The Importance of Growing as a Leader

Years ago, I made the decision that I wanted to become intentional in developing the leadership of the young men playing for our team. The growing selfishness and lack of leadership I witnessed in my players was not just disheartening but problematic to our team’s culture. Teams with great potential were underachieving, and coaching was not nearly as enjoyable as it was when I first stepped into a gym over a decade ago.

So, I searched for ways to intentionally develop those intangibles we claimed to value so highly. I read books, subscribed to daily coaching emails, and asked mentors for advice.

Initially, my biggest problem was that I was looking for a quick fix. I sought for some coaching tactic or team exercise that would show results and growth by the next practice or game. I came to realize there were no easy fixes, drills, or inspirational speeches that were going to work.

So, I took what I  thought was the most important step I could take to develop our leaders: I purchased a leadership curriculum for my team and appointed an assistant coach to guide us through the curriculum during the season. We committed to 30 minutes once a week.

As a head coach, your two most precious resources are time and money. Few coaches have the pleasure of not worrying about their budget, and every coach stresses about how to best use the time they have with their team.

In retrospect, a few hundred dollars and a 30-minute weekly commitment doesn’t seem like much to develop the most crippling weakness in our program: leadership.

But in the moment, I stressed about having enough time to install offenses and defenses, regaining our shooting rhythm after a prolonged football season, and ensuring that my players were well-conditioned.

The first thing I learned was that 30 minutes and a few hundred dollars really weren’t that big of a commitment to something so important.  The hardest thing I learned was that I failed to make the biggest and most critical investment that would be necessary to effectively develop player leadership.

The Most Influential Leader on Your Team

I remember getting on my players that season with reminders to step up as leaders: You are a leader on this team whether you want to be or not. The question is: Where are you leading us? Little leadership lectures were almost daily occurrences in our program, on top of our weekly leadership classroom sessions.

Midway through the season, we gathered as a team for our weekly leadership session. The lesson of the day was profanity, and our leadership coach started the session with a joke as he shared the topic of the week: “Coach Nerbun may need to listen up for this one today.”

Everyone laughed, including me.  The truth was they probably never had a coach who used so much profanity in their lifetime. At first, it didn’t bother me. I was not proud of my excessive use of profanity, but it was me being me. I was being “authentic”, right?

The irony of this situation was that I was sitting in the back of my classroom under a poster of John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, which outlined his core values. Above the pyramid, this quote was printed: “Handouts and discussion were meaningless unless team members could see lots of evidence of the pyramid in my own behavior as a leader and a coach. Your own personal example is one of the most powerful leadership tools you possess. Put it to good use: Be what you want your team to become.”

And as I sat through that lesson, I started to ponder if it really was right for me to use so much profanity while coaching. Something didn’t feel right. How could I feel it was okay for me or my staff to lecture these young men about profanity? What special exemption did I carry as head basketball coach?

The more I thought about this, the more I started to ask the question: How many of the leadership qualities that we discuss each week do I truly demonstrate? 

The more I mulled this over, the more I realized that I seemed to have a much different standard and view on what leadership should look like for myself than it should for my own players. So, I was the head coach, and I could get away with a lot more. Did that make it okay? Did that make it effective?

Yes, I could find ways to justify my actions, as my leadership style was often effective in getting results. But I started to really question whether it was beneficial: Am I okay with these young men emulating my leadership?

Regardless of what we believe, the reality is we are the most influential leader on our team. If we believe our team has a lack of leadership, then more often than not, we do not have to look farther than the coaching staff.

If we fail to invest in our own growth, then lecturing our players and investing in a leadership program will be like throwing seeds on the blacktop during a hot summer day and expecting them to take root. Yes, the outside forces of today’s sporting culture will dry them up just like the sun, but we will have failed to prepare an environment where they can thrive and grow.

The young people under our direction will emulate our leadership, and how we lead speaks far louder than anything we can ever say or yell.

So, I came to realize the truth of the matter: I was failing as a leader. I failed to set the right example. I was holding myself to a different standard. And if I wanted young men to grow as leaders, then I would have to start to grow as a leader, too.

Three Steps to Improve Your Team’s Leaders

1) Invest in Your Leadership

What did this look like for me? In the past, I used the word “authenticity” to justify my actions and ended up missing out on some critical opportunities for growth because of it.

After I recognized that I was far from a perfect leader, I acknowledged that I could change and grow. I went from trying to prove myself as a leader to trying to improve myself.

I started reading more than ever. I read about leadership, mental training, performance psychology, and whatever else I could get my hands on that would help. I also hired a mentor, someone on the outside who could help me on my journey.

2) Be Vulnerable with Those You Lead

I didn’t just start to change the way I led; I opened up about my experience to the young men I was leading.  My willingness to be vulnerable and acknowledge that I was far from perfect but working to grow was critical. I even opened myself to feedback from my players. I knew I had to walk the walk before they would ever listen to all my talk. If I could show them that I was willing and capable of change, then perhaps they would be more invested in growing as leaders, as well.

3) Call Them Up, Not Out

I started to realize that we were all in this journey together. I asked for their support and feedback during my journey, while offering my support along their journey.  I started to walk alongside them, instead of looming over them.  Yes, there were times when I needed to hold them accountable, but I had to surrender control because each and every one of them was on a journey of their choosing.

When I started to follow through on these steps, things changed dramatically.

The interactions that used to be filled with so much friction became growth moments for both of us. For example, when I enforced consequences for an individual who demonstrated poor body language on the bench, they responded in a whole new way because I had shared my struggle to remain composed when things did not go my way. I was calling them up, not out.

The young men became more invested in growing as leaders.

Instead of being motivated by fear or some extrinsic reward (e.g.; special privileges, captaincy, etc.), they were motivated by the freedom to make mistakes, while knowing they still had the support of their coaches and teammates. They were witnessing firsthand, through my example, the transformational impact that they could have by growing as leaders.

Call to Action

It doesn’t really matter what program you implement, or which leadership training manual you follow next season if you are not willing to look within yourself.

Great leaders know they are the most influential leader on their team. Great leaders are more concerned with what is beneficial than with what is effective. Great leaders invest their resources on “fixing” themselves, not others. Great leaders commit to walking alongside those they lead, not looming over them.


The Captain’s Council Leadership System Training Course



Implementing and effectively running the Captain’s Council within your team is a powerful way to not only develop leaders, but to increase the chances everyone in your program feels seen, known, and cared for.

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