In Order To Lead Your Team, You Need To Feed Them!


Most of us are naturally attracted to the sport of basketball not because we want to be great leaders, but because we have an aesthetic appreciation for the game. We may have an authentic joy of watching a basketball go through a hoop or we may be attracted to the X’s and O’s and strategy; it may even be a love affair with the type of athleticism that is required of basketball players.  Whatever the reason, however, the sport demands that we are all leaders.  It doesn’t matter if you are on the bench or on the floor or what your position is. Because of the nature of the game, everyone is expected to have multiple skills; shooting, passing defending, rebounding etc. And, everyone is also asked to make a contribution towards leading the team, even if your only job is to bring vocal energy to the game.

But true leadership can be a daunting task.  We hear about great leaders and how they have a way of knowing what to do in all situations. We hear about coaches who are super analytical while at the same time are tremendously motivating. Their leadership abilities are almost superhuman and in some cases, they have an air of being “divine” with their ability to pass out knowledge that borders on revelation. It seems it must take them years of developing these skills; being tested numerous times in the fires of adversity.  How are we ever going to be like them? How are we supposed to lead others like those people do?

Well, the simple answer is that we may never be able to do it. But, there is hope.  When you understand what leadership is really all about, and the veil of mysticism is lifted, then most of us can become great leaders.

So what is leadership really about?  In a single word, it is about “culture.”  All leaders operate in a specific culture that drives what they do and how they do it.  That is, you establish a culture or you become indoctrinated into a culture and that culture gives you the power to lead. We lead ourselves and others only in the context of specific cultures. Let’s break it down further.

What is a culture? The word culture comes from the latin word “colere” which means to tend to the earth and grow.  In that sense we can think of culture as being a way to “cultivate” something.  Another way of thinking about culture is thinking about the science of microbiology. Microbiologists grow bacteria in what is called a “culture medium.” This medium is placed in a petri dish and contains food and other nutrients to grow bacteria.. They then put the petri dish in an incubator. What this amounts to then is to create an ideal environment where the bacteria can multiply and grow.

And this is essentially what great leaders do. They put people in an environment with food and other nutrients with the right amount of stress in order to help teams and individuals grow. The great football coach Urban Meyer once said that “A team is a living organism, you have to feed it and work it to make it grow.”  Great leaders don’t look for the harshest environments depleted of nutrition to make individuals and teams grow- at least not in the infant stages. They apply the right amount of heat and the right stresses along with other nutrients so their team and the individuals in the team can improve. In this way, teams and individuals are  nurtured to produce fruit.

So “culture” then, in its broadest sense means “to cultivate.” It is about the environment you create as a leader that allows you to unite a team. When we look at different ethnic cultures around the world we see the same thing. People are different because they were brought up in different environments with different types of nutrition. We are all fed a different vision of how things are supposed to be. We have different rituals and different heroes and different symbols that are inherent in the cultural medium which we grew up in.

If you are going to be a leader then, you need to establish a specific environment for your team to grow in. You need to express a vision for all to follow. You need to display specific heroes for your team to revere and model. You need to establish rituals, disciplines and specific symbols that express what your culture is all about.  In doing this, you essentially assimilate your team into a culture medium and feed them on these things. And out of that, a player and a team will grow. They will emerge as a unit that reflects the culture they were raised in, taking on their own rituals, symbols and heroes.

Now don’t misconstrue “culture” with “cult.” These things differ in that with a cult, there is a leader that is worshiped like a God. That is not the scenario we are talking about here.  The leader is not someone that is worshiped, only respected for how he or she relates to the team.

So how do you establish a culture? The most important thing you do is to first establish your own personal culture. You need to lead yourself first before anyone will follow. You don’t need to be in any official leadership role to do this. It does not matter if you are the manager of the team or the athletic director. It doesn’t matter if you are the star player or the incoming freshman. It doesn’t matter if you are the head coach or the student assistant.  Everyone, has to lead themselves first and start with establishing their own positive culture that helps them grow.

Because others will know you by your culture, it is important to understand what you project to them. Are you strong or weak? Are you persistent or do you give up easily? Are you on time or always late? Do you sacrifice for your team or are you selfish? Do you have integrity or do you rarely do what you say you will do? Do you talk with others readily or are you stand-off-ish? Keep in mind, this personal culture is not the same as “branding” yourself.  True leaders don’t sell themselves like a commodity that can be rebranded every so often if they fall out of favor..  The personal culture you have is not just something you make up like a public persona that you put on when you are in the gym. Your personal culture, really is a reflection of you and your character. Your own personal culture requires you to work on any character flaws you may have since those are the things that are naturally projected first.

Another way of saying this is that you will lead yourself first before you will ever lead anyone else. If you do that poorly, then most likely, no one will ever follow you. What really matters here is your character. It is your character that helps to project your rituals, symbols and belief system. If others like how you lead yourself, they will be more likely to consent to following your lead.  If they don’t get a picture of you as able to lead yourself well, then you’ll need to be in a high powered position to get any followership at all. People who are proficient at leading themselves well essentially become “natural leaders.” (It is important to note that people of bad character can be great leaders too. The difference though, is that these people generally lead through fear in addition to the power of their position.)

After becoming a “self-leader,” you need to establish a culture of leading others. This amounts to how you give nutrients to others.  And, the number one thing you need in order to provide nutrition, is to simply care about others.  In that process, great leaders communicate how they care by working on relationships with their followers. This is far more important than being the logistical wizard or the master motivator or the sultan of strategy. Those things are additional skills that great leaders accumulate but are not the primary way to cultivate your team.

In other words, cultures pass on information, rituals, skills and symbols by teaching the way a parent teaches.  Great leaders are thus great parents. They assimilate their children into the culture by providing not only physical nutrition (although that is part of it) but by providing protection. The pass down wisdom, knowledge and skills. They allow their kids to fail at times in a way of testing to see if they can become independent. They pass on the process of how to thrive and how to survive. Like good parents, they allow their children to be stressed, challenged and pushed beyond their limits, while communicating that they will never abandon them. In short, a culture is “a way of living.”

There are of course other things that leaders do to establish a culture besides developing relationships.  In establishing a way of living and functioning, they will establish the framework for a team to work within. They establish the rules, the processes, the purpose for the teams existence, the direction they will all travel, the habits that they will get into, the level of discipline that will be expected, the sacrifices that members will have to make, and the celebrations they will rejoice in. And out of this will come the rituals and symbols and heroes that become expressions of that culture.

It is through this culture then that true leaders are ready to lead.  When adversity comes, and it always does, the great leaders are ready to go. They have already given their team the tools to deal with adversity. They have already established trust by creating a family environment. They have already given their charges the nutrition necessary to mount an attack. They have already supplied their players with self-knowledge about their own limits (or lack of them), skills and fortitude. It is in this process of cultivating a team that leaders prepare for the harvest. Essentially, they have prepared to win!

I think it is important to note here that we don’t simply establish a “culture of winning.”  In my mind, that is like saying, “the most important thing is winning and we will do whatever it takes to accomplish that.” In developing a culture, we develop all those things necessary to prepare for winning. If we do it well, then the most likely result will be winning. But there has to be a purpose beyond just winning.