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Bacon: Good coaches and good managers let them lead

John U. Bacon

The complaints from managers today make it sound like a national epidemic: “This generation just doesn’t ‘get it’ – or I don’t get them. We have to cater to their every whim, including bean bag chairs!”

Now many companies can’t even get a warm body to fill their positions. 

I might agree with these complaints if I hadn’t had an experience that changed my opinion about the next generation forever.

In 2000 the ice hockey team at my alma mater, the Ann Arbor Huron High School, did not win a single game. Worse, the guy they picked to coach, yours truly, had never been a head hockey coach before, and never scored a goal as a player, either. Not exactly a great combination.

What to do? My hockey mentor, Culver Academy’s Al Clark, told me: “You need to make it special to play for Huron. And the best way to make it special is to make it hard.”

This was the exact opposite of what everyone else told me.

But Clark had a point. The Navy SEALS and the Peace Corps don’t offer fame or fortune, but a mission. The difficulty of those jobs attracts the right people, and they only take a fraction of those who apply.

Clark added: “If they had to do something hard just to make the team, they know that means they accomplished something. And once that culture is established, they will maintain it themselves.”  

So that’s what we did. At our very first summer work out, I told our players, “We are going to be the hardest working high school hockey team in the state. You will be the most important team in school history – the one that turns the program around. Our goal is nothing less than the state title. It won’t be this year, but the team that does it will give you a standing ovation at their banquet.”

They thought I was crazy – but they kept coming. They were starved for a sense of purpose. How do I know? Not one player quit.   

I wasn’t trying to instill a dictatorship. That doesn’t work anymore. But I also wasn’t offering Casual Fridays and Taco Tuesdays. I was trying a third way: coaching. Set high expectations, then help them to run the team – and they did.

They set our team goals, not me. They had a say on disciplinary issues, too, and one night they even coached an entire game by themselves – and won, 6-0. The more power I gave them, the better they got.

We had only two rules: “Work Hard, and Support Your Teammates.”

These simple principles helped us define ourselves, instead of letting the world do it for us. What other people thought of us didn’t matter.

Three years later the River Rats were 17-4-5, the best team in school history. Nationwide they had risen from dead last to the top 5 percent. 

These ideas work just as well when I’m teaching college students or working with corporations. If you think back to your favorite teachers, you understand why: they cared about you, and they pushed you – and that’s how they changed your life. If your company doesn’t care about your people the way your favorite teacher did, then your company will not get the results your favorite teacher did, either.

Yes, I’ve heard today’s workers are lazy, sloppy, and selfish. But I’m here to tell you: they want more than a paycheck and a promotion. They want to be challenged. They want a sense of belonging. And they want to lead.

If you give them those things, they will give you everything.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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