It Has To Start With You (and 3 steps to grow as a leader)

Guest post from coach J.P. Nerbun
What steps are you willing to take to develop leaders? 
Three years ago I made the decision that I wanted to become “intentional” in developing the leadership and character of the young men playing for our team.
I had coached in Ireland, Lithuania, and now in Tennessee.
The growing selfishness and lack of leadership I witnessed in our youth was not just disheartening, but problematic.
Teams with “great potential” were underachieving and coaching was not nearly as enjoyable as it was when I first stepped into a gym ten years ago with a whistle around my neck.

So I searched for ways to intentionally develop those intangibles that we claim to value so highly.
I read books, subscribed to daily coaching emails, and asked mentors.
Initially, my biggest problem was that I was looking for a quick fix.
I sought 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.

And then I came across the “Lead ‘Em Up” leadership program during a podcast episode of “The Hardwood Hustle”.
Just what I needed.
Once a week for 30 minutes we would have a designated assistant coach guide our players through a leadership program.
I can make that work!

As a head coach you know that 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 use their practice time.

My big leap of faith was choosing to invest both our limited time and money in the Lead ‘Em Up leadership program.
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 my players were well conditioned.

The first thing I learned was that 30 minutes and a few hundred dollars really isn’t that big of a commitment to something so important.
The hardest thing I learned was that I had failed to make the biggest and most critical investment that would be necessary for this program to be effective.

Are you ready to develop your most influential leader? 
At the start of the season I spoke with our “leaders” everyday.
I was like a broken record: “You are a leader on this team whether you want to be or not. The question is where are you leading us?”
Pretty clever, right?
It was January and we gathered as a team on a Sunday evening for our 30 minute “Lead ‘Em Up” meeting.
We were mid way through the curriculum and the topic was profanity.
Our leadership coach even started with a joke at the beginning: “Coach Nerbun may need to listen up for this one today.”
Everyone laughed including myself.
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?
As I got to thinking, I started to wonder why I believed it was okay for me to use so much profanity as a coach.
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 discussed each week did I TRULY demonstrate?
The more I mulled this over, the more I realized 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 am the head coach and I can get away with a lot more.
Does that make it okay?
Does that make it effective?
I could find ways to justify my actions and see how my leadership style was often effective in getting results.
But I started to really question whether it was beneficial.
Was I okay with these young men emulating my leadership?

Regardless of whatever you believe, the reality is you are the most influential leader on your team.
If you believe your team has a lack of leadership, then more often than not, you do not have to look further than the coaching staff.
If you fail to invest in your own growth, then lecturing your players and investing in a leadership program like “Lead ‘Em Up” will be like throwing seeds on the black top during a hot summer day expecting them to take root.
Yes-the outside forces of today’s sporting culture will dry them up just like the sun, but you will have failed to prepare an environment where they can thrive and grow.
The young men or women under your direction will emulate your 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, I would have to start to growing as a leader.

1) Invest in Your Leadership
What did that 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.
After I recognized the fact that I was a far from perfect leader, I acknowledged 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. Leadership, mental training, performance psychology, whatever 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, but I opened up about the experience to the young men I was leading.
My willingness to be vulnerable and acknowledge I was far from perfect, but was working to grow, was critical.
I even opened myself up 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 I was willing and capable of change then perhaps they would be more invested in growing as leaders as well.

3) Advocacy with Accountability 
I started to realize 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 I would need to hold them accountable, but I had to surrender control to the fact that 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 growing moments for both of us.
For example, when I enforced consequences for an individual demonstrating poor body language on the bench, they responded in a whole new way, because I had shared with them my struggle to remain composed when things did not go my way.
I was calling them up, not calling them out.

The young men became more invested in growing as leaders.
Instead of being motivated by fear or some extrinsic reward (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 first hand, through my example, the transformational impact they could have by growing as a leader.

Call to Action
It doesn’t really matter what program you implement or 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 effective.
Great leaders invest their resources on “fixing” themselves not others.
Great leaders commit to walking alongside those they lead, not looming over them.

Connect with J.P.!

To learn more about the Lead ‘Em Up impacting youth and high school athletes across the globe, stay connected by signing-up below: 

Lead ‘Em Up provides high school and youth coaches an engaging and dynamic curriculum designed to equip coaches with the tools to teach their players the dynamics of leadership and character.

The season-long Lead ‘Em Up curriculum includes a player assessment tools, illustrative stories, week-long player activities, situational training exercises and interactive games from our friends at game on Nation.

Our newly updated curriculum is here!  To see a free preview sign-up below: 

Let’s Connect


Stay updated by following the #LeadEmUp hashtag on social media!