5 Lessons My Cross-Country Coach Taught Me About Leadership
Working with the team at our agency takes me back to the days when I ran cross-country at Ohio Northern University. My teammates were some of the most driven people I’ve ever known, with a level of motivation rare even among business teams that take home six-figure bonuses.
We were unlikely champions -- a group of 60 lanky college kids -- with few external motivators. We didn’t have cushy offices, generous salaries, vacation days or attractive perks. In fact, as a Division III school, ONU couldn’t even offer us scholarships. In addition to our heavy course loads and social obligations, many of us held part-time jobs to pay for tuition.
Yet we stuck it out through twice-a-day workouts, sometimes running 20 miles a day in temperatures ranging from from 20 below in the winter to 100 degrees in the summer.
I’m amazed when I compare this to the typical work environment, where studies show that only 13 percent of employees are engaged. What drove us to work so hard, stay so dedicated and push ourselves to our physical and mental limits? The answer: our coach and mentor, Jason Maus. That man taught me what it means to be a leader, and throughout my career, I’ve strived to follow his example.
I recently caught up with him while he was in Phoenix for a coaching conference. I had the opportunity to ask this champ the secrets to his coaching success. Here’s what I learned:
1. Lead by example.
Coach Maus is a quiet, unimposing man, but he was in better shape than the rest of our cross-country team back then. He knows that if you want a team of dynamic athletes, you, yourself, as leader, have to work out, too. Similarly, if you want your employees to respond well to feedback, you have to show them how to act on your advice. You’ll look like a hypocrite if you curse out the colleague who corrects a spelling error, but you’ll look like a hero if you graciously accept his critique.
2. Coach, don’t manage.
A good coach encourages his team members to succeed and sets out a plan for doing just that. But he doesn’t try to control their every move. Coach Maus didn’t force us to do anything. Instead, he empowered us by creating a plan and motivated us by emphasizing that the plan would work only if we followed it.
3. Manage your energy.
Burnout is a lot easier to spot on the cross-country circuit, where runners will literally pass out if they push themselves too hard. But it’s just as much a risk in the business world. Fatigue drains your desire and ability to succeed, so remind your team members that they need to recognize fatigue, then relax and refuel. Otherwise, their productivity will suffer, and the rest of the team will have to pick up the slack.
4. Empower a team of leaders.
Coach Maus said he believes that everybody should have an opportunity to lead at some point. He knows that people become their best selves when you trust them. As we worked our way up the ranks of the team, we received more responsibilities. By senior year, many teammates were leading drills and choosing circuits.
When you hand over responsibilities, you’re telling employees that you see their potential, and this is often all they need to start thriving. Also, if the team understands that everyone gets a turn to lead, nobody will feel underappreciated when someone else is in charge. You’ll create a group of people united toward victory.
5. Create a culture of ownership.
To be a member of Coach Maus’ team was to own part of that team. Coach regularly asked us for feedback about how we were feeling and how effective our workouts were. He trusted us to answer candidly and suggest changes. This sense of ownership made us feel connected -- as invested in the team’s success as in our individual races. Similarly, you should encourage your employees to take ownership of the company’s success.
Having an engaged and motivated team isn’t just about offering cushy benefits and extravagant salaries. When people feel like they’re part of a team, they work harder, get better results and feel happier. Give your team the gift of motivation by channeling Coach Maus (or a coach you know and admire) and leading through empowerment.