The power of empowerment

Katrien Fransen, Professor in Leadership and Coaching at KU Leuven, presents the research of Leading Insights on leaders within the team and the benefits of a shared leadership structure.

When we speak about "leadership", we tend to spontaneously think about the leadership of the coach, or perhaps the team captain within a sport team. The leadership of other key figures in the team is thereby often underestimated. By actively taking up leadership responsibilities, team members can play an important role in optimising the team's functioning. Moreover, the evidenced impact of these athlete leaders on the team's effectiveness and athlete health and wellbeing necessitates us to move away from the traditional approach of hierarchical leadership and embrace the idea of shared leadership.

“On every team there is a core group who sets the tone for everyone else. If the tone is positive, you have half the battle won. If it is negative, you are beaten before you can even walk out on the field.”

Chuck Noll, former Head Coach of Pittsburgh Steelers

Part 1: Introduction to sports leadership and the impact of athlete leaders

Prof. Fransen makes a distinction between the two main types of leaders within a team: formal leaders (coach and captain) and informal leaders (i.e., leaders receiving their leadership status based on natural interactions with their teammates, such as senior players taking the younger players under their wing).

She then discusses the findings of the research within Leading Insights on athlete leaders to explain that these athlete leaders have indeed an important impact on their team members. More specifically, the quality of the athlete leaders impacts both team functioning (e.g., team confidence, team cohesion, team resilience), performance indicators (e.g., objective performance, performance satisfaction, team ranking), as well as health indicators (e.g., health, well-being, burnout). Importantly to note is that while the impact of athlete leaders can have a huge positive impact, if the wrong athlete leaders are appointed and they demonstrate negative leadership behaviour, this will also have a detrimental impact on the team. The importance of identifying the right leaders in the team is therefore key, which brings us to Part 2.

Part 2: Identifying athlete leaders within a team

Prof. Fransen introduces four leadership roles within a team that can be occupied by athlete leaders, including task leadership (providing tactical guidance), motivational leadership (encouraging others to perform at their best), social leadership (creating a good atmosphere around the team), and external leadership (representing the team towards management, press and sponsors).

Although the captains are expected to assume all of these roles, the research within Leading Insights has shown that the captains are only rarely perceived as the best leader for these roles by their teammates. As each role requires a different skillset, and these talents are usually spread throughout the team, it is therefore recommended to distribute these roles among those athletes that are best suited for taking up this role. Our research has also shown that teams with such a structure of shared leadership have greater team confidence, share a stronger sense of team identification, and end up higher on the ranking than teams with a single leader.

Part 3: Reasons why coaches should implement shared leadership models within their teams

Despite the known benefits of shared leadership structures, coaches are often reluctant to implement them out of fear of losing their own leadership status by empowering athlete leaders in their team. However, the research within Leading Insights has shown that this fear is totally unjustified. Even on the contrary, in teams that have more shared leadership (i.e., having better task, motivational, social, and external leaders), the coaches are perceived as better leaders on each of these roles compared to coaches of teams with more hierarchical leadership.

The ideal leadership model lies somewhere between a hierarchical (coach and captain vs. the rest of team) and a self-steering (no coach) structure, where both athletes and coaches can reap the benefits of having multiple leaders, in an environment conducive to optimal player performance and where clear standards have been set by the coach. It is therefore important to look beyond the team captain to identify the real leaders within a team for each of the different leadership roles.

Part 4: The road to effective leadership

The right leaders must be identified, formally appointed and further developed. Leading Insights developed the Shared Leadership Mapping analysis, which provides a crystal clear view on the key leaders on the team. More specifically, after bringing together perceptions of all team members and coach, social network analysis is adopted to visualise the leadership network in the team. Based on this network and additional graphs, a detailed report is compiled, which is used as the basis for suggesting the most suitable athlete leaders to their coach and sports psychologists.

The formal appointment of leaders is key, and so is their development, particularly with regard to their identity leadership skills, as their teammates will gain in confidence and perform better if they feel a greater sense of identification with their team. In light of this, Leading Insights, in collaboration with their Australian partners, developed a five-step (5RS) leadership program, which has been found to enhance the leadership skills of athlete leaders, while also improving various outcomes, such as team identification, intrinsic motivation and athletes’ health in the process.

More information on this topic, as well as on the Shared Leadership Mapping and the 5RS program can be found here.