This article is also published on The Coaches Toolbox, a collection of resources for coaches of all sports.
By Dr. Cory Dobbs, The Academy for Sport Leadership
Former WBB Coach
Successful leaders are aware that leadership is really as much, if not more, a relational process as it is about vision and mission. For these leaders business is about more than simply getting people to perform tasks effectively. These leaders are caring stewards of people.
It may seem hard to believe today, but there was a time not too long ago when people were treated as “hired hands” or as a “cog in the wheel.” However, this outmoded approach to managing people has fallen into disfavor. Yet most people will tell you few leaders are adept at the human side of leadership. Here’s the catch: people bring their lives to work. As much as some leaders want to dismiss this human factor, they do so at their own peril. Simply, the human side of leadership is all about relationships, and a healthy relationship demands that we embrace the total person.
Great coaches know how to bring out the best in those they lead. As you will see, Jenny Boucek’s ability to capture the hearts and minds of her players creates a sense of loyalty and trust that moves players to passionately follow her. To make a lasting difference it matters how well you work with others—how you serve others.
Boucek has been involved in the WNBA from its very beginning; first as a player, now as a coach. Boucek began her coaching career as an assistant with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. Her leadership journey includes several stops as an assistant coach prior to taking the lead role as head coach with the Sacramento Monarchs from 2007 through 2009, and now as the Associate Head Coach with the Seattle Storm.
One clear leadership trend over the past 20 years has been a shift away from command and control, where employees serve the leader, to the more compelling practice of leaders serving their people. In sports and business, it’s become a standard leadership responsibility to care for those you lead.
The servant leader dedicates herself to uplifting followers, bringing them closer to achieving their full potential. The end goal of servant-leadership is for those served to grow and develop as a player, as a teammate, as a worker, and as a person.
“My job as a leader is to do everything I possibly can to help each player reach her full potential and whatever it takes for our team to reach its potential. As someone who cares about people I want to be able to help each player contribute her best to the team.”
Servant leadership emphasizes the role of the leader as one who paves the way and provides support allowing followers to function at their best. The leader creates an environment that cultivates and nourishes the growth and development of each team member. As a servant leader Boucek pays attention to each individual’s needs for achievement and growth by acting as a coach, mentor, facilitator, counselor, confidant, and teacher.
“Whatever it takes, I’m working hard to cultivate an environment conducive to maximal growth. It’s hard at times, but putting the needs of others before your own needs, for the greater good of the team, that’s my job as a coach.”
To develop others to their full potential requires a special relationship. Boucek gives players the practical tools and coaching they need to be successful. She is intentional in her actions, creating an individualized framework for relating to each player as an individual.
“Any time you’re dealing with people, it’s the nature of the individual relationship that matters.”
“No two people are the same. So I treat each player differently. No relationship with two people is the same. I embrace the uniqueness of each relationship. And every day is unique. We don’t know the challenges that may emerge, but we need to have a relationship that can withstand them; benefit from our working together to overcome the daily adversities.”
“There is no formula when it comes to relationship building. I think that’s what makes relationship building fun.”
Whether you are developing a new team or looking to reenergize a team of veterans, relationships matter. In an increasingly interdependent world, it is essential that leaders discover how to build deep, trusting relationships with those they lead.
More than ever, today’s organizations demand that people come together to work on increasingly complex projects and solve confusing dilemmas while operating in an environment of dizzying ups and agonizing downs. We no longer have simple problems. Rather, the day-to-day challenges we face in our groups, teams, companies, and communities are quite complicated.
Whether your business is coaching basketball or leading a sales team, developing your people is vital to winning. Indeed, leaders must find ways to elicit the best from people—their talents, intelligence, and passions—so that they can successfully make positive changes in the midst of an ever-changing world. To do this demands prioritizing people over products or processes.
For Boucek, leadership is not simply about winning—it’s about improvement. It’s about making people feel important, not inferior.
“My emphasis is not on winning, but on helping each player become their best. I’ve found that negative emotions such as fear or insecurity are alleviated when players focus on becoming the best they can become. Players seldom win by comparing themselves to other players.
When players work to become their best they become freed up from a fear of failure. The fear of failure is found in mistakes. I don’t want players fearing making mistakes.”
“We want the players to be motivated by what they can contribute to the team—what the team needs from them—not what they can’t contribute, but what they do well.”
The best organizations, companies like Microsoft, Google, GE, and REI, understand that success depends on creating an environment where everyone can grow and develop into their best selves. These organizations nurture a culture where people are valued and are presented opportunities to learn, to improve, and to enjoy the entire work experience.
“I think many organizations miss the point, they go off to a retreat with the mantra of something like “less of me for a better we.” I disagree. I’d change it and say ‘a better me for a better we.’ We want players to get better at what they do best. The player’s goal should be to be their best.”
“Furthermore, the only time we’re going to grow, individually and as a team, is when we’re outside our comfort zone making mistakes, stretching to the point of pain. If we’re not making mistakes we’re wasting our time.”
Great companies and teams focus on developing and leveraging the unique talents and skills of its members—the source of sustainable competitive advantage.
“You can’t be your best, as an individual or a group, unless you know who you are—what you’re good at. What we’re good at. Players need to know what separates them from other players. You can’t be good at everything. So the successful players recognize and internalize ‘This is what I’m good at.’ You won’t make it in the WNBA if you don’t know what got you here.”
Leadership is not a basket of tricks and tactics. Rather, it depends on the subtle personal qualities one possesses, the values and beliefs one holds and uses to guide the decisions they make, and the bold actions one takes to get the right things done at the right time. If there is one underlying principle many great leaders share, it is this: the key to effective leadership is prioritizing people. After all, it is people that produce the results.
Boucek is a remarkable coach and an outstanding leader. She inspires others through nurturing highly personal relationships. Her leadership and passion has a rippling effect. This past season the Seattle Storm, minus its two best players, maximized its potential by each player working everyday to transform themselves and each other. Taking to heart Boucek’s philosophy of a better me for a better we.
Prior to the first game of the season the team’s two stars went down with injuries. For most team’s this would signal a quick end to high expectations for the season. Not for Boucek and her team. Winning teams have players who make things happen. And for Boucek and the Seattle Storm, prioritizing people and building a “better me” had a positive impact on every player and the team.
THE ESSENSE OF A TEAM
If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place. –Margaret Mead, Anthropologist
When we think about a great team, invariably the image we conjure up contains a great player. Perhaps it’s true that great teams have a great player. But when we dig deeper we find such things as teamwork, trust, cohesion, and commitment to one another as driving factors in a team’s success.
Our tendency is to assign greatness to players that achieve great results—produce statistics that provide evidence of skill, ability, and performance capability. But it is the way people work together to generate a collective product, accomplish a shared mission, and commit to one another that is the essence of a team. The long-haul winners are those organizations that rely on true teamwork.
As the quote from Mead advises, a richer culture will emerge when we weave together diverse human gifts. That process of weaving together diverse human gifts is the essence of a team’s work. There are no magic potions for success, but teamwork sure does come close.
The process of weaving together the unique personalities and skills is the domain of coaching. For Boucek, the first task of leadership is to promote teamwork.
“No one player holds the key to our team’s success. Part of my role as a coach is to help players recognize that part of being a team is learning to collaborate—to work together to make the whole. We have diverse parts that do what they do well, and when we come together we’re able to create a dynamic team.”
This simple, but profound operational value is a vital factor in the success of any team. Take for example what a leading corporate CEO recently said: “When we are at our best, we are a mosaic of people and ideas. Each unique piece fits with the others, and contributes significantly to the whole. The whole mosaic is far more stunning and clever than any one piece.”
One of the most important aspects of leadership is competence and the intelligence to use relational skills to build a culture of trust, loyalty, and high performance. Boucek sees a team’s culture as a derivative of team leadership—that is leadership provided by players; what she calls “indigenous leadership.”
“I firmly believe that the best leadership comes from within. That is, players are really influential in creating the culture. Peer pressure is a strong force and can be used for the good of the team. It’s certainly not easy to lead one’s peers, but it’s essential to building a positive team culture. Sometimes I’m surprised by the ones that influence the best. They are not the one’s you or I would have envisioned as leaders.”
The striking difference between good teams and great teams resides within its indigenous leadership. The nature of team sports is such that the stronger leaders are those with highly developed interpersonal skills, possess emotional intelligence and truly care about those they lead. In general, the more mature players are those with the insight and experience to navigate the tumultuous environment of high performance.
“A natural hierarchy tends to emerge, one in which younger players look up to veterans, and veterans want to teach their younger teammates to lead. At times we want our best players to be the leaders, but if they’re the younger players they may not yet be leaders.”
Leadership expert John Maxwell asks, “Everyone knows that teamwork is a good thing: in fact, it’s essential! But how does it really work? What makes a winning team? Smart business leaders will do well adopting Boucek’s idea of indigenous leadership. Leadership from within is a good start to answering Maxwell’s questions.
THE CHANGING ENVIRONMENT
The Black Eyed Peas front man Will I. Am, following his attendance at White House Gala, made an appearance on the esteemed weekly political show Meet the Press. The moderator, David Gregory, asked Will how the 2014 star-studded political gala differed from the one he attended in 2008.
Will I. Am noted that what stood out for him was that the attendees—politicians and other powerful and highly visible people—were spending their time engaged with their cell phones texting and tweeting, rather than mixing and mingling. Hmmm…
Here’s an enlightening question: how does the external environment influence your organization? On the one hand, in a broad sense, our culture is vast and complex.
On the other hand, the ways in which we now relate to one another has changed tremendously as a result of the proliferation of such things as the use of the smart phone that Will I. Am experienced at the White House. Far too often people are oblivious to the physical environment they’re in, because they’re somewhere else mentally.
Many social commentators today express concern over the lack of team players to be found in the youth cohort many call Generation iY; those youth that have grown up with the Internet and whose lives are defined by technology.
If we are to harness the capacity of this generation we’ll need to understand and learn to lead this group in a different manner. Author, researcher, and youth leader Tim Elmore coined the term Generation iY. Elmore did so because “Theirs is a world of the iPod, iBook, iPhone, iChat, iMovie, iPad, and iTunes. And for many of them, life is pretty much about ‘I.’ And these young “I” focused people do graduate and go to work.
“The spirit of entitlement is strong in our youth culture. Our culture breeds a sense of entitlement in young players. We need to root it out. It’s a serious problem. What we want to do is to get something started, and it’s hard to do. But what we want our veterans to do is to initiate the rooting out process.”
“Older players need to communicate to the younger players that ‘You are lucky to be here.’ You are fortunate to be here and be a part of this team. When we root out the spirit of entitlement then everyone is thankful to be here. They understand that they are in a special situation.”
Social scientists are in agreement: human behaviors are to a great degree shaped by the environment and the actions of the people around them. It is crucial that as a leader you explore and understand how the external environment is influencing your environment, your organization, your team.
“Don’t give them things before they’ve earned it. They’ve got to earn their playing time. They’ve got to earn their way. And it doesn’t matter how talented they are. They’ve got to live up to the standards of how we do things and why we do what we do.”
“It happens quickly for some, but younger players have to earn their way—and they’re not entitled to such things as playing time. It’s not about being disrespectful or degrading; rather it’s about learning to value the opportunity they have to be a part of something special.”
“It’s like that statement: Ask not what your country can do for you but what can you do for your country? Apply this to your team: ask what can you do for your team? You’ve got to work hard to change minds and get that serving mentality into your culture.”
Let’s face it, the pace of change has taken over our lives. This is partly because of the ups and downs of our economy; but also the relentless technological advances that continue to embed themselves into the world we live in. It cannot be overstated that building and maintaining a winning organization in this environment is no easy task.
In today’s organization, the capacity to lead others, to influence the way people think, feel, or act is crucial for high performance. And the best leaders do this authentically. They truly care about the long-term outcomes of their actions, especially when it comes to people. For these leaders it’s about being the kind of person that others want to follow. For Boucek it’s about acting with strong values and integrity, being someone others can count on—especially when it counts.
“As a leader you need to be authentic. You can’t expect qualities from your people if you don’t possess those qualities yourself. So if you’re not honest, how can you expect others to be honest with you?” “When people choose to follow you, it’s because you represent who they want to be like.”
Leadership is also about expressing belief in others so strongly that their appreciation of your belief in them inspires them to rise to new heights.
“In reality, it’s leading not driving. As a leader, people will follow if you’re going in a direction that they too want to go. They want to know if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. People will follow because they want to get there too, and they trust that you’ll help them get where they want to go.”
People have a deep-seated need to be valued, to know that they matter—that what they do has meaning. People need to feel that they are more than a cog in the wheel, a replaceable part that simply shows up for work and collects a paycheck. If the human spirit is shut down, how can your team—your company—be competitive and successful?
“It’s the responsibility of the coaching staff to set in motion a culture, to nurture the values and behaviors you want to live with. I want to cultivate a culture conducive for maximal growth. So I serve the team to find ways to help everyone reach standards of excellence. And to do this while serving one another.”
Outstanding teams are more than just a group of people working together. You see, building a great team and winning championships is tough to do. It takes a clear sense of direction, passion, commitment, clearly defined goals, and clearly defined roles. High performing teams value the contributions of each member in pursuit of a shared purpose. In this context the exceptional team player is willing to commit to team goals even if they conflict with her personal goals..
“We want the players to want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. When players recognize this they work hard to contribute to the team. When the player say’s ‘I know I need to do my part for this team to do well’ and “I truly care about my teammates,’ it’s a completely different level of motivation. And that will trump everything else.”
This emphasis on creating results manifests itself in a very simple team reality: when players accept, support, and encourage each other they improve the team’s performance. Together, they embark on a journey in pursuit of worthwhile goals, and along the way they develop a deep commitment to building a great team.
THE NET EFFECT
In the words of Ticha Penicherio, WNBA All-Star
Jenny Boucek was one of the best coaches that I had in my career. Some words that define her are: passionate, dedicated, hard working, competitive, knowledgeable, great leader, intelligent, charismatic…all important characteristics to succeed in sports and in life.
The thing that I was most impressed about Jenny, is that at such a young age and with big responsibilities she was able to teach us not only to be the best players that we could possibly be, but also the best people that we could be.
She used basketball to teach us about real life situations and showed us how they are both related, in a way that made us more mature. I can honestly say that Jenny did not only developed me as a player, but most importantly, I feel like I’m a better person, friend, leader, daughter, sister and human being. So thank you Jenny for your dedication to this game we both love (basketball), but most important, your mission to be a good person in this world. You have definitely rubbed off on me in an amazing way and I will be forever grateful.
Penicherio is the all-time WNBA leader in assists and holds the WNBA single-game record for most steals with 10. Penicheiro is well known for her consistently flashy style of play. In 2005 she helped the Sacramento Monarchs win their first ever WNBA championship title.
ABOUT JENNY BOUCEK
Most recently head coach, Seattle Storm. Boucek served as an assistant coach for the Storm under Anne Donovan during the 2003, 2004 and 2005 seasons and was an integral part of the 2004 WNBA championship team. Additionally, Boucek served as the head coach for the now defunct Sacramento Monarchs and compiled a record of 40-41 during her two-plus seasons (2007-2009) with the organization. With her title in Sacramento, Boucek became the first person in WNBA history to be a player, assistant coach and head coach in the league.
Boucek was an advanced scout for the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, the first woman to hold that title within an NBA organization.
After beginning her WNBA coaching career began in 1999 as an assistant with the Washington Mystics, Boucek spent three seasons as an assistant with the Miami Sol. She played professional basketball for two years before joining the coaching ranks. In 1997, the WNBA’s inaugural season, Boucek was a member of the Cleveland Rockers.
Boucek also played in Iceland in 1998 and was voted the country’s best player after averaging 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists. She returned to Cleveland for the 1998 season but was forced to retire due to a career-ending back injury.
A four-year starter at the University of Virginia (1992-96), Boucek helped lead the Cavaliers to four regular-season ACC Championships and three NCAA Elite Eight appearances. She was a two-time GTE Academic All-America team member and two-time ACC selection. Boucek twice earned team Defensive Player of the Year honors and finished her career at Virginia as a member of the 1,000-point club. She also competed in the U.S. Olympic Festival in 1993.
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
This article was written by Cory Dobbs, Ed.D., President of The Academy for Sport Leadership. The Academy for Sport Leadership is a leading educational leadership training firm that uses sound educational principles, research, and learning theories to create leadership resources. The academy has developed a coherent leadership development framework and programs covering the cognitive, psycho-motor, emotional and social dimensions of learning, thus addressing the dimensions necessary for healthy development and growth of student-athletes.
About the Author
Cory Dobbs is the founder and president of The Academy for Sport Leadership, a national leader in research‐based curriculum for coaches and student‐athletes. Dr. Dobbs is a college educator, a coach to successful coaches (helping coaches attain a higher level of success), and an accomplished human performance specialist whose expertise is in the field of leadership, team building, and creating a high‐performance culture in the arena of team sports. Cory blends social‐personality, psychology, and applied social psychology, which means he studies how people’s thoughts, behaviors, and preferences are influenced by both who they are and the situations they’re in. He uses Teamwork IntelligenceTM to help teams explore how the mix of perspectives brought by their individual members influences their work together.
About The Academy for Sport Leadership
The Academy for Sport Leadership is a leading educational leadership training firm that uses sound educational principles, research, and learning theories to create leadership resources. The academy has developed a coherent leadership development framework and programs covering the cognitive, psycho-motor, emotional and social dimensions of learning, thus addressing the dimensions necessary for healthy development and growth of student-athletes.
The Academy for Sport Leadership’s underlying convictions are as follows: 1) the most important lessons of leadership are learned in real-life situations, 2) team leaders develop best through active practice, structured reflection, and feedback, 3) learning to lead is an on-going process in which guidance from a mentor coach helps facilitate learning and growth, and 4) leadership lessons learned in sport should transcend the game and assist student-athletes in developing the capacity to lead in today’s changing environment. www.sportleadership.com