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When Willie Desjardins arrived at the Vancouver Canucks in the summer of 2014 the franchise hoped the incoming Head Coach could pave their return to the NHL playoffs. He created a leadership group to solve the dilemma of establishing his vision within the collective.
Willie selected five senior players from his roster with a younger player bringing the number to six. “When training camp started ahead of my first season in 2014 I brought in that group of six leaders,” he said onstage at Leaders Sport Performance Summit in New York in June 2014.
“I met with the leaders and everything I did would come through the leaders. I would run by what I’m going to do, we’d talk about it and when we left the meeting everyone would be onside.” Why six? “I wanted it small enough that we didn’t spend all day arguing but at the same time I wanted my message to be carried out easily.” He was able to align his players to his vision via his leadership group and led the Canucks back to the playoffs after a season away.
Willie’s leadership group was representative of his roster. He brought in five guys who had “been around for a while and who represented different areas of the team” but needed a younger professional who would “represent the young players and maybe less high profile guys that didn’t get a lot of press.” That blend is also a priority for Alastair Clarkson, the Head Coach of Hawthorn FC, although his group extended to five senior players and five ‘emerging leaders’.
“You do need a cross section of profiles, as if it’s all 30-somethings who are married then the young guys won’t be represented and they’ll get frustrated,” he told Performance.
Alastair’s AFL counterpart, John Longmire, Head Coach of the Sydney Swans, spoke at Leaders Sport Performance Summit in London in November 2014 about his leadership group election process being geared around mutually agreed behaviors between him and his players. “They’re not necessarily the best players that make up our leadership group but they represent the types of behaviors that our team want to be represented by.”
Leadership groups can drive the values and behaviors of a team but Wigan Warriors added a potential disruptor to theirs as they claimed their first Super League title in 12 years in 2010. “You would pull one of those into your leadership team just to prevent you having to deal with outside issues,” explains Mick Farrell, Wigan’s Sports Mind Coach & Player Welfare Manager. “These individuals are going to have an influence anyway so you can turn that trait to your advantage by spending more time with them and ultimately having them speak your words.”
By contrast, the model has not proven popular in sports settings where rosters contained considerable cultural diversity. At Leaders’ recent P8 Summit in London, which brought together several top General Managers and Head Coaches from across world sport, the multinational rosters of European soccer were cited as being an uneasy fit for leadership groups. Cultural diversity was said to limit their effectiveness and this also proved the case at Team Sky cycling where an experiment did not adequately support their race strategy or team discipline.
Those teams still contain leaders and so it is the makeup of the roster that will determine its form or character.