Hockey Coach

Light the Lamp: 7 Traits of Truly Great Leadership

First rule of writing: write what you know.

I know leadership. I also know hockey.

“Light the lamp” is a hockey term. When a goal is scored, a bulb above the net lights up like the way we feel when our team is winning. If you are a leader, you have a team. They win; you win.

In my experience on the ice and off, there are seven traits of truly great leadership.

1. Humility

Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful. – John Wooden

A truly great leader takes the space that is theirs, makes the decisions that are theirs to make, and does not need get attention for it. A truly great leader knows they do not have all of the answers, and that there is more than one right way to get something done.

On a team, everyone matters equally and the team matters more than any individual. Each person has a different role. A leader owns their role and never takes someone else’s.

A truly great leader also jumps in and helps with everything that is shared team responsibility – like emptying the dishwasher or keeping communal space clean.

2. Excellent Coaching

A truly great leader is a coach and their goal is to play the team they have. Sometimes you choose the players. Sometimes you do not. The first move should not be reshuffling.

The leader teaches the systems, motivates the players, and holds the players accountable. The leader makes sure the players are in the positions where their strengths will shine. Then it is the leader’s job to get out of the way. After all, during the period of play it is the players who are on the ice.

The goals a leader sets should be based on the skills of the players and a realistic assessment of the field. Goals should be reachable and a stretch. There should be a plan for accomplishing them. A truly great leader celebrates the awesome play and also bolsters morale and makes corrections when it is missed.

I am a hockey player. Most importantly, though, I am a dad.

My son is eleven, and I coach his Squirt Hockey team. My kid’s team – they are super talented – but somehow when they get on the ice, either they are flat or they dominate the play and then the other team still scores. It is on me to get the kids fired up, so when the puck drops they are ready to go.

We are trying something new. Before the game we jump around. One kid leads a chant borrowed from USA soccer – “I!” – “I Believe!” – “I believe that we!” – “I believe that we will!” – “I believe that we will win!” – “I believe that we will win!” – “I believe that we will win!” – Then we wait until the time is just right and we charge the ice. Unstoppable.

A truly great leader keeps at it until they find a way for their team to be unstoppable.

3. Authenticity

Actions and words have to match. It is the only way to have integrity.

4. Honesty

A truly great leader tells the truth. Always.

Be bold. Be constructive.

Truth telling is essential when there is something that needs work, and it is equally essential when things are going well. If a truly great leader can not share something – they say so directly. The team should always know the information they get is reliable.

5. Accountability

A truly great leader creates a culture of ownership: wins and misses.

Wins – give credit.

Mistakes – identify them, understand them, own them. “You know what, my bad.” Move forward.

6. Being Encouraging is a Habit

Truly great leaders give praise easily. Holding team members accountable does not mean always being critical. Constructive criticism? Sandwich it. Start with a good, end with a good, and give the critique in a measured way in the middle.

A truly great leader builds a culture of encouragement so team members encourage each other. A “hey nice work” now and then goes a long way to creating a team you want to play on.

7. Trustworthy

Trust must be earned and given. Delegation can only happen with trust. The truly great leader trusts the team, and earns the team’s trust.

Hockey players move from high school to college to professional. The speed and the game is different at every level, sure, but the big thing in my experience was at some point, the skill set equaled out. At the pro level – we were all pros. Because we were all pros I could completely trust my teammates to do their jobs, and they knew I would do mine.

If there is not trust the team will not perform at the level there are capable of, and it will not be any fun.

Along those lines, there are different degrees of delegation. A truly great leader is clear about the degree to which they are delegating.

  • 100% Delegation – You take care of it. Let me know when you are finished.
  • 80% Delegation – You take care of it, but I need to be updated occasionally.
  • 60% Delegation – You take care of it, but update me continually, because this is a situation in which I need to be in the loop.
  • 50% Delegation – We are working this one together.

When the degree of delegation is clear, it is a lot easier for the leader to trust the team and for the team to trust the leader.

With humility, excellent coaching, authenticity, honesty, accountability, the habit of being encouraging, and trust: What are you and your team going to win today?