July 12, 2022 •

Coaching for Significance: Traits of a Natural Leader

At the end of a successful season, we often hear coaches attribute the success to “we had great team leadership and chemistry.” We also hear many coaches on unsuccessful teams mutter to themselves, “We just didn’t have any team leaders.” 

The best team cultures don’t leave leadership to chance – they teach it. The same is true of athletic directors hiring coaches as leaders. Not everyone can be a leader. But we do believe that if people have some natural leadership ability and if you can provide them with a clear path and job description, they can become strong leaders and those teams will become more successful.  

naturalSo whether you are trying to develop student leaders, hiring a coach, or looking in the mirror, here are a few indicators that someone has some natural leadership ability:

  1. Look for People with Strong Character

Character is the foundation for everything else. It allows you to be consistent in words and actions. It allows you to be depended upon, trusted, and followed. When you find people with natural strong character they need to be encouraged to lead at every opportunity.

  1. Look for People Who Have the Courage to Stand Up for What They Believe

These people are naturally strong enough to be more concerned with what is right than what is popular. Peer pressure isn’t their guiding force. They do not sit quietly when something is wrong.

“In matters of taste, swim with the current, in matters of principle stand like a rock.” — Thomas Jefferson  

  1. Look for People Who Have a Teachable Spirit 

They understand the importance of listening and learning. They are not afraid to be challenged with new ideas or concepts. They ask questions when they don’t understand. They are able to take correction as a compliment. Regardless of past successes or failures they have a growth mindset and are trying to get better every day.  

  1. Look for People Who Are Clear Communicators

They speak in a way that others understand. They don’t have to be the only voice or even the first to speak. Look for people who listen intently, are willing and able to see things from different perspectives, and then speak so clearly that it cannot be misunderstood.  

  1. Look for People Who Have a Passion

Passion is the greatest motivator. It spreads throughout the team and can be seen in intensity, determination, and enthusiasm. Look for kids who are excited to be there and energized by the game and team. Their eyes will tell you all you need to know. They will be there early. They love practice. They will arrive in the right frame of mind, mentally and physically prepared before competition.

  1. Look for Fearlessness in Competition

They are healthy risk-takers who have the confidence to play through mistakes. They never quit, never pout, never slow down. They are persistent and relentless. They compete to win, not to avoid losing or making mistakes. 

  1. Look for Problem Solvers

When there is a problem, natural leaders don’t look the other way or ignore it. They don’t avoid them or “hope” they go away. They take problems head-on. They look for solutions, not excuses or who to blame. They spot small problems and face them before they become big ones and are more difficult to solve. They are capable of working cooperatively within a team structure to find resolutions. When there are problems, they bring people together.

  1. Look for People Who Are in Control of their Emotions

They have strong emotions but they have learned how to control the emotions and channel them in a way that improves their performance and doesn’t give their opponents an edge. They have ice in their veins. They are at their best when their best is needed. They are the face their team needs to see in good times and tough times.

  1. Look for People Who Place Truth Over Popularity

Not all decisions that are popular are good for the team. There are times when worrying about being liked can inhibit team success. Do not confuse popularity with leadership. The decisions people make based on truth are always right and almost always take the team to a higher level. As our friend Nancy O’Neil says, “Easy wrong or hard right”. 

  1. Look for People Who Have a Sense of Humor

Humor adds a lot to any team. When leaders can laugh and make others laugh, they are easier to follow. Humor breaks tension, keeps teams loose and optimistic. If you love what you are doing, let it show, have fun, and lead the league in smiles.

  1. Look for People Who Won’t Give Up

One of the most important characteristics of leadership is perseverance.  When teams are facing tough situations, they look to leadership to decide which path they will take.  When leaders quit, teams quit.  When leaders are relentlessly determined, the team will mirror their attitude.

  1. Look for People with Athletic Assuredness

Teams need individuals they can count on when the game is on the line. The best leaders are confident. Athletic assuredness is not arrogance but simply being comfortable in the most competitive situations. They are at their best when their best is needed. Even when they don’t “make the play”, they look forward to the next opportunity. They never get too far up or too far down but the look in their eyes says they are at ease and love these moments. The best leaders are both confident and humble.

  1. Look for People Who Can Follow As Well As Lead

Natural leaders understand there are times when they need to be the one who listens and follows. Until someone has learned and demonstrated that they can be obedient, they are not qualified to give directions or expect to be followed. “He who cannot obey, cannot command.” — Ben Franklin

  1. Look for People Who Are Doers, Not Complainers

Complaining is focusing on the problem without acknowledging or taking responsibility for the solution. Their focus is on what is wrong or difficult instead of what needs to get done. It brings others down and nothing changes. If you have leaders who are complainers or whiners, they may be leading, but not in a good direction. Real leaders do not waste the time or energy complaining — there are too many things to get accomplished and people are counting on them. 

» ALSO SEE: USC, UCLA to Leave Pac-12 for Big Ten in 2024

  1. Look for People Who Understand and Appreciate All Roles That Help the Team

In 1982 the Tar Heels won their first national championship under legendary Coach Dean Smith. The NCAA awarded them 22 national championship watches. Counting all the players, coaches, and managers, they had 23 people. Manager Dave Hart said, “I was the youngest manager, so it was natural for me not to get a watch.” Several days after the team arrived home, Coach Smith called Hart into his office. They talked about the championship for a few minutes and then Smith said, “I appreciate everything you did this season. You were as much a part of this team as anyone and I want you to have this.” Coach Smith handed him a box. Inside was Coach Smith’s national championship watch.

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