It’s concerning to watch the trend among football players who feel it’s appropriate to take a knee in protest when our National Anthem is played before their sporting events. This week I was discouraged to see in the news that a few high school football players in my city decided to follow the example of the athletes they look up to.
I’ll be the first to defend their right to do this. Many of my friends, relatives and I spent careers and beyond sacrificing so that they could have that right.
I’m not even concerned about the slap in the face that these protests represent to those who defended these so-called “professional” athletes’ freedom. The warriors who fought for those rights can take the slap in the face.
But I wouldn’t blame these athletes’ bosses for exercising their freedom to fire them for demonstrating toxic leadership and pathetic sportsmanship. And I wouldn’t blame their fans for exercising their freedom to find a different team to support that models character, sportsmanship, and courageous leadership.
For 26 years, I put on my own team’s uniform and stepped onto the field in the company of heroes. We stood at attention and saluted our flag with pride. We weren’t naive about the problems in our country, and they were many. And we didn’t always agree with our country’s policies. Why did we do this? Because our country needs leaders who will defend what’s good, leaders who unify rather than divide, leaders who model for others what is admirable. We didn’t think about how we could bring attention to ourselves. We asked how we could unify and encourage our team, and make our families proud of us. That’s what great leaders do.
I understand that these athletes believe they are creating awareness of an important problem in our country. But they are actually drawing more attention to themselves than to a cause, exactly the opposite of what a sportsman should be focused on before a game.
Awareness of the problems in our country is not what is lacking. We all know that the problem of a few bad apples in the police force is one piece of a very complex problem in our country. But the same could be said for some bad apples in the Air Force and in the NFL. The problem is a lack of personal responsibility for modeling the character we want to see in others. And taking a knee in disrespect for our country is not helping anyone. To leaders who choose disrespect as their solution, I ask: Is this really the way you want to lead the young people who look up to you? Do you really want to be remembered for your role in chipping away at the already eroding unity we’re experiencing in this country?
OK, that was a lot of challenge. Let me offer some encouragement. Great leaders wake up in the morning asking how they can help others today, how they can unify and encourage their teams and those who look up to them, and how they can model the good they want to see in others.
In contrast to passive aggressive, toxic leadership behavior, check out this news story about a Michigan high school football team who suited up their water boy who has Down Syndrome and set him up to score a touchdown during their game. (Caution: It may choke you up.)
When I was a young Air Force cadet, I had a mentor who would say, “When people see me, I want them to see a turtle on a fence post.” It seemed like an odd thing to say, but he would continue by asking, “If you ever see a turtle on a fence post, what do you know?” The answer was, “It didn’t get there by itself.”
As I’ve matured as a leader over the last thirty years, I’ve come to realize that my mentor was right. I have yet to meet a truly great leader or mentor who became great without the help of a coach in their life.
Have you ever noticed that even the best athletes in the world have coaches? What do you imagine Michael Phelps might learn day after day from a swimming coach?
Near the end of his career, tennis legend Andre Agassi was interviewed about the role that his coach played in his life. He confided that, the older he got, the more important his coach had become. His coach provided accountability, helping him from slipping into bad habits, challenged him to avoid resting on past successes, and pushed him to keep giving his personal best.
If we’re honest we know that, left to our own devices, we do those exact things that Andre Agassi’s coach was helping him avoid. We slip into bad habits, we rest on past successes, and we can even become apathetic.
I’ve had leadership mentors or coaches in my life almost constantly for the last thirty years, for two main reasons. First, I want to continue to grow as a leader even as I train others. Second, I want to model the value of being coached to others. I currently have a coach and two mentors whom I meet with on a regular basis. I meet with one of them weekly, one bi-weekly, and one monthly. They keep my focused on my highest priorities and improving in areas that I still need to refine as a leader. I wouldn’t want to make the kinds of investments in others that I do without their investments in me.
Great leaders know themselves well enough to know, and have the humility to admit, that they don’t have all of the skills they need to be at their best for those they lead, and they care enough to make the effort to improve.
If you want to be a great leader over the long haul, seek out a coach who you respect and ask them to invest in you as a leader. They’ll help you last over the long haul and help you take your skills to the next level.
Jay Pullins has been leading and developing leaders in a variety of settings for over 30 years. He has a diverse background as a leadership coach, military officer, an appointed state official, and executive leader of Alaska's largest church. Jay has trained over 1,400 leaders in the last five years, from Alaska to Southern California, in various fields from universities to military, construction, product distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications, churches, banks, casinos, and a railroad.