An Early Lesson in Leadership


An Early Lesson in Leadership

At an early age, I was intrigued by what made a person successful—what defined a "winner." However, I didn't truly understand what it meant to be a leader, not until I reached college. Having played competitive tennis for years, I arrived at Knox College my freshman year cocky and ready to rule the team. I thought no one could beat me, and the first few weeks of preseason practice proved me right. In my mind, there was no doubt: based on my skills, I was the best player on the team.

Yet when it came time to elect the team captain, I wasn't the one they chose. Instead, the team elected my friend Chris. And when the season opened, I found myself in the number two singles spot—not number one. I was confused, wondering if somehow I didn't understand how college tennis worked. My coach sat me down for a talk. "John," he said, "being captain of the team is a leadership position, as is being our number one singles player. In order to be captain of this team, you need to be a leader off the court as well as on it. Right now, I see that you're neither."

I was furious. What was he talking about? I thought, if you're the best, you play number one. Besides, how was I not leading on court? Leading meant winning, which I had proven I knew how to do. As far as my off-court behavior was concerned, that was none of his business.

Of course, the story of my off-court behavior that first year in college was typical. Fall term was such a disaster that I nearly flunked out. By the time tennis season rolled around that spring and "freshmanitis" had run its course, I had straightened up my act off-court, but my on-court behavior left much to be desired. I swore, threw my racquet, and on the sidelines didn't do much to support my team members. I showed no reverence for the seniors on the team, believing I could drill them in my sleep. Looking back, I'm ashamed of my arrogance.

Fortunately, not long into the season I finally got the message. I was digging myself out of a hole in a long, three-set match. I'd come from behind after losing the first set, and was trailing in the third. The points were long. My opponent refused to miss; I was earning my points only by hitting outright winners after long, tiring rallies. I was the last of my team on court—everyone else had finished their matches long ago.

I was so in the zone of the match that it took a while before I noticed: none of my teammates were there on the sidelines. Some were eating sandwiches in the van, others were cracking jokes by the concession stand. At 4-4 in the third set, there wasn't a single player from my team behind the fence supporting me. On the other hand, it appeared that virtually every player from my opponent's team was there watching, as was their coach. No wonder I hadn't heard any cheers when I won a point.

Finally, I won the match. Exhausted, I sat down on the court with a towel over my head, dousing myself with cold water. Maybe it was the emotional roller coaster of a long match. More likely, it was the realization that my teammates couldn't stand me. I cried into my towel.

That day, after I finished feeling sorry for myself, I made the decision to change. The only way I would earn the right to be a team leader was to start acting like one—by showing respect and earning my teammates' trust. It didn't happen overnight, but I learned to do what my instincts told me was right. I did my best to support my teammates in practice and in competition. I cleaned up my language and avoided rude behavior on court. I considered myself a representative of both my team and school, whether we were competing at home or away.

About midseason, my coach played me at the number one spot—and for nearly every match from that point on, that's where I remained for the rest of my college career. I finally understood that leadership is not just defined by competition, but also—and often more important—by respecting others and earning their trust. Pure skill isn't enough If you want to lead, you must provide people with a compelling reason to follow.