Coaching Leaders with Influence vs. Power

By Chris Elliot

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

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Weekend football games bring me back to my glory days of high school football, and I have all the stories to prove it. Yes, I was 6 feet 4 inches tall in high school, even though I’m only 5’7″ now, and I would have played pro football if only (insert any one of 500 reasons).

Back then, the football field was a stage for some of the greatest accomplishments, friendships, and teamwork, along with some very good leadership lessons. One of those lessons came during my freshman year when I witnessed two extremes in coaching styles.

Leadership Moment

As a halfback running plays during one of my very first practices, my number was called to run a halfback sweep. As the ball was pitched to me, I immediately saw what seemed like the entire JV team defense in front of me. Going back to what I knew, backyard football, I stopped and heaved a pass to a wide receiver. Great play I thought; the coach didn’t.

He slammed his clipboard down and screamed at me for not following the play and benched me for the rest of practice. As I was walking to the bench, he yelled, “That play would have been illegal anyway. You had linemen downfield.”

Okay, what does that mean? I’m brand new to high school football without the luxury of 7th or 8th-grade football which didn’t exist at the time. I made a play we do at recess all the time, and the play is in our playbook. It was called a halfback option. What was wrong with what I did?

Teaching Moment

Sometime later, I learned that when a pass is called, the offensive linemen cannot be 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Since the play called at the time was a running play, and the linemen were downfield blocking, it was illegal. That’s great to know now.

What this coach didn’t realize was that he had a great teaching moment in front of him. Instead of using it like that, he let the traditional leadership style play out – get angry, look at it from the leader’s point of view only, and punish without explanation.

From the looks of him, he should be able to lead. He was a tall, strong, athletic man who had great success in football and basketball at both the high school and small college levels.

He’d been there and knew how it had to be done. He just didn’t know how to teach others. Fortunately for me, that coach was moved up to JV before a single game was played.

Coaching Leadership Meeting

The New Coach

Replacing him was a former coach who sat on the bench most of his high school career and never played in college. What he lacked in athleticism and football playing experience, he made up for in leadership.

Just before the first game, I was named captain. I started on both sides of the ball as halfback and cornerback. I was also the kicker and the punter. I never came off the field and relished the playing time and the leadership role I was given.

During one game, I was tackled just short of a first down and had to punt the ball. As we got in the huddle, I called a fake punt on my own without telling the coach.

As a last-minute substitution came into the huddle, one of my teammates went to the sideline in excitement, telling the coach about the fake. Just as I was getting ready to take the snap, Coach called a timeout. I walked to the sideline, still with excitement about a fake punt.

As I approached the coach, he looked around like he was trying to figure something out. Without looking directly at me, he said, “I was thinking of calling a fake punt.”

I replied with even more excitement, “I already did. We’re going to fake it.”

Changing Plans

Coach looked at the ground and said, “Yeah, but now that we called a timeout, they’re probably thinking it’s a fake.” Then he looked at me directly, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “So why don’t we just kick it as we should have from the beginning?”

That simple, straightforward message came through to me loud and clear. “You might be the leader on the field, but I’m the leader of this team.” It was a subtle message sent directly to me without a bunch of drama and exaggeration.

I later asked him why he didn’t bench me for acting on my own. He told me that as the leader on the field, if he made an example of me, it made an example to the team.

It wasn’t the team’s fault; they were just following their leader. However, if he took the time to teach me, then he was teaching the rest of the team, also.

I didn’t really get it at first, but you can be sure I listened and learned from him the rest of that season.   Later in my career, I realized he was talking about the difference between leading with power and leading with influence.

Leadership Lessons – Influence vs. Power

  • Looking like a leader doesn’t make you a leader.
  • Lead with the Authentic You; don’t try to be someone you’re not.
  • Knowing how to perform the position does not equate to being able to lead the position.
  • Power only lasts so long before there’s a revolt.
  • Influence means those following are doing it by choice.
  • Teachable moments are only valuable if we use them to teach.

What is the Difference Between Coaching Leaders With Influence vs. Power?

If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Chris Elliot
Chris Elliot
Chris is a practicing Servant Leader with more than 20 years experience helping organizations implement change. In his new book Thought Shredder, he outlines the process that helped him become an authentic leader.
  • F. E. Starks says:

    Chris, thanks for sharing a simple yet complex view of leadership. Lessons are created from everyday examples in life. Yours is a story of how the investment of teaching (coaching) provides limitless understanding that is required to build leadership skill.

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