Whenever we look to successful leaders or coaches in the hopes of better understanding their habits—their secrets, we’re told to watch how they lead because their actions speak louder than their words. Fair enough. I won’t deny that how one chooses to behave is often indicative of what makes them successful. However, I would contend that in the case of Mike Babcock, arguably one of hockey’s most successful coaches, we would be well advised to listen to his chosen language as well.
I’ve always been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Growing up on the campus of Ridley College in St.Catharines, Ontario, I got to see Davey Keon the iconic Maple Leafs players from the 1970’s every summer when he hosted his hockey camps in the School’s old rink. Given his talent, his determination, his humility; it was hard not to be an admirer.
Today, as well as enjoying the teams resurgence, I’ve found them a fascinating study on the impact of leadership on a team’s performance.
WHERE TO BEGIN:
As someone who makes his living trying to better understand what drives people, there’s nothing that I enjoy more than listening to the Leafs new hire, Mike Babcock himself, share his thoughts on high-performance, the players and what his next steps are in moving the team forward. There’s a design to his language. One that I imagine is purposeful.
NHL hockey teams are no different than any other organization fixed on achieving success—business or otherwise. Simply put, the inherent purpose of each team is to win hockey games, period. In order to achieve that players must be skilled, fit and attuned with strategic nuances. It’s the job of their coaches to ensure that each of those areas is properly managed.
However, as most leaders will attest, skill, fitness and knowledge are limited if not allowed to flourish within a supportive and positive culture.
My experience tells me that culture can be the most difficult team characteristic to influence. And, therefore, it invariably takes the longest time to shift.
Goodness knows Babcock had his hands full when he took the reigns of the Maple Leafs last summer. The Leafs were a beaten team—in every sense of the word. Physically and emotionally, the players were done. They were uninspired and craving for someone to unite them in one cause.
That’s where Mike has shone.
Around motivation, he’s chosen one simple goal that each of his players can accomplish every single day. Getting better. He uses this expression countless times in front of his players and the media, “We just need to get better.”
Conversely, Babcock could have announced at his very first press conference, “The Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup in X-number of years!” But, to what end? Paradoxically, that would’ve delayed or even prevented that very outcome. Yes, winning that Cup is clearly his intention. But telling the world in the hopes of motivating his athletes would’ve been counterproductive. Instead Mike has chosen to make the goal more personal for his players. He understands that a championship team will emerge when the process that he has his players focus on day-in-day-out has reached a level that is capable of outperforming every other team in the league, and no sooner.
Babcock appreciates that in order to reach his ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup his players need another goal that they can bite into and believe in every day. One that is achievable each and every time they step onto the ice.
It’s really all any coach or leader can expect from their charges—to improve. Mind you, he’s made it clear that if they don’t try to get better they won’t see any ice time. Therefore, the players that show up hell-bent on improving their skills get to play. It’s very simple. Its sorts out who is prepared to be accountable and who isn’t.
Therein lies the ticket to changing one extremely important part of any successful teams culture. When the season ended last year, there were minor leagues in Toronto with teenage players that had more confidence in their ability to score goals than some of the Leafs.
As Toronto’s players have improved this year—as they’ve gotten better—not surprisingly, their confidence has grown. With that, so too has their level of play. As Mike constantly reminds them, “You have to earn the right to feel good about yourself.” What better way to do that than by achieving the goal that your coach has laid out for you?
The teams improved level of performance has created a group of players that are not only starting to experience success more consistently, but they’re having more fun doing it. Again, another effective motivator. I don’t care if you’re a professional athlete or a weekend warrior, we are further motivated to engage in activities that we find fun. It’s the human condition. When leaders create cultures that encourage enjoyment from its participants, performance improves—every time.
What’s also interesting of late is how often you hear the players say during post game interviews, “We’re starting to play for each other.” When athletes are motivated to perform for what’s in it for them, they’re generally motivated. However, when they’re motivated by what’s in it for the team, they’re motivated more. We are hardwired to want to contribute to initiatives larger than us. When coaches tap into that motivation, it’s the most powerful and sustainable form of motivation that we can experience—contributing to the greater good.
I believe Mike laid the groundwork for that outcome back in the summer at his first press conference when he said, “First of all we’re looking for good people— if you’re not a good person, you’ll never wear a Maple Leafs jersey.” By removing toxic members of the team, he created an environment whereby players were more likely to get along and want to play for each other. Yes, it’s important to see the big picture of sport in that athletes should be good people and thereby positive role models for young athletes, but it’s also a good strategy for building a high-performance team as well.
Knowing that I’m a biased Leafs fan doesn’t in anyway dilute the efficacy of what Babcock is building in Toronto. As coaches and leaders we owe it to our athletes and teams to be continuously seeking out opportunities to learn more effective ways to support and inspire high-performance in others. Clearly Mike has provided one shining example through the strategic language that he employs around his team.
When I had the pleasure of speaking with him last summer, I welcomed Mike to Toronto and wished him every success with his new venture. He was quick to reply, “Be patient—it’s going to take some time.” Of course it will, changing culture always does. However, I believe given what Mike has managed to do halfway into his first season, at some point in the near future he’ll create a championship team in Toronto.
When leaders and coaches inspire people to discover their best abilities in a safe, supportive and enjoyable atmosphere, great things can happen. When we use strategic language to reinforce the culture that supports those great things, we help hurry that process. If you’re wondering if you’re contributing to that optimal environment; my advice—pay attention to your language. Everyone around you is listening.
Photo credit: Darren Calabrese CP
Jason Dorland is a High-Perfomance Coach who believes the most undervalued and underutilized components of reaching our goals are the mental and emotional areas of our lives. With your commitment, Jason can help you make a positive difference in how you approach your life’s dreams and goals. Guaranteed! To find out how—contact Jason today!