & Supply offers a large variety of record display boards designed specifically for baseball and softball. Most focus on individual season and career records for pitching and … CLICK TO READ MORE...