Can You Coach a Team When You Don’t Know the Game?

I’m waiting for an appointment and watching a group of children learning to play American football. The coaches are good and constantly talking. The kids look to be around 5th grade and don’t know the rules well. There’s a lot of chaos; both skill and structure (rules) are lacking at this young age. It takes a patient coach to work through this and for the team to get better.

Imagine that group of 5th graders trying to progress with a coach who’d never played football and didn’t know the rules or understand the skills required.

That describes many young companies! A leader who hasn’t been there, may not know the “rules” and doesn’t have the skills is trying to create a team to get to the goal line (if he knows where it is). The early problems at Uber probably come to mind or perhaps WeWork. Passion is required but not sufficient!

As I watch the coaches working with these kids, they’re drilling fundamentals, not playing a full game. During a pass-rush drill, the head coach yells, “When the ball moves, you move!” before every play. He’s building fundamental skills before they move on to complex plays.

Leaders who don’t know the fundamentals — such as communication, strategic thinking, team building, planning, accountability assurance and financial acumen — have three options. They can: (1) learn them quickly, (2) hire others who have them or (3) turn over the head-coaching job to someone else (or, I guess, continually finish last in their division to carry on the football analogy).

Hope isn’t a strategy, passion isn’t sufficient, and neither ownership nor a big job title overcome lack of skill.

If you’re in a leadership role without clearly understanding the rules or lacking the skills, think about the three options above and pick one. Woody Allen was incorrect when it comes to leadership. Showing up isn’t 80 percent of success.

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