I was shocked when I heard that my friend, John (do you really need me to say that this is not his real name!?!?), recently left what everyone else in his field would call a dream job. As a master athletic coach, he held a key spot in player development for a prominent professional team.

John earned that spot by combining a no-nonsense approach to training athletes with an undeniable passion for the professional and personal success of his young players. Yes, he breaks down video of his teams with painful clarity. “You see how the decision you made here cost us? Do this instead. Good enough simply isn’t good enough!” But he also puts his arm around a player and, with a knowing smile says, “Hey, keep working. You’re important to this team.” This makes him universally respected and often loved by former players and grateful parents. In my mind, only something like a culture clash would make him quit his dream job.

Over breakfast, I got the scoop on what had happened. John’s problems in this professional club began when he started to see symptoms of how the team viewed young talent.  The centerpiece story came from how the organization handled a particular tournament.  Like any sports team, the club had its core starters, its core substitutes/role players, and a fringe player or two who were on the bubble. The team decided to take one of these bubble players, who I’ll call Andy, to this tournament. Needless to say, Andy was excited to make it onto the airplane.

What Andy didn’t know was that the head coach had no intention of using him in a game.  Any game. Even when the team won their first two matches of round robin play and had qualified for the next round, Andy didn’t make it onto the roster for a third round robin game that was essentially a throw-away.

Andy was embarrassed and understandably devastated. He called John in tears and explained his situation.  When John found out that Andy was never told about his status on the team for the tournament, he first told Andy gently but candidly just where he stood. Then John confronted the head coach on the communication screw-up.

“Andy? I don’t have time for the Andy’s!” the coach exclaimed in exasperation.

When telling the story, John’s mouth just dropped open at this point.  Then the passion poured out. “You just don’t do that to young players – or any players! They aren’t pieces of meat!”

After cooling down a little, John added a very profound summary statement. “You know,” he said between mouthfuls of oatmeal, “there’s a difference between being demanding and being demeaning.”

Having watched John practice his craft, I can tell you he has that difference nailed.  He’s brutally honest with players about their place on the team and their prospects for a professional career. At the same time, he says, “Hey, my purpose in life is to help you achieve your dreams. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.” I believe it and so do his players.  And as a result, his players and their parents trust John. They’re loyal to John. And when it comes time to perform, they give their best to the team partly because John creates that demanding, ennobling environment.

You may or may not be the big cheese in your organization. But you influence people around you every day. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do I demand the best from people around me every day? If someone does something at less than their best, do I have the courage to challenge them to do better?
  • Does my challenge lift them up and inspire them to do better or drag them down?
  • Does this attitude of doing the best start with me? Do I model excellence in the little things so that I have integrity when I challenge others?
  • Do people respond well to my challenge because they reflexively believe that I want what’s best for them, our customers, and our organization?