John McVeigh on Cultivating Leadership

Coach John McVeigh said that he prefers the phrase “cultivate leaders” rather than “create leaders.” Coaches are not making something out of nothing, and the process is not going to happen by chance. Players are all different in terms of personality and leadership skill. If the definition of leadership stretches beyond “the loudest guy in the room” there is a leadership role for everyone who is looking to serve as a leader. 

All kids are exposed to situations in which they need to demonstrate accountability, overcome adversity, and lean on past experiences. The area that a coach will have the most impact over in the development of a leader is through their own actions. The student-athlete is always watching and possess a gauge for authenticity. To become leaders, the players have to know how the coach leads, and what the coach thinks a leader is.

Servant Leadership and Humility

Two qualities that Coach McVeigh stressed in the anecdotal stories that he shared with me were servant leadership and humility.

In an earlier part of his career while coaching girls lacrosse he learned that every single player on the team needed to be a leader. Being a “captain” of a team naturally meant that a player was in an elevated position to do so. There is an inherent problem with captains though. A player not being labeled a captain might interpret that as an excuse to shy away from service and humility. A week later, I was reminded of what Coach McVeigh told me after watching the Cal rugby coach define leadership as the ability to make those around you better. 

Green Team vs. White Team

Coach McVeigh gave me an example of how the empowerment of role players takes place at Brooks. The top six players wear green jerseys and the next six wear white jerseys at practice. The most recent graduating class of seniors experienced what it was like to wear both color jerseys in practice. When they were young, they all came off the bench as role players and played for the white team. As a result, when their time came as seniors to be starters and lead the team on the floor, they had the humility to respect their teammates who now carried their old role, and wore the same white shirts they used to wear.

They also had leadership roles within the smaller context of being on the white team even if their role on the court was far from being the leading scorer or rebounder.  The white team offered players a chance to lead huddles, communicate on the court, and take pride in the team’s collective effort. And Coach McVeigh went out of his way to coach the white team just as hard as he coached the green team. Every player felt valued and important.  

Small Details Are Contagious

There were other a couple vivid stories that Coach McVeigh shared with me on leadership. On the first day of practice last year, Coach McVeigh walked into the gym as a player swept the floor. There is an employee at the school who will do that, but this player beat him to it.

In another instance, a player transformed his role. In his early career at Brooks he was a potent scorer. He battled through a few significant injuries and saw his role change. One game the player finished with only two points, but made many small plays to help the team win. In the locker room afterwards, the player was elated.

These are merely small isolated examples. As Coach McVeigh related to me though, positive examples of culture breed more positive examples of culture and vice-versa. As teammates noticed the humble acts of one another, they become repeatable in their own ways by others. Where as in some programs, the newest players do the grunt work and little things, at Brooks, it is the senior leaders who carry equipment, sweep the floor, and clean the locker room. These small acts of physical humility set the tone of service. The example ensures that the younger kids learn so they do the same in the future. They focus on leaders displaying gratitude instead of privilege.

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