5 Things I Would Have Done Differently to Be a More Effective Leader
If I could go back and relive my college student-athlete experience all over again, I would do so in a heartbeat. I might skip the part about tearing up my knee at the end of my senior year, but I suppose even that experience in retrospect, provided some value.
I say that not because I have regrets; I actually feel strongly that I made the most of my experience as a student-athlete. Perhaps not taking my playing days for granted stemmed from my perception of the opportunity to play a sport in college as a privilege. And, I probably view sports participation as a privilege because I wasn't confident that I was good enough to play in college despite dreaming about and working toward such an opportunity.
I will also say with conviction, that even though I feel I made the most of my experience as a student-athlete, I believe I could have been a more effective leader, especially knowing what I know now about leadership.
Maybe it's true that life is lived forwards and understood backwards. It's amazing how much a year or two of time, life after graduation and some honest reflection, reveals. So, while I can't reverse or change anything about my college leadership experience, by sharing what I have learned I now have an even better opportunity to help student-athletes make a difference in their experiences.
5 THINGS I WOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY TO BE A MORE EFFECTIVE LEADER
1. I would've tried harder to put relationships first.
Knowing what I know now, I would have tried harder to put relationships first, and I would have spent more time on the relationships that are most likely to endure. In the highly self-centered time period of college years, that is hard to do.
College students are supposed to be focused very inwardly - it is a time for self-discovery. College athletes are also supposed to be very self-focused. The attention and time devoted to improving individual skills and abilities matters when you are trying to earn playing time. It also matters in the process of personal growth achieved through stretching and testing pre-conceived limits.
However, from my current perspective of looking back, I recognize now that it really doesn't matter all that much that I could throw a ball from right field to third on a straight line, nor does it matter how well I hit an outside drop ball to left field.
What really does matter now, and what I really do appreciate now, are the cherished friendships I maintain with former teammates and the deeper appreciation I now hold for people who challenged me to become a better person.
So knowing this now, I would have tried harder to make time for others, I would have made the most of the time I did spend with others, and I would have tried harder to appreciate the commitment made by others on my behalf. I would try to be less overwhelmed by the self-centered stresses of college life, the schedule of a student-athlete, and the expectations that others would hold for me.
2. I would have asked more questions.
To create more effective relationships, I would have asked more questions: of my teammates, my coach, and my peers. I'm not talking about the kind of questions you ask in class to pretend to be interested. I'm talking about asking thoughtful and sincere questions inspired by the intention of learning something, seeking perhaps to understand a little better the aspirations and motivation of others.
To be more specific, I probably would have asked my coach what he thought about a game or practice we had just had, instead of dwelling only on what I thought. I would have asked why we were working on certain skills or drills, not to be confrontational but instead to truly understand expectations. I would have asked teammates that I knew least well about their lives, their aspirations, their opinions and why they felt as they did. I also would have asked my teammates and other student-athlete leaders about how they might choose to handle certain leadership challenges, rather than trying or pretending to have all the answers. Knowing what I know now, I would have sought to understand more than I did before I formed an opinion, made a judgment, or took an action.
3. I would have listened harder.
To make that question-asking more effective and more valuable, I also would have listened harder. As a person who is generally outgoing, I probably had something to say way too often. I know now that much of what I said probably wasn't the right thing to say. As I look back, I'm pretty sure that some of the time I was really at a loss for words, so anything I said was likely as valuable as swinging with my eyes closed. It is when we don't know what to say that we should actually listen - after all, there is a reason we have one mouth and two ears!
4. I would have listened more to myself and trusted my instincts.
I also would have listened more to myself by spending more time in self-reflection and I would have trusted my instincts more than I did. Purposeful self-reflection can contribute to increased confidence. And, when your instincts have served you well in the past, it is important to trust your gut. There were a few times when my gut told me what I should say or do, but I failed to follow through by actually saying or doing what my instincts told me. Now I realize how much more of an impact I could have had as a leader had I been willing to speak up or act at the right time.
5. I would have been more objective in my thinking.
If I had asked more questions, listened harder, and self-reflected more purposefully, I would have been more objective in my thinking. Objective thinking does not require the absence of emotion. In fact, emotion in sport is essential. It makes the time commitment and personal investment worthwhile, and it is part of what makes sports fun. Playing with emotion will also most likely affect the memories you carry with you for the rest of your life. So, certainly incorporate emotion into your athletic and collegiate careers. However, good leadership requires objective thinking. If you are able to understand a situation, a challenge or a goal in concrete, tangible and simple terms you will be more likely to see more clearly the bigger picture and consequently, to make more informed and effective decisions.
Prioritizing relationships, asking questions, listening and reflecting more, and being more objective might be summarized by the word "attentiveness". Being more attentive probably would have increased my self confidence and contributed to a more positive self-concept& two incredibly important factors for effective leadership, and probably the two things that held me back the most.
Oh yeah, and I probably would have done a slide-by into home base against Colgate on April 29th, 2007 rather than stepping around the player blocking the plate and blowing out my knee. Though I learned a lot about myself, and a lot about leadership through having to sit and watch, the truth is still that rehab is never as much fun as playing.
I hope my real-life reflections and lessons on leadership have been helpful to you in your continuing development as a leader!
After a great career as a student-athlete at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, Julie Sterrett directs the Lehigh Leadership Academy and is a member of the Janssen Sports Leadership Center Team.