The 4 Marks of a Winning Leader
The question made me squirm.
I was sitting in the right rear corner of the room, leaning back in the black leather office chair, stretching my arms above my head, when I suddenly snapped back to proper posture. I shot my glance toward the gentleman asking the question, then back to the screen of the video simulcast. This answer ought to be interesting.
I was in a live interview with a legendary collegiate coach who helped transform a Big Ten program from doormat to dominant in the 1980’s and 90’s. Most of the questions posed revolved around leadership, culture, teambuilding, secrets of success, and of course winning. Lots of questions came up about casting vision, setting direction, finding the right people (both players and coaches), and living by a set of core values. But this question was different and more pointed. The words seemed to hang in the air.
“Coach…what has your coaching career cost you?”
It was as if the inquiry came through the Skype camera like a Mike Tyson uppercut. The coach chuckled for a second—you know the type—the kind of half-hearted laugh we tend to exhale when we are caught off guard or surprised. After pausing for a moment, a distanced gaze came over this hall of fame legend’s face. After a few head shakes, the coach looked at us through misty eyes and said:
“Too much. It has probably cost me too much.”
Winning. Results. Success. It is what we recognize and glorify in our culture. It is what sells tickets and brings contract extensions and pay raises. It is the American Dream. But winning is hard. It is flat out, beyond a doubt, tough to win. Winning comes as the result of work, attention to detail, perseverance, and an unrelenting desire to get better. And sustaining winning over time is whole new level of habitual commitment and dedication.
In short, winning comes at a cost. And in our win-at-all-costs world, sometimes the cost is incredibly high. Consider the ways we’ve seen this desire to win manifest itself in the world of athletics in just the last 12 months:
- Sports Illustrated found a growing concentration of young athletes using heroin has been linked to their use of painkillers to keep playing through injury.
- The “Deflategate” controversy continues to stay in the news as the NFL hired one of the nation’s most prominent attorneys, Paul Clement, to challenge the reversal of Tom Brady’s suspension.
- The demands, hours, and pressure to win take a heavy toll on coaches’ marriages and family lives, most notably and recently Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and former USC coach Steve Sarkisian.
- A recent survey published in the Boston Globe found 75% of youth sports coaches say parents put too much emphasis on winning and 95% of youth coaches report they have seen a parent yell at a referee during a game.
The expectation of any leader in any setting—athletics, business, healthcare, education, ministry, and more—is to get results. To produce progress. To win. Leaders must cast the vision, set the direction and then mobilize people to get it done. Why play, why lead, why even show up if you aren’t there to win? Winning is a good, dare I say, even a noble pursuit that is worth our best efforts. But if we leave a wake of damage and destruction behind us on the path to the prize…have we really won?
Winning leaders understand a very key principle – who we are while we pursue winning is more important than the winning itself. Winning is important, but it isn’t ultimate. Everything that is ultimate is important…but not everything that is important is ultimate. Winning is great, but it is also temporary, and to pursue it at the cost of our faith, our families, and our fundamental responsibilities is a dangerous trap.
So what does a leader look like who wins, but does so with a proper perspective? In his letter to Titus, Paul outlines the job description of a winning leader. Titus was tasked to select and appoint leaders (elders) in every town of Crete, and Paul told him exactly what to look for. Winning leaders are:
“An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.” Titus 1:6
Winning leaders are always dependable. Whether leading in a personal—in Paul’s example, a family—or professional context, winning leaders can be counted on to deliver the same quality results over and over again. Every person or situation a winning leader touches is left better than it was before.
“Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.” Titus 1:7
Winning leaders are level-headed, steady, and unchanging in any situation. As Paul writes, the leader’s conduct and character precedes them. Those under the care of a winning leader can articulate the values of the leader—just by watching them live—and know what to expect from the leader, no matter the circumstance.
“Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” Titus 1:8
Winning leaders are primarily concerned with the wellbeing of others, exuding selfless service and freely giving of whatever can be offered—from time to material possessions. And not only is the leader concerned, Paul submits the leader must “love” to be and do these “good” things. The compassionate leader wins by pouring out time, talent, and treasure, knowing helping others win is the best gift that can be given.
“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” Titus 1:9
Winning leaders can be trusted and are defined by integrity. Paul describes a leader who “holds firmly”—immovable in faith, regardless of opposition. It was leadership guru John Maxwell that summed up a credible leader as “one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” A winning leader’s message of coaching, correcting, or encouragement is well received because of their credibility as a constant, consistent, and compassionate mentor.
Pursuing winning with perspective isn’t easy, but it can be done with a disciplined commitment to being constant, consistent, compassionate, and credible as we pursue the prize.
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