Coaching Today

Leading the Leader


By Dr. Dan Gerdes, Ph.D.

Leading the LeaderTop down leading is normal leadership. It is the traditional leadership model of a leader and followers – both fulfilling roles that benefit an organization or cause.

We can quickly tell if a retail outlet is under good leadership. The employees are using efficient and effective practices, principles and attitudes to accomplish their tasks. Patrons feel taken care of and the customer is the key to any success the store is going to have.

The same kind of observations can be seen in an athletic context as well. Events are well-organized and administered. The facilities are well-kept and reflect an attitude of excellence. Coaches are enthusiastic and energetic without being fake, and the athletes are genuinely excited about the team or school they are representing.

But leading the leader, “bottom up leading,” is a much more difficult task to do well. If the coach wants to influence the athletic director or another senior administrator to make a change or pursue different activities, the follower must have a deeper relationship with the leader. The leader must give the follower’s opinion a deeper level of respect.

Here are three ways to “lead the leader” without being manipulative, cajoling or pushy. Remember, the key ingredient to any enduring relationship is trust. 

  1. Build genuine friendship and honest rapport. Offering someone a warm smile or a kind gesture seems quaint or old-fashioned. These activities when consistently offered represent small investments in the greater relationship account. Indeed, spending time in a relationship is much different than investing time. The investment of building genuine rapport with the leader and an honest interest in the role he or she plays for the organization takes tremendous discipline. Begin with honest praise and recognition of the job he or she performs and the way it is performed. Everyone wants to feel appreciated and noticed; everyone wants to “fit in”; even though leaders rarely share this desire in words.
  2. Be respectful. Who’s to say that if you were in the chair of leadership, you would do any differently? If you knew what leaders knew, had the resources they had, had been mentored the way they had been mentored and shared the same experiences as them, it’s quite possible you’d be making the same kinds of decisions and acting in the same sorts of ways as they do.  Showing respect of the opinion and actions of leaders — even if you don’t agree with them — communicates loyalty, not just to leaders, but to the welfare of the organization. The moment you say, “You’re wrong,” you risk alienating yourself and fracturing rapport, revealing yourself as an opponent rather than someone who shares the best interest of the organization. Learning to really listen to both the words and the heart of the person talking conveys tremendous respect.
  3. Appeal to a higher principle. If we approach leaders with a self-centered point of view, we come off as selfish and egotistical, not really caring about the interests of them or others they serve. On the other hand, if we can identify a higher cause that makes our recommendations meaningful, leaders are more able to justify in their hearts and minds making changes and considering our point of view.

Consider the volleyball coach who meets with the athletic director to discuss new uniforms. If the coach bases the action on the rationale that the football program always gets what they want, and now volleyball should, too, what are the chances new volleyball uniforms are forthcoming? On the other hand, if the rationale is about elevating morale among young women and affirming them as athletes, helping them feel good about themselves while rewarding effort and dedication to the volleyball program, how can this be wrong?

In the end, leading the leader is about the spirit of partnership, and trust is the key.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Gerdes, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri. He specializes in sport psychology and is the author of two books.



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