By: Wade Gilbert
Originally Published in: Coaching Better Every Season
Provided by: Human Kinetics
Leadership is generally defined as a process of influence. A coach's leadership style, then, comprises the behavioral processes that a coach uses to influence his or her athletes. Two recommended leadership styles for effective sport coaching are transformational leadership and servant leadership.
Transformational leaders inspire others to become self-directed and motivated while de-emphasizing personal interests and goals in the pursuit of collective team needs and goals. Features of a transformational leadership style include ethical behavior, shared leadership, leading by example, and using frequent praise and encouragement. Giving frequent encouragement and helping athletes pull the lessons from performance failures creates an environment where athletes feel safe enough to risk failure."
The transformational leadership style features four types of leadership behaviors, referred to as the four I's: idealized influence (modeling humility, modesty, and core values), inspirational motivation (serving as an eternal optimist, showing enthusiasm for shared goals), intellectual stimulation (inspiring creativity and risk taking), and individualized consideration (showing compassion and empathy for the unique needs of others).
Transformational leadership is often contrasted with transactional leadership. Transactional leadership features an emphasis on leading through coercion and rewards. One way to think about the difference between transformational and transactional leadership styles is to consider transformational leadership as a style that emphasizes doing the right thing whereas transactional leadership is a style that emphasizes doing things the right way.
Research with effective sport coaches shows support for adopting a transformational leadership style. Coaches who are transformational leaders are effective at clearly articulating and sharing an envisioned future for the team (inspirational motivation) while also providing multiple opportunities for shared leadership and athlete input on decision making (intellectual stimulation).
Transformational leadership is considered a form of "we leadership." Jon Martin, who has never had a losing season in 38 years as a college soccer and lacrosse coach, is a prime example of a "we leadership" coach. Coach Martin achieves transformational leadership by creating a sense of shared ownership: "We empower everybody. They all have a say in the decision-making process, our trainers, assistant coaches, players, everyone."
Athletes who play for coaches who adopt a transformational leadership style report greater enjoyment, collective efficacy, and cohesion. Furthermore, when athletes play on a team with transformational peer leaders (fellow athletes on their team), they score higher on measures of task and social cohesion. In other words, playing on a team with a coach and fellow athletes who model transformational leadership behaviors inspires greater self-confidence, commitment to team goals, and positive relationships with the coach and teammates.
Finally, team cohesion has been found to be strongly influenced by four transformational leadership behaviors: (1) fostering acceptance of group goals, (2) promoting teamwork, (3) adopting high-performance expectations, and (4) considering personal feelings and needs. Transformational leadership behaviors modeled by team captains and coaches that separate high-performing teams from low-performing teams are high performance expectations, inspirational motivation, and appropriate role modeling. One of the greatest professional athletes of all time, ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky, is an example of a peer leader who exemplified all the characteristics of a transformational leader. Many who worked and played alongside him consider his transformational leadership behaviors a key reason for the unprecedented success his teams experienced while he played for them.
Another recommended leadership style is servant leadership. Servant leadership, like transformational leadership, is other-centered. The servant leadership style, however, places a greater premium on integrity, morals, and empathy - virtues that supersede any concern for sport-specific goals. Legendary award-winning and national championship college basketball coach Don Meyer is perhaps the most famous example of a coach who embodied the qualities of servant leadership.
Servant leadership is sometimes considered an upside-down, or inverted, leadership style because the goal is to serve rather than lead. Characteristics, or virtues, of servant leaders are ethical and caring behavior, shared decision making, humility, altruism, and integrity - all of which directly contribute to trusting relationships. Coaches who adopt this leadership style view themselves as stewards whose primary role is to build and enable athletes by focusing on their strengths rather than their weaknesses.
Adopting elements of a servant leadership approach to coaching appears to offer many benefits. Athletes who play for servant leadership coaches report higher scores on personal and team satisfaction, team cohesion, sport enjoyment and motivation, confidence and coping skills, and respect for the coach.
Furthermore, teams coached by servant leader coaches have been shown to outperform teams coached by nonservant leader coaches. Athletes not only prefer to play for servant leader coaches but also set higher achievement targets, believe that they are improving more, are more resilient, and indeed are more successful.
American college football coach Jim Tressel, who coached teams to five national championships, is an example of someone who coached with a servant leadership style. Consistent with servant leadership principles, Coach Tressel explained to me that success in coaching starts with compassion for those you are entrusted to lead. Compassion means showing care, respect, and concern for all your athletes, regardless of their ability or role on the team.
Transformational and servant leadership styles have the same core purpose - an overriding concern for helping athletes meet their technical, physical, and emotional needs. In this sense, transformational and servant coach leadership styles might best be viewed as athlete-centered leadership styles.
For coaches who may think that this type of leadership style is a soft approach, think again. Successful coaches who adopt an athlete-centered leadership style are strong willed and sometimes autocratic, but they also regularly model trust, inclusion, and compassion. Successful coaches sometimes refer to this as a blended approach to coaching - a delicate balance between pushing athletes to their limits and showing compassion and support.
This approach is embodied by championship coaches across sports, and it applies equally well to coaching male and female athletes. Lori Dauphiny, two-time national Coach of the Year who has coached rowers for over 20 years, said, "I'm always supportive, but at the same time I have to push pretty hard. I have to be tough with them." Love and high expectations are cornerstones to her successful coaching approach!' Similarly, Jack Del Rio, longtime coach in the National Football League, started his tenure as head coach of the Oakland Raiders by instilling a culture of positive reinforcement to counterbalance the tough and demanding standards to which he held the athletes.
We're developing young men, loving them up with positive praise, not just a constant beat down. We're going to drive them and push them hard and point out mistakes, but don't just dwell on it. That goes back to more of the positive thinking and positive reinforcement and helping them (have) positive energy and seeing themselves doing it right.
Hall of Fame college volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, who has coached both the U.S. men's and women's teams to Olympic medals using an athlete-centered coaching approach, is perhaps the best example to show that this approach works regardless of athlete gender." Coaches such as Dauphiny, Del Rio, and McCutcheon are successful and revered by their athletes because they blend toughness with love and compassion to create a caring climate.
Athlete-centered leadership is a balanced approach in which coaches set clear roles and boundaries for athletes while also providing opportunities for distributed leadership and athlete input, sometimes referred to as control with benevolence." In the end, the label assigned to the leadership style is less important than the awareness that athletes prefer, and perform best, when coaches create learning environments built on trust, inclusion, and compassion.