What high school football taught me about workplace leadership
Updated: Sep 25, 2019
I recognize that beginning a blog about organizational leadership with a high school football story may seem unconventional, but stick with me.
When I was 16 years old, I played on my school’s varsity football team. With my awkward six-foot-plus frame and size fifteen sneakers, it was clear that I couldn’t pass as a “skill” position player, so the coaches assigned me to the offensive line.
My position coach, a grizzled recent retiree from the school faculty, had a strong football pedigree and decades of experience. I was eager to work with him. The only problem, as I soon discovered— he was rather critical of my play. During my years of being yelled at for missing blocking assignments and losing pass-blocking drills, I would often leave practice feeling deflated, not knowing how to improve, but keenly aware my coach thought I was doing something wrong. My mindset was closed, my opportunities for growth limited.
While I have always had a good relationship with that particular coach, and still consider him to be a profoundly influential figure in my life, the experience of being continuously yelled at has certainly left its mark.
Recently, my love of the game led me back to the gridiron, this time as a volunteer high school coach. In past seasons, I have coached offensive and defensive linemen at the middle school and high school level. I sometimes joke with my high school friends that whenever I am uncertain as to what to do next, I think about how my red-faced, foot-stomping high school position coach would handle the situation, and I promptly do the opposite.
Several years ago, I was coaching a player who had considerable physical talent. He was a natural football player who dominated the competition, but his lousy attitude was, at times, a distraction. At first, my inclination was to yell at and reprimand this player, particularly when his negative presence prevented the team from completing a drill or learning a necessary play. But having studied the value of workplace coaching and appreciative inquiry, I decided to try another tact.
I committed to repeatedly asking this player what kind of attitude his teammates would want to see from an elite-level talent like his.
"What would it look like," I would inquire "for a player of your caliber to have an attitude that matched his talent level?" "How much better would this team be," I would ask, "if your presence and demeanor were as consistent as your gameplay?"
Anytime his temper would flare or his attitude would sour, I would check my inclination to yell and reprimand, and would instead return to the core questions of appreciative inquiry.
Ever so slowly, his attitude improved. Incidents would flare up on occasion, but with decreasing frequency. While the player didn't always eagerly engage in this type of questioning, he clearly appreciated the constant reminder that he was valued. He appreciated a coach reminding him that he had potential to be even greater, and that he was in control of his own situation.
Too many workplace leaders still operate by first identifying what their teams are doing wrong - without empowering their teams to ask the questions of what might be instead. As a consequence, they view their people not as invaluable contributors to shared success, but as individual problems to be solved.
The simple yet difficult shift from asking "what went wrong" to "what could be" may be the shift your team needs - for morale, for performance, and for sustained success. I truly believe that coaching with appreciative inquiry, or questions that lead to the articulation of an ideal future state, can be a transformational tactic wherever it is practiced.