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Developing a Leadership Capacity in Athletes

The Context and Culture Make a Difference in Developing Your Team Leaders

By Cory Dobbs, Ed.D., The Academy for Sport Leadership


It didn’t dawn on me that there might be anxieties and risk involved in team learning until I put a few work teams at a Fortune 100 company under a microscope. To say the very least, what I observed was a wide-range of defensive and protective processes which ultimately closed off the team’s members from learning and instead created a variety of dysfunctions anchoring the team’s collective efforts in the harbor of mediocrity.

As a result of this work I decided to take a closer look at how student-athletes learn in a team setting, and in particular how the context influences the perceived risk involved in learning to lead one’s teammates. Upon closer inspection it became obvious that many of the risks involved in team learning in the corporate world are mirrored in the athletic world. Likewise, learning to lead in a team environment is risky business.

So, how do you get student-athletes to learn together? There are no simple answers. However, knowing that the context greatly affects learning is a step in the right direction if you’re serious about your players learning how to lead.

Leadership Development and Psychological Safety

When a student-athlete takes on a leadership role it’s important to understand that he or she will learn primarily through trial and error (which is why I firmly believe in deliberate practice—scrimmage—as a way to reduce perceived risks). If a student is learning physical geography he or she will learn in private with no one else aware of his or her mistakes. However, learning to lead in a team setting requires learning by trial and error in interpersonal interactions. Learning this way is certainly not learning in private and the consequences of actions always involve one’s teammates. Therefore, team leaders perceive risk in appearing ignorant and or incompetent in front of their peers.

Because most student-athletes have little experience at leading, which includes making mistakes in front of teammates, such fears as embarrassment and rejection are always present. And many student-athletes are reluctant to take actions or to speak up or speak out for fear that their actions may be held against them by teammates. To neutralize such fears it’s in your best interest to create a psychologically safe environment.

Let’s start with what I mean by psychological safety. It is a shared belief by all team members that the team is an environment where everyone has a sense of confidence that others will not embarrass, disrespect, disregard, or punish someone for taking action or speaking up or speaking out. All members understand that a supportive learning environment is necessary to build a psychologically safe team context.

The central idea is that a psychologically safe team environment will produce higher performing team learning and team leadership. Expressed as a formula it looks like this:

At the heart of the growth of a team leader is the leader as a learner, the learning process, and the context which together form the cornerstone of leadership development. Always keep in mind that the team leader is engaging in learning a new mind-set as well as a new skill-set. That is, the student-athlete as a team leader is undergoing a tremendous transformation and that is why creating a psychologically safe environment is necessary.

Creating a Psychologically Safe Learning Environment

Years ago, during a seminar the late Peter Drucker asked an elite group of executives “How many of you have deadwood in your organization?” referring to those employees that had retired on the job. The hands of every one of the high-profile CEOs went skyward. He then asked “Were they that way when you brought them into your organization?” The implication was obvious, if they were then the leader was at fault for hiring them, and if they weren’t then something inside the organization “caused” the employee to basically give up on improving and become organizational deadwood. The point is that the context has a much more profound effect on how people behave than most leaders

The question, then, is what can you do to create a psychologically safe environment for team leaders learning to lead? The first step is to understand your team environment as it is and how it interacts with the internal achievement drive of your team leaders. To do this, use the model below.

Hopefully the matrix above can provide a window into your current team context and how it is affecting the development of your team leaders. Psychological safety is an important component of creating an effective learning space for you and your team. The purpose of this brief article is to provide an introduction into the practice of developing a team leader’s capacity to lead through the process of team learning. When you involve all members of the team in the learning of leadership you’re more likely to create an effective learning environment.

Let me issue a quick reminder that leadership is a social influence process in which team leaders work to motivate or persuade teammates to achieve specific individual and team goals. As such, the norms, beliefs, and values that emerge from team member interactions will create team dynamics that will influence the social structure and social processes that will either enhance or inhibit team learning. Your goal as the chief architect of the environment should be to create a psychologically safe learning zone.

Ultimately, you have more to do with a team leader’s learning to lead—or not learning—than you probably thought you did. If you’re not growing team leaders, then it’s likely the problem is not the seed, it’s the soil.


To find out more about and order Sport Leadership Books authored by Dr. Dobbs including Coaching for Leadership, click this link: The Academy for Sport Leadership Books

About the Author

A former basketball coach, Cory’s coaching background includes experience at the NCAA DII, NJCAA, and high school levels of competition. While coaching, he researched and developed the transformative Becoming a Team Leader program for student-athletes. Cory has worked with professional athletes, collegiate athletic programs and high schools teaching leadership as a part of the sports experience and education process. Cory cut his teeth as a corporate leader with Fortune 500 member, The Dial Corp. As a consultant and trainer Dr. Dobbs has worked with such organizations as American Express, Honeywell, and Avnet.

Cory has taught a variety of courses on leadership and change for the following universities:

Northern Arizona University (Graduate Schools of Business and Education)

Ohio University (Graduate School of Education / Management and Leadership in Sport)

Grand Canyon University (Sports Marketing and Sports Management in the Colangelo School of Sports Business)

Visit to read Cory’s leadership blog.

This article originally appeared on the Coaches Toolbox, a collection of free resources for coaches of all sports.