How Sports Commentators Are Screwing Up Our 'Leadership'

I grew up in a family that was and continues to be a college sports family. Both my father and my brother have worked extensively for college sports teams, football and men’s basketball respectively. My mom and sister believe that ESPN Game Day on Saturdays in the Fall is the perfect soundtrack to their morning activities. I played basketball in college and have traveled more miles than I care to admit to watch college football games. So, yeah, we’re kind of into it. Given that, and the work I do in leadership development, I am allowing myself the freedom to call out sports commentators directly. Why? Because they are screwing up our 'leadership.'

How They're Screwing It Up

Let's take football for instance. Watch football games on any given Saturday or Sunday (or Monday or Thursday or even Friday) and all too often you'll hear the following comments...

  • A quarterback makes a great pass…he’s a “leader.”

  • A running back makes a great run…he’s a “leader.”

  • A safety makes a great hit…he’s a “leader.”

  • An offensive lineman makes a great block…he’s a “leader.” (OK, OK, you’re right, they never talk about offensive linemen but if they did, they would equate great blocks with being a 'leader.')

Commentators who make such comments are misusing and abusing the word 'leadership.'

It seems to me that…

  • A quarterback who makes great passes is a “great passer.”

  • A running back who makes great runs is a “great runner.”

  • A safety who makes great hits is a “great hitter.”

  • An offensive lineman who makes….well you get the picture. (And there I go NOT talking about offensive linemen just like everyone else.)

Performing a skill well means you’re good at that skill. That doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader. Being skillful can open doors to leadership opportunities, but a well-honed skill won't be the reason people keep following leaders over time. What keeps leaders leading effectively over the long haul is their willingness to continuously become more well-developed people. That means becoming increasingly Inwardly Sound and Others Focused. Such leaders engender extraordinary trust with their followers. That trust ignites the highest levels of energy and commitment in followers which ultimately produces real results. The ability to perform a particular skill effectively simply doesn't carry that kind of power with it.

How to Keep Them From Screwing Us Up

It's been said that, "A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew." If we aren't clear and careful with the language we use to understand and talk about leadership, we can inadvertently mislead both ourselves and the followers we are responsible for developing into effective leaders.

For example, if I tell my daughter she's a 'great leader' when she aces her history test, it would be understandable for her to believe knowing history or getting good grades is what makes her a person worth following. That simply isn't true. In my effort to applaud her, I would be responsible for having planted the seeds of misunderstanding within her. In doing so, I would have guided her toward (1) a false sense of accomplishment as a leader, and (2) more investment on her part in a development path that, though perhaps helpful, won't make her a better leader. If we replace the good score on the history test in this example with skills from the business world such as hitting sales goals and having a deep knowledge of marketing, we end up with ready examples of how this issue easily shows itself in our everyday work environments.

Yes, having well-developed skills opens many doors. More often than it should, it opens the door to leadership opportunities. This is why skilled individual salespeople often fail miserably as sales managers, and why highly skilled laborers get promoted to foremen only to feel lost when they realize they can no longer use their physical toolbox to create the results required of them. Skills alone will never make us effective leaders who people want to follow over the long haul. Understanding and consistently articulating the difference between possessing a great skill and being an effective leader is essential if we are to manage well our own leadership development and the leadership development of those we lead.

The next time a sports commentator calls someone a “leader” after a great play, let's ask ourselves if the individual in question is actually a great leader or simply a very talented athlete. And use that moment to remind ourselves that there is a mountain of difference between being exceptionally skilled and being an exceptional leader.

Share Your Thoughts: Have you ever worked for a leader or organization who did NOT understand the difference between having a skill and being a leader? If so, describe what happened as a result. Have you ever worked for a leader or organization that very clearly understood the difference between having a skill and being a leader? If so, describe what happened as a result.We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

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