Leadership is a concept that permeates our culture in a variety of ways. We acknowledge the need for appropriate leadership in government, we appreciate teachers that lead our children in a positive manner, and we know that businesses need leadership in the form of CEO’s and managers. Coaches and sporting organizations also acknowledge the need for leadership in the form of a hierarchy of coaching staff and in the form of team captains. Captains are often chosen as an attempt to create this concept of leadership on athletic teams, but it is not uncommon for the motive behind this choice to be unclear. I have commonly heard that captains are chosen based purely off athletic performance, or on their social status amongst their peers. And while that is not necessarily wrong, what we know about psychology says there could be more effective way to inform our decisions. The process of defining leadership amongst an organization or a team should not be viewed as another box to check off of a list, but instead should be viewed as an opportunity to create a performance advantage.
In the 1978 book Leadership by James MacGregor Burns, he defines leadership not as “making followers do what followers would not otherwise do” (p.133) but instead as “leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations…of both leaders and followers” (p.133). With this definition in mind, coaches and organizational executives can think of leadership as an interaction amongst the entire team, as opposed to an individual with more power than those around them. Burns goes on to define two types of leadership; transactional and transformational. Transactional leadership is defined by the leader who provides direct rewards and punishments for their behaviors; they are effective leaders because they are able to provide their followers with something they want in exchange for their work (Callow, Smith, Hardy, Arthur, & Hardy, 2009). Transactional leadership is quite literally, a simple exchange between behaviors and outcomes (Kuhnert and Lewis, 1987). This is not a poor form of leadership, and it can be effective. On a sales team this might manifest in the commission bonuses that can be earned, in a classroom this can be seen in the exchange of grades for demonstrating knowledge. And on an athletic team, this can be seen in the exchange of playing time for consistent sport performance.
However, Burns (1978) also identifies a second type of leadership; one that research suggests may lead to performance outcomes greater than what we see from transactional leaders. Transformational leaders, at their core, aim to lead their followers through heightening their sense of morality and motivation. So what does that actually mean? A transformational leader is one that is concerned with building relationships with their followers based on personal and emotional exchanges, with the ultimate goal being each individual reaching their full potential (Callow, et al., 2009). A transformational leader in business might be the one who holds a brainstorming session with their followers to develop a collaborative mission statement. In a classroom this might be the teacher who rewards their students for demonstrating compassion or fairness towards their peers. And on an athletic team, this might be the coach who rewards individual improvements in performance, regardless of overall competition outcome.
Transformational leaders are in the business of building better people, and they trust that this process will eventually lead to the outcomes they desire. Research has supported the notion that transformational leadership can lead to higher performance outcomes through mediating factors; a factor that explains the relationship between independent and dependent factors. In other words, while having transformational leadership for your team might not directly help your athletes play their sport better, it can create better dynamics on a team that can ultimately lead to more consistent performance together. A relationship between transformational leadership and intrinsic motivation has been supported (Charbonneau, Barling, & Kelloway, 2001) as well as a relationship with athlete need-satisfaction and overall well-being (Stenling and Tafvelin, 2014). Transformational leadership has also shown positive outcomes in an athletic setting through promoting group goals and team cohesion (Callow et al., 2009) and by facilitating the experience of self-development in athletes (Vella, Oades, & Crowe, 2013).
So what can we do with this information? Knowledge is power, but only to the extent to which you can apply it to your real life. So how can we take this concept of transformational leadership and use it to propel athletic performance forward? Taking the time at the beginning of a season to identify the values of a team, the things in which a team holds most important to them, can be an incredibly powerful way to set the stage for transformational leadership. I will never tell an athletic team that winning competitions shouldn’t a priority, but what are the things that a team holds valuable on their way to winning? Do they want to be the most respectful team? Do they want to demonstrate the most loyalty? Or be the hardest-working? If a coach takes the time to collaborate with their athletes on a common value, this can shift the process of picking leaders that are transactional to picking leaders that are transformative. Captains or leaders can now be chosen based on their ability to represent the team’s common value(s), instead of being chosen based on their physical ability or social status. Instead of choosing a captain because their performances are admirable, a captain can be picked because they will help uphold the values of the team. For example, if a team values hard-work above anything else and the captain(s) are chosen within that context; no longer does the physically strong or social butterfly necessarily make the best fit. Within the framework of leading through the common goal of hard-work, your leader might end up being the quietest athlete on the team. It is this type of transformative leadership, based on common values and ethics, that can drive a team toward success.
Burns, J.M. (1998), “Transactional and transforming leadership”, in Hickman, G.R. (Ed.), Leading Organizations, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 133-4.
Callow, N., Smith, M. J., Hardy, L., Arthur, C. A., & Hardy, J. (2009). Measurement of transformational leadership and its relationship with team cohesion and performance level. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21(4), 395–412.
Charbonneau, D., Barling, J., & Kelloway, E. K. (2001). Transformational leadership and sports performance: the mediating role of intrinsic motivation. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology,31(7), 1521–1534.
Kuhnert, K.W., & Lewis, P. (1987). Transactional and transformational leadership: A constructive/developmental analysis. Academy of Management Review, 12, 648-657.
Stenling, A. and Tafvelin, S. (2014) ‘Transformational leadership and well-being in sports: the mediating role of need satisfaction. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 26(2), 182–196.
Vella, S., Oades, L., & Crowe, T. (2013). A pilot test of transformational leadership training for sport coaches: impact on the developmental experiences of adolescent athletes. International Journal of Sport Science and Coaching, 8, 513-530.