Becoming a level 5 leader in S&C
The number of strength and conditioning (S&C) coaches in the collegiate and professional ranks has exponentially increased over the last three decades (Tod, Bond, & Lavalee, 2012). There has also been growth from having only a single S&C coach, to a staff or even department of professionals where leadership titles are based on experience from intern, graduate assistant (GA), Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach, and eventually to Head Strength and Conditioning Coach (Judge et al., 2014), and now eventually Director of Performance. The primary role of the Head S&C Coach is to lead and increase the performance of his or her athletes (Brooks, Ziatz, Johnson, & Hollander, 2000), but this should also be expanded to include leadership of everyone they work with due to their staffs potential impact on athlete performance. Strong leadership by the person at the top of the organization can help positively impact performance, as well help retain and develop quality staff, increase staff cohesion, and maximize the culture of the group.
Despite being a strong position of leadership, a Head S&C Coach or Performance Director rarely receives formal training in how to improve in the area. Similar to other professions, they often are promoted because of the technical skills they possess, and not the managerial or leadership skills that are required. Even though leadership is seen to be an important trait, a search of both the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and Journal of Strength of Conditioning shows there is not a model of leadership currently suggested for developing and retaining staff. This is why S&C Coaches need to look outside of the field to learn and and bring in new ideas. In the field of business, John Maxwell proposed a leadership model in his book "How Successful People Lead: Taking Your Influence to the Next Level" that is aimed to develop staff within an organization and allow for a higher level of achievement, growth, and leadership (Maxwell, 2013) of everyone from the top to the bottom of the organization. This model is a five level pyramid – Position, Permission, Production, People Development, and Pinnacle – that is evaluated based on the level of influence and impact a leader has on their followers, rather than the amount of power or positional authority that they hold in an organization (Maxwell, 2013). Although this model has a nice structure to it, there isn't any direct evidence in the research to show that it could work. There are however, many similarities to transformational leadership theory that was popularized by Bernard Bass (1985), which has a large amount of evidence to support its use in the field. Over the remainder of the article, I will aim to do the following things: define transformational vs transactional leadership, define the 5 levels of leadership according to John Maxwell, and finally, provide recommendations for how a Head S&C Coach or Performance Director can implement them in their department or team.
Transformational vs Transactional
Leadership theory can generally be broken down into two main categories: transactional leadership and transformational leadership (Bass, 1990). Transactional leadership is a traditional style of leadership governed by the self-interests of the manager who assigns tasks and responsibilities to an employee in exchange for compensation (Bass, 1990). Transformational leadership is similar, however, its governed by manager looking looking to fulfill the self interests of the employee, or subordinate(Bass, 1999). Based on its application in business and organizational management, they both have evidence of production (Bass, 1999). However, transformational leadership has been found to produce higher levels of achievement, improved autonomy, increased job satisfaction, and greater respect for people in management positions (Conchie, 2013). There is also evidence that supports the use of TLT in athletic departments (Doherty & Danylchuk, 1996) and shows increased task cohesion within a team (Cronin, Arthur, Hardy, & Callow, 2015). S&C coaches generally do not receive formal training in management science or organizational behaviour (Brooks et al., 2000). Therefore by adopting this model a Head S&C Coach should find improved performance, increased job satisfaction, and retention of their staff (Rafferty & Griffin, 2004).
5 Levels of Leadership
At the base of Maxwell’s pyramid of leadership lies Positional Leadership, where the leader only has control based on his or her authority within the organization (Maxwell, 2013). It has similarities to the transactional leadership model because the only reason the staff completes tasks is because of their desire to protect their own job, or 'because the boss said so' (Bass, 1990). Although this might be a common pathway for a S&C coach to gain authority in a team setting, a new Head S&C Coach should look to move beyond this level to maximize performance and impact on their staff. Leading by position only could be productive in the short term for both the Head S&C Coach and organization due to less time spent on staff development, and therefore more time focused on training. If a Head S&C Coach is only fulfilling the basic psychological and security needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, Assistant S&C Coaches or interns would likely look to other jobs to further their careers (Ramiall, 2004). Therefore, instead of using positional leadership strategies, the Head S&C Coaches should look to become a mentor to his or her staff, to increase their knowledge and help reach their professional goals. To do this effectively, leaders need to spend time learning about the self-interests of the people that report to them. After all, their goals and career aspirations could be different then the leaders aspirations. One way that I've worked to learn more about the goals of my staff is to have weekly 1 on 1 meetings with them to discuss their personal life, the projects they're working on, and how I can help them improve. This extends beyond assistants and interns. It should be a point of emphasis with athletes that we lead as well. If we can learn their 'why', or their self-interests in training, we can help connect the dots for them in their training. As well, if they see that we care, and that we're not just an authority figure, they'll e more 'bought in' to the training process, which results in higher intent of training, and better outputs. Being a selfless leader has been shown to increase staff’s allegiance to the organization and is reflected in their attitudes and actions (Bass, 1999) which therefore should create a culture of leadership and selflessness within the team. Getting past positional leadership should be the primary goal of every coach. No matter how senior a coach you are, if you've never worked with a group, you are a level 1 leader with them. You need to put in the time to gain permission to be their leader!
Level two of Maxwell’s leadership hierarchy, Permission Leadership, occurs when employees or staff members look to the manager as a mentor and become more open to receiving feedback (Maxwell, 2013). This second level draws similarities from the principle of individualism outlined in transformational leadership that suggests the focus should not be selfish goals but instead to assist those around the leader to reach theirs (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999). Level two is the level a Head S&C Coach or Director arrives to when they've started to show to their staff and athletes that they care and now their staff/athletes believe in this. In other words, the leader has shown how much they care, not how much they know. To get to this level, a leader should do some of the suggestions as above as well as provide feedback along the way and praise successful achievements of professional milestones, or weightroom achievements. When Assistants and interns demonstrate successes, they should be praised both publicly and privately as it has been linked to higher positive associations with the team (Chelladurai & Saleh, 1980). When criticism is needed, the leader should choose a tactful manner to address issues, and more importantly should include strategies to address the weaknesses of the assistants/interns in order to improve (Leung, Su, & Morris, 2001). By helping staff members improve their areas of weakness, it helps fulfill higher level needs outlined by Maslow (Bass, 1995), creates emotional attachment, loyalty to the organization, and increases their effort in future tasks (Bass, 1999). This extends beyond just assistants and interns, since it forms a nice coaching model for working with teams and athletes. A coach should know who the key decision makers are on the team (usually captains and star players), and should look to spend time to build relationships with those players to help increase buy-in with the group. In training sessions, the use of positive feedback is often overlooked in coaches who are looking to 'correct technique'. by reinforcing the good they say, athletes could be more likely to be bought in to the training, and realize that the Strength Coaches can help improve the production of the group.
Once staff and coaches begin to realize that they're seeing improvements in their profession or training, the leader then ascends Maxwell’s pyramid of leadership to the third level, termed Production because they begin to create other high level leaders within the staff and team (Maxwell, 2013). According to transformational leadership theory a leader looking to move past this level will require that they become more inspirational to the people that they lead. Inspiration doesn't need to be a raw raw type of leadership that we see on TV or the movies. To become inspirational, research suggests there needs to have two distinct elements: a clearly defined common vision that is simple, achievable, includes an exciting outcome; and the ability for the leader to lead by example on this vision (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999). Therefore, it is recommended that the leader should meet consistently with assistants and interns to provide a clear vision of the philosophy of training, coaching, and administrative tasks that allows people in the organization to operate autonomously. At the beginning of the year it should be presented in an introductory meeting, be checked in on via short weekly meetings, and then reviewed at the end of the year. When working with athletes and teams, leaders should provide clear expectations, inform athletes why they're doing what they're doing, and most importantly should show that these philosophies are important. If a leader espouses to their staff that learning is important, they should also be reading, listening to podcasts and sharpening their own sword. If a leader believes that being on time is important for their athletes, then they should be on time as well. Likewise for maintenance of a facility, where if a leader says that equipment should be cleaned and wiped down daily, then the leader should be consistently be the one picking up a spray bottle, as well as signing off on their cleaning list. If athletes, staff don't see the leader practice what they preach, they'll begin to question whether the philosophies are truly that important. In turn, they could become less engaged, train with less intent, and feel what is being said isn't matched to what is being done. James Weese (1994) has suggested that as staff members begin to embody characteristics of higher levels of leadership, they then create leadership opportunities for the people they work with. This means that as leaders embody what they're talking about, they'll get more buy-in from assistants who will then model the behaviour and create buy in with interns. Likewise from a team/athlete perspective, if leaders and coaches are on time, work hard, eat well, train themselves, pay attention to details, etc. then it will trickle down to the leaders of a team and eventually younger players. A good test to see if your players are becoming leaders is if you see players on the team holding other players accountable as well coaching up younger players, helping to setup/cleanup and letting their actions speak as loud as words. By creating leaders that carry out the vision of the leaders, the net result can be a consistent level of performance, in-line with an overall philosophy that would not be achievable by only one person. Instead of one person saying its important, you'll have hundreds of people showing that its important. This is when more people start to develop!
The fourth stage of leadership in Maxwell’s pyramid is termed People Development and is similar to the concept of intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration in transformational leadership (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999). The research suggests that not only do athletes and assistants need to be inspired, but they need to be intellectually stimulated as well as feel that they are getting inidvidualized attention. To get past this forth stage to the pinnacle, a leader will have to develop the people they work with to create a trickle down effect through the entire team and organization. To intellectually stimulate assistants and interns, the leader should look to further challenge their staff to become better while making sure the challenges leave the assistants and interns feeling as if they are treated uniquely (Weese, 1994). Due to the need for continuing education in S&C it would be practical for the leader to have assistants and interns learn and present about topics that they are interested in. The leader should also look to empower assistants and include them in macro-level planning, budgeting, and human resource discussions. When interns or GAs are new to the organization, the leader should try and make assistant strength coaches responsible for the development and mentorship of the intern. By empowering the S&C staff with responsibilities, coaches can further fulfill professional needs and continue to develop autonomy in their current organization (Weese, 1994). To maximize growth in assistants, these new tasks and responsibilities should be challenging and slightly outside the abilities of the assistants current skillset (Cronin et al., 2015). To ensure success, the leader must be able to provide individualized support with information and training tools (Cronin et al., 2015). By educating and offering new challenges, assistants and interns can gain some of the responsibilities, control, and autonomy that they would otherwise seek in a new position elsewhere (Bass, 1999), which helps keep them in your organization.
To build up past the fourth stage of leadership with athletes, the strength and conditioning staff should follow a similar template. Athletes should be educated on the training, program, and equipment they're using in their training. During training sessions there are opportunities to not only teach interns about ideal technique, but also other athletes themselves. For us at Acadia, it is not uncommon for more senior athletes to provide coaching to a younger athlete about their technique. The S&C staff should also give information on how the session is expected to be carried out, so that there are not surprises. To do this, an S&C staff can use Lee Cockerill's 'Inform, Instruct, Inspire' guideline. I can be done in as little as 5 mins per day (which for us, is the foam roll portion of warmup), where the S&C staff can inform the group about the goals of the session, instruct them about any exercises/technique, and then try to inspire them to good work. It's important to note that inspiration doesn't have to be a 'rah-rah' type speech. Instead, it could be something as little as showing some passion and energy about the session, or link it to the team goals (for example if doing a priming session 2 days before a game, it could be telling them how putting great effort into clean pulls will help increase leg power 48 hrs post workout). By building up the people in the workout group, you're able to have your message and leadership spread through the group like a virus.
The goal as a manager and head S&C coach should be to scale the four initial layers of John Maxwell’s leadership pyramid and eventually reach the summit, termed the Pinnacle (Maxwell, 2013). By reaching the Pinnacle, the Head S&C Coach/Manager will have developed positive relationships with staff, moved beyond leadership by authority, inspired and provided clear vision, developed staff autonomy, and created a culture of leadership and high performance (Maxwell, 2013). By following the guidelines above, the evidence suggests that leaders can fulfill the basic psychological needs of people around them (Ramiall, 2004), and increase their staff’s commitment to the organization, confidence, self-efficacy, and job satisfaction (Bass, 1999). Vella, Oades, and Crowe (2010) have outlined that behaviours are learned and reciprocated through observation and participation; therefore the leader should lead by example knowing that Assistant S&C Coaches, Interns, and athletes are watching and will be reflections of the leadership they observe. With all the technology available to high performance departments these days, it is often forgotten that people are the most valuable resources. They need to continued to be developed, mentored and improved to maximize the performance of a team, and more importantly to maximize the impact they have on other people.
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