Leadership is the same in the military, business, and… hockey

Posted: September 2, 2016 in Leadership
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Note: Please contact me if you or anyone you know of is interested in publishing this series as a book (or in any other format). I can also provide a full book proposal and will refer you to my agent. This is from the Introduction of my series on leadership and leadership development, based on my experience as an army officer and over 10 years as a business and management consultant helping businesses and executives to thrive in the face of rapid change, risk, and uncertainty. It comes from a book I started to write two years ago. I’ve been posting the introductory chapter as a series on this blog, which you can consult at the following links:

My purpose in writing this series on leadership

What do I mean by leadership anyway?

Why is the military approach to leadership so powerful?

Chapter 1: Competence Is the Heart of Leadership

Like just about every Canadian boy, I played hockey. I wasn’t particularly good, but then again, I had fun most of the time and tried my best. I must have started playing minor hockey when I was about seven or eight years old. I can remember playing games where we would get dominated 21 to 1.

I eventually progressed to Peewee level, which was for 11 and 12 year-olds. In my second year at that level I couldn’t make the “A” team. I remember being relegated to the B squad and crying about it. My father was there to console me and let me know that I would have a lot more fun playing with other boys who were at my talent and skill level. Needless to say I was skeptical, but it turned out that Dad was right. As I look back on it now, the coaches who were responsible for these decisions must have talked to my father to brief him on the situation. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but getting my father involved and putting me in the right team was crucial to my development as a player. I never developed enough of the skills to dream of anything beyond minor hockey in my house league. I like to tell people now that I had the uncanny ability to be were the puck was, not where it was going to be. I did become a pretty good skater though.

It turned out that the B team had a coach who was very dedicated to teaching us how to play. I’m sad to say I can’t remember that man’s name, but I do remember the leadership and positive influence he had on all of us boys. Being the B team meant that we had little access to the municipal arenas for practice. We were often the last ones to get a bus to go to our league games. I lived in a rural area in eastern Ontario, and we would often have to drive 20 miles or more to get to a game.

Despite our second-class status, this man was determined to teach us how to play hockey well enough to be competitive in our league, to have fun, to hone our skills, and to give us a taste of what true team spirit and competition was like. He wasn’t just a terrific coach; he was also a mentor, a role model, and most important of all, a first-class leader.

I can’t remember how many times we were shut out of using the local arenas for our practice sessions. Instead of just complaining about it, he built a rink in his back yard. One time, it must have been on a Saturday, it was snowing and windy. We practiced on his rink for about two hours during the morning. Then let us all into his house and his wife served us spaghetti and hot dogs. After lunch we were back on the ice for another intense practice session. It didn’t register in this 12-year-old’s mind at the time, but that was a superb example of dedication and persistence.

The most revealing moment though came one day when we had a big game in a small town about 20 miles away. For some reason the minor hockey association had cancelled our bus to get to the opposing team’s home arena. Undaunted, our coach told us all to get dressed in all our equipment, minus the skates. He had a flatbed truck with wooden side panels and packed us all in the back and covered us with an old tarp. I don’t think too many parents would be impressed with the safety of such a maneuver nowadays, but back then nobody seemed to think it was particularly dangerous. After all, it was only about 10o C and snowing!

This coach didn’t just teach us how to play hockey. He also taught us team spirit, the value of demanding training, persistence, and a winning attitude. Even more compelling for me now, is that he showed us what a real leader is. Someone who makes sacrifices for the good of the team, shows the way, leads by example, and is dedicated to raising everyone to their full potential. None of us was going to be a pro, nor make it into a higher caliber amateur league, but he certainly made sure that we got the most out of that fleeting experience.

I’d like to say I was appreciative of this man’s (and others’) efforts and leadership at a very formative period of my life. Unfortunately, being a completely normal, self-centered teenager and then young adult, I promptly forgot about my Peewee hockey coach, that team, and that whole time in my life. It was only when I retired from the army after a 26-year career as an infantry officer that I looked back on the most formative experiences of my life, those that had impressed me and molded me, that I recalled that exciting year of hockey and the influence of that coach and the team had on me.

I also thought of other formative experiences, not just during my childhood and youth, but also throughout my military career. I realized that just about everything I had learned about influence, persistence, morale, sacrifice, and leadership had come about as a result of significant, shaping events, and the people who had led me, given me coaching, mentoring, instruction, and even well-deserved criticism and the occasional scolding.

Naturally, I think of that Peewee hockey coach. But I also think of when I was an officer in training, of the time when I saw an older cadet apologizing to another one for a having forgotten a task he had promised him. That little incident taught me more about humility and a willingness to recognize my faults than any psychology course or lecture on learning from our mistakes. I was encouraged through that to appreciate the value of contrition and admitting my failings, instead of becoming angry and pushing back for nothing.

I also think of the commanding officer in the army who taught us that the key to being a successful leader and officer wasn’t to be liked, but was instead to be respected. I recall another senior officer who recognized my talents and abilities and who encouraged me to take the initiative and to “fill my boots,” as we used to say in the army. There were also bad examples and experiences I would rather forget. Not, as you might think, related to operations or combat, but rather to poor leadership by superiors, peers, and subordinates. Oddly enough, though, these negative events and bosses have faded quickly into the background. They have influenced me by showing me what not to do, rather than what to do. But I can also say that it’s the positive role models, experiences, and events that have taught me the most about myself and about the fundamentals of leadership.

© 2016 Richard Martin. Reproduction, forwarding and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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