SBJ/November 22 - 28, 2004/Opinion

Want to be a leader? Manage yourself first

Last year, along with John Anderson, head baseball coach at the University of Minnesota and my co-author of the book “Why Good Coaches Quit,” I presented the lunch keynote at the Street and Smith’s Intercollegiate Athletics Forum. Our topic was “How to maintain your sanity as a leader.” Having worked as a psychologist in collegiate athletics for almost 20 years, I am often referred to as the head “head” coach.

Shortly after I started my address, I became aware that all eyes in the large crowd were totally focused on me. Other than my voice, there was not a sound in the room. I wondered for a moment if my audience had any idea what I was talking about, or had I just hit a nerve?

Clearly I had hit a sensitive issue. Our effectiveness as leaders and our emotional well-being is something few discuss but most are confronted with daily. In my private practice or my business-consulting group, clients often wonder if they are the only ones who feel crazy.

I have observed that leaders often subscribe to counterproductive ideas and beliefs about what it takes to be an effective leader. Here are a few of the most common.

“As a leader, I should have all or most of the answers.”

This kind of thinking will get you in trouble more often than not.

“Somehow, if I do not know the answer, it will imply a sense of weakness in my leadership abilities.”

That’s pressure. I suggest that pretending to know everything is not only foolish, but it will damage your credibility as a leader. It’s just not realistic. Don’t be seduced by delusions of grandeur.

“My job as a leader is to fix or solve problems.”

Let’s say your expert advice is right-on correct. Not only do you feel good that you are so competent, you have made the problem presenter happy because you took care of his problem for him. Now guess what happens when he encounters another problem? You are up, coach — next problem, and next solution.

If you get good at this, pretty soon you are in the problem-solving business. Be careful of what you are asking for. Without realizing, you have taught your team to depend on you and not to think or problem-solve for themselves. Become conscious of what you are teaching.

Out of our desire to be helpful, we inadvertently create a sense of dependency. When problems occur within your organization, people will look to you to solve it. While this may provide a temporary sense of self-importance, pretty soon you have no time to do anything else except put out fires. And what happens when your advice or fixing goes wrong? You become the one who takes the blame.

I believe that your job as a leader is to develop others. Avoid the tendency to teach dependency. You need other people to be successful. You need them to think critically and creatively. You cannot do it all by yourself. If you find that you are getting tired and doing more firefighting than teaching, you may have bought into the “fix-it” myth.

An effective business leader, like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, must learn how to coach people.
People seek my advice to help them become better leaders. Upon some discussion, I soon discover that what they are really asking is “How can I get my team to do what I want them to do?” Of course my advice is to begin with yourself. If I can get you to see how you may be contributing to the very problems you are complaining about, that would be a great start.

Pay attention to your own behaviors; become more self-aware. The effective management of others is the result of effective management of oneself.

College and professional sports teams spend millions on player development but virtually nothing on emotional intelligence and the development of people. Talent and technical expertise are important. However, it is clear to me that one’s moral, emotional and creative intelligence are the critical differentiators when it comes to sustained optimal performance. (See Enron, the FBI or the pitcher who breaks his hand on a dugout wall.)

For executives, professional development must mean more than attending seminars, clinics and conventions to learn the latest innovations in training.

Take the time to focus on the emotional competency skills such as self-awareness, impulse control, motivation, empathy and social skills. These are teachable skills. Just like we teach our children to eat dinner before dessert (impulse control), we can teach those whom we lead the value of delayed gratification and seeing the bigger picture.

Today’s society has become more dependent on our institutions to teach the basic skills of motivation and how to play nice with others, two more emotional competencies. We now look to our leaders outside the home, our teachers, coaches, leaders and corporations to be our guides.

My advice is not to ignore it but embrace it. See it as an opportunity to move beyond where you are now. I strongly suggest that you invest more energy teaching critical emotional competency skills rather than focusing only on the teaching of technical skills. Be committed to teaching these skills just like you may teach a proper follow-through.

Throughout my career I have seen the benefits, whether it is in sports and or performance in business. With practice and commitment, you will too.

Rick Aberman (, a former psychologist with the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department, is a sports psychotherapist and consultant with the Lennick Aberman Group in Minneapolis.

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