The role of a leader on a sports team – whether a player or a coach – is an important position to fill. A good leader will motivate the team, take responsibility, promote a good work ethic, and perform various other roles in order to help the team be at their best. Without a great player in the leader position, a team will often not realize an explicit team orientation or direction, lack a role model for what to do and how to do it, and will be without a player to rely on in the ‘clutch’ moments of a game. Without a great coach as a leader, players will often not play to their full potential as a team, play with less than optimal passion, and not receive the emotional and mental support needed to excel.

Focusing on the aspects of a great leader in the coaching position, it is important to think about what type of leader would excel as a coach and how important great leadership is to the coaching position.

As the Situational Leadership Model suggests, different leadership strategies are appropriate for different settings and depending on those who are being led. To be an appropriate leader, the coach will need to know how his players handle instruction, criticism, and praise; as well as how the team learns best, what level of independence will harbor the most success, and the dynamics of the team with regard to chemistry, culture, etc. It would seem, then, that to be a great leader, a coach has two basic options: only coach players who will fit and be led best by their preferred coaching style, or adapt the coaching style based on what the players will respond best to. Of course, the coach will be able to dictate this more or less depending on level of competition, clout with the organization, etc.

How might the role of a coach as a leader differ from collegiate to professional sports?
Would the mentality needed for different sports warrant a different type of leader in the coaching position?
Is there a certain personality type which would excel at being a leader specifically in sports, as a coach?

To determine how important it is to have a great leader in the coaching position, it may be helpful to use legendary coach John Wooden as a case study. Considered to be one of the greatest coaches of all time, guiding the UCLA men’s basketball team to 10 national championship, Wooden and others have attributed his success, in large part, to his abilities as a leader. In this interview with Ron Grover, Coach Wooden talks about how his leadership compares to that of leadership in the business sector – particularly how his is more focused on the humanity of people. From Dr. Riggio’s article Cutting-Edge Leadership, Coach Wooden is presented as someone whose leadership largely focuses on those he is leading: the teaching should be athlete-focused, not about the teacher; be your true self so that the athletes can connect with you; and show humility, as your coaching leadership is only successful along with the success of those athletes. Coach Wooden was a great coach, and a great leader.

How much of Coach Wooden’s success as a coach was due to his ability to be a great leader?
Is there an intrinsic connection between leadership and coaching, or is it possible to be a great coach without being a great leader?
Would Coach Wooden’s legacy as a leader (emphasis on the humanity, teaching, and humility) be as impressive without the success on the court?