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Effective Leaders: Warm Demanders

Basketball is Psychology XXXVII


As a leader, you have a choice: you can either lead with respect, or you can lead with fear.

Effective leadership is a relationship, respect-based leadership. The opposite of leading with respect is leading with fear. Leading with fear may seem to temporarily motivate, but in the long-run it inhibits performance, learning, and teamwork.

Is the foundation of your leadership fear or respect? Many leaders subconsciously choose fear.

Those who lead with respect empower those around them. Those who lead with fear disempower those around them.

The important question to ask is: how do people feel around me? If people are scared of messing up, looking bad, losing their status, feeling worthless, and damaging their reputation around you-- you’re leading with fear.

If people feel safe around you, you are leading with respect.

Creating The Right Environment

In Google’s quest to find what successful teams have in common, the single factor they found was psychological safety. It’s every leader’s responsibility to create a climate of psychological safety.

There are a lot of misconceptions about psychological safety. Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization put it like this, “Psychological safety is not an ‘anything goes’ environment where people are not expected to adhere to high standards or meet deadlines. It’s not about being ‘comfortable’ at work. Psychological safety sets the stage for a more honest, more challenging, more collaborative, and thus also more effective work environment.”

It’s widely accepted that great leaders have high standards, but without psychological safety, that will only create anxiety. The most effective leaders create an environment with high standards and high psychological safety.

Psychological safety is directly correlated with how engaged we are in our work. When we feel like our ideas are listened to and our work is recognized, we work harder.

The Best Leaders

Boston Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens was asked about what makes a good leader, he replied,

“The best leaders are warm and demanding.

You can approach them to go out to dinner, you can approach them about your situation, you can approach them about life off the court. At the same time, when you get between those lines, there’s a demand of operating at an excellent level; doesn’t mean it’s demeaning, it’s just we have an expectation that you’re going to operate at your highest level.

You have to recenter yourself as quickly as possible because you have to be able to give your players that feeling that:

Yes, there are expectations.

Yes, there are great demands.

But yes, we realize you are a human being and we’re here to help in any way.”

Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich embodies a warm and demanding leadership style. His assistant, Chip Engelland said it best, “A lot of coaches can yell or be nice, but what Pop does is different. He delivers two things over and over:

He will tell you the truth

He will love you to death”

This is the winning combination of high standards and high psychological safety. Truth creates the need to change and get better, love gives us the space to do so.

Warm Leaders

In their book Safe People, Psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend describe a safe person as someone who connects with us, someone who is for us, and they tell us the truth.

Safe people make you feel like you can be yourself around them.

Safe people help you by providing opportunities for you to learn, get better, and develop--on and off the court.

Safe people push you into becoming the best version of yourself.

Safe people leave you better than you were before you met them.

As Brad Stevens put it, you can approach them about anything and they will help, whether or not it’s basketball related.

Great leaders are safe people.

Psychology has proven the quality of our relationships is directly correlated with our engagement. Meaning, if you are a safe person, you are going to inspire those around you to work harder for you.

“You can really coach people, and be even more constructively critical, if you’ve shown that you are invested in them as a person.” -- Brad Stevens

Recentering Yourself

Respect-based leaders not only give respect to others by being committed to relationships, they also earn respect. People want to follow them.

So how do great leaders gain respect?

Brad Stevens alluded to this when he said, “You have to recenter yourself as quickly as possible, to give your players that feeling...” he’s saying you have step back from dramatic situations and find a way to make those around you feel safe.

Think about the leaders you respect the most. It’s likely that in times of trouble, when the game gets tense and everyone else has lost their cool, they’re the person who’s still calm. They make dramatic situations a lot less dramatic by recentering. Drama loses games; great leaders don’t get dramatic. They take a step back from this situation, figure out the least-dramatic solution, and execute it. This makes everyone around you feel calm and secure.

Watch Brad Stevens’ demeanor- he’s the ultimate drama diffuser. It doesn’t matter how dramatic the game is, he’s almost always able to stay calm, his team follows, and as a result, he’s earned a great deal of respect.

Trust and control can’t coexist

Respect based leaders empower others by trusting them without micromanaging. The give away their power.

Fear based leaders seek to control so they never give away their power. They don’t trust their team, and therefore never empower others.

For example, Steve Kerr occasionally hands over the clipboard to his players during timeouts.

Fear vs. Respect

Leadership has nothing to do with positions, titles, or who the team captain is. Leadership is the influence, and influence is built on relationships.

Fear-based leaders have the opposite approach, they think their position gives them influence, so they don’t bother spending time trying to relate to those they lead. They use their title, power, threats, and consequences to try and scare people into behaving a certain way. Fear based leaders try and mask their insecurities by disempowering those around them to make themselves feel more powerful.

Harvard Professor of Leadership Amy Edmondson wrote, "Many leaders both consciously and not, still believe in the power of fear to motivate. They assume that people who are afraid (of management and underperforming) will work hard to avoid unpleasant consequences and good things will happen. This might make sense if the work is straightforward and the worker is unlikely to run into any problems or have any ideas for improvement. But for jobs where learning or collaboration are required for success, fear is not an effective motivator. Brain science has amply demonstrated that fear inhibits learning and cooperation."

It’s important to understand that no one actually thinks they are a “fear-based leader”, it’s something we do when we lack intentionality in the relational aspect of those we lead.

Recent psychological studies have shown that the kind of leaders we want to follow don’t act like they have it all together. The leaders we actually want to follow are vulnerable.

By definition, vulnerability means we are susceptible to attack or harm, but as far as being a leader on a basketball team, vulnerability is more so admitting you are not perfect.

This sounds easy, but as leaders, we get so caught up in doing the right thing, being right, and looking right that we miss being real. Being real means you are going to mess up, face challenges, and other people might have better ideas than you; if you are open and honest about those things, people will want to follow you.

The goal of a leader should be to lead people well, not perfectly. When we try to reach perfection, all we think about is ourselves and we forget about the needs of others, which is what leadership is all about.

It’s hard to follow a leader who won’t acknowledge reality, and the reality is that every team will face adversity. If you pretend like you aren’t challenged, it’s not a sign of strength, it’s a sign of insecurity. When you’re insecure, you try to make others feel the same way, so you instill fear.

Great Demanders

You can’t lead someone somewhere you’ve never been before. Leaders are a constant example of who they want their followers to become. They lead by example with their behavior, attitude, passion, and effort, which inspires those around them.

Great leaders hold themselves to a higher standard which allows them to hold others accountable.

When someone fails to meet the standard, they get held accountable. Psychological safety means there is a willingness to speak candidly. Great leaders are willing to hold people accountable because they are more committed to the long-term growth of the other person than their own short-term discomfort.

Fear-Based Leadership Destroys Teamwork

When we are being lead with fear, we only think about ourselves. We go into survival mode; we’re thinking about our own status, our needs, and our role on the team. Fear causes us to lose focus on the team and the team’s goals. When we are operating out of fear, we stop trusting people, which makes communication and teamwork nearly impossible.

Respect-Based Leadership Promotes Teamwork

When you respect others, you have no problem asking for help, hearing others’ ideas, and getting feedback. This is a sign of trust, and clear communication is a byproduct of trust. Other people sense a real person instead of an all-powerful know-it-all.

Empowered people are secure enough to empower others. Their focus is not on their own greatness, but in bringing out the greatness in those around them.

Leading with respect means you’re raising the confidence levels of those around you.

Action Step:

Practice the habits of great leaders:

Be a warm demander

Commit to relationships

Be honest and open about imperfections

Use power to empower others

Recenter yourself and diffuse drama

Be a safe person

Hold yourself to a higher standard

Always lead with respect, never lead with fear


Written by Julie Fournier


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