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  • Published Oct 20, 2023

From the Flag Football Field: Unconventional Leadership Lessons

How Coaching 5-Year-Olds led to Insights on Teamwork, Communication, and the Power of Celebrating Small Wins at Work

James Lawrence
James Lawrence

Happy CEO & CoFounder

Image of a group of kids on a flag football field

When we think about leadership, our minds often gravitate towards boardrooms, high-stakes negotiations, or perhaps even the pages of best-selling business books. Rarely do we consider a flag football field filled with 5-year-olds as the birthing place of leadership insights. Yet, it's precisely in these settings that some of the best lessons in leadership are learned.

A group of kids running on a grass field

Why? Because leadership, at its core, is about human interaction. It's about guiding, motivating, and empowering others to achieve a common goal. And let's face it, if you can manage to corral a group of 5-year-olds into something resembling a football team, you're well on your way to understanding the complexities of leading a diverse group of individuals with varying levels of interest and skill.

In this article, I'll delve into five key leadership lessons that coaching younger players in flag football has taught me. From the importance of adaptability and the power of teamwork, to the art of clear communication, the significance of celebrating small wins, and the necessity of keeping the energy high—these lessons are as applicable on the football field as they are in the corporate world.

So, whether you're a seasoned executive, an aspiring leader, or someone simply interested in the nuances of human behavior, read on. You might be surprised at how much a group of kids can teach you about the intricacies of effective leadership.

Quote by John Wooden that reads, "A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life".

The Importance of Adaptability: The Expanded Playbook

Ah, the joys of coaching flag football to a group of 5- and 6-year-olds. If you've ever donned the whistle and clipboard for a team of youngsters, you know it's a blend of semi-organized chaos, laughter, and heart-warming moments that make it all worthwhile. But beyond the cuteness and chaos, there's a treasure trove of leadership lessons to be unearthed.

If there's one thing that coaching in flag football has hammered home for me, it's the absolute, non-negotiable importance of adaptability. Let's paint a picture: You've spent the week meticulously planning a play, breaking it down into digestible parts so that your young athletes can grasp it. You arrive on game day, filled with optimism. The whistle blows, and suddenly, your star player decides he's more interested in kicking a hole in the dirt than touchdowns. What do you do?

Image of sunset over a flag football field as the coach gives a high five to a bunch of kids

This is where adaptability comes into play, or as I like to call it, the "Art of the Pivot." In business, as in flag football, you need a playbook that's not just well-thought-out but also flexible. Market conditions can change in the blink of an eye. A competitor might release a groundbreaking new product, or a global event might disrupt supply chains. Just like on the football field, you have to be prepared to pivot.

But adaptability isn't just about having a Plan B; it's about having a Plan C, D, and E as well. It's about preparing for multiple scenarios and being able to switch gears at a moment's notice. It's about not just reacting to change, but proactively planning for it. This is where scenario planning can be invaluable. Just as you might have alternative plays ready to go based on how the opposing team is lined up, in business, you should have different strategies prepared based on potential market changes.

Moreover, adaptability is about emotional resilience. When things don't go as planned, it's easy to get frustrated or discouraged. Whether you're dealing with a player who'd rather pick flowers than play football or a project that's gone off the rails, your ability to maintain a positive outlook can set the tone for your team. After all, if the leader is visibly flustered, it's hard for the team to maintain their morale.

Image of a kid gearing up for a run on a field

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: The Synergy Factor

When you're coaching a team of 5-year-olds in flag football, the concept of teamwork takes on a whole new dimension. At this age, the idea of a "star player" is not just irrelevant; it's counterproductive.

Why? Because the focus is not on individual brilliance but on collective effort. You quickly realize that the team's success hinges on everyone's participation. If one kid decides they're not interested, it's not just their performance that suffers—the whole team feels the impact.

This principle is magnified in the business world. In a corporate setting, the stakes are higher, but the fundamental truth remains: A team is only as strong as its weakest link. As a leader, your role is not just to assemble a team of high-performing individuals but to cultivate an environment where everyone can contribute their unique skills and perspectives. This is what I like to call the "Synergy Factor."

The Synergy Factor is the magical moment when the collective intelligence of a team surpasses the sum of its individual parts. It's when 1+1 doesn't just equal 2, but 3 or 4 or even 5. It's when diverse talents, skills, and viewpoints come together in a harmonious blend, creating solutions and ideas that no single individual could have arrived at alone.

Quote by Heywood Broun that reads, "Sports do not build character. They reveal it".

But how do you achieve this level of synergy? First, it starts with inclusivity. Just as you can't afford to have disengaged players on the football field, you can't afford to have disengaged team members in the workplace. Everyone must feel valued and heard. This means actively soliciting input from all team members, not just those who are the most vocal or assertive.

Second, it involves fostering a culture of collaboration. This goes beyond just assigning team projects; it's about creating opportunities for cross-functional partnerships, encouraging open dialogue, and breaking down silos that can stifle creativity and innovation.

Third, it requires a commitment to continuous learning and development. Just as a 5-year-old learns through both success and failure on the football field, team members should be encouraged to take risks, experiment, and learn from both their triumphs and their mistakes.

Lastly, achieving the Synergy Factor involves recognizing and celebrating collective achievements. Just as every successful flag capture in a flag football game is a team win, every milestone reached in a business setting should be celebrated as a collective victory.

Communication is Key: The Art of Clarity and Confirmation

Coach James Lawrence holding up a trophy with a team of kids

Imagine trying to explain a complex football play to a young player. You quickly realize that your usual jargon won't cut it. You need to break it down into the simplest terms, demonstrate it, and then confirm they've understood it. This exercise in distilled communication is a masterclass for any leader in the business world. But the lesson doesn't end with clarity; it extends to confirmation and contextual understanding.

Firstly, let's talk about clarity. In the realm of kindergarten flag football, clarity means explaining the objective in a way that resonates with a child's understanding of the world. "We want to take the ball to the other side without letting anyone grab our flags." Simple, direct, and to the point. In a business setting, this could translate to setting clear objectives for a project, outlining the key deliverables, and defining what success looks like. The aim is to remove ambiguity, which is often the root of many misunderstandings and inefficiencies.

But clarity alone is not enough. This brings us to the second point: confirmation. After explaining a play to a player, you'd naturally ask them to repeat it back to you or demonstrate it to ensure they've got it. Similarly, in a business context, effective communication involves a feedback loop. It's not just about broadcasting your message; it's about ensuring that it has been received and understood. This could be as simple as asking team members to summarize key points of a meeting or as complex as implementing a system for tracking project milestones.

Lastly, we come to contextual understanding. On the football field with 5-year-olds, this might mean understanding that Timmy is afraid of butterflies and might get distracted if one flies by, or that Sarah is competitive and wants to win at all costs. In the business world, contextual understanding involves recognizing the unique skills, motivations, and challenges of each team member. It's about tailoring your communication style to resonate with different personalities and workstyles. This is where tools like behavioral assessments can be invaluable, providing insights into how each team member processes information, makes decisions, and interacts with others.

A flag football kid sleeping with his trophy

Celebrate the Small Wins: The Ripple Effect

Picture this: Your player successfully grabs a flag from an offensive player for the first time on defense. The look of sheer joy on their face is priceless, and the ensuing celebration—whether it's high-fives, cheers, or even a little victory dance—becomes a defining moment not just for that child, but for the entire team. It's a small win, but the ripple effect is enormous. It boosts morale, fosters a sense of accomplishment, and most importantly, it encourages a culture of persistence and optimism.

In the business world, the concept of celebrating small wins is often overshadowed by the pursuit of larger, more significant milestones. We're so focused on the end goal—be it launching a new product, hitting a revenue target, or expanding into a new market—that we overlook the incremental progress that gets us there. But here's the thing: those small wins are the building blocks of your larger success. They deserve to be celebrated, not just as individual achievements, but as collective victories that move the entire team closer to its ultimate objective.

So, what does celebrating small wins look like in a corporate setting? First and foremost, it involves active recognition. This could be as simple as a shoutout in a team meeting or as formal as an employee-of-the-month program. The key is to make it public, to let the team know that every contribution is valued and important.

But the ripple effect of small wins goes beyond just boosting morale. It also has a tangible impact on productivity and engagement. When team members see their efforts being recognized, it instills a sense of ownership and accountability. They become more invested in their work, more committed to the team's goals, and more motivated to contribute their best efforts. In psychological terms, this is known as the "progress principle," which posits that the act of making progress in meaningful work is a powerful motivator.

Moreover, celebrating small wins fosters a culture of continuous improvement. When you take the time to acknowledge and analyze what went right, you're also creating an opportunity for the team to reflect on how they can replicate that success in future endeavors. It becomes a learning experience, a chance to fine-tune strategies and optimize performance.

A team of kids in a group huddle

Keep the Fun and Energy Alive: The Lifeforce of Any Team

If there's one thing that youth players bring to a flag football field—or any setting, for that matter—it's an unbridled sense of fun and energy. Their enthusiasm is infectious; it lights up the field and energizes everyone around them. But here's the kicker: that sense of fun isn't just a nice-to-have; it's the force that drives the team. Without it, the kids would lose interest, their performance would suffer, and the whole experience would become a chore rather than a joy.

The same principle holds true in the corporate world. While the stakes may be higher and the objectives more complex, the need for fun and energy remains just as critical. A team that's energized is a team that's engaged, motivated, and primed for success. But how do you, as a leader, keep that fun and energy alive, especially in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment?

Firstly, it starts with you. As the leader, you set the tone for the team. Your energy—or lack thereof—trickles down to everyone else. Are you bringing a sense of excitement and possibility to your interactions? Are you celebrating not just the outcomes but also the effort and the journey? Your enthusiasm serves as a catalyst, sparking a chain reaction that can uplift the entire team.

Secondly, it involves creating opportunities for lightness and levity. This doesn't mean turning the workplace into a playground, but it does mean recognizing the value of breaks, team-building activities, and moments of humor. Whether it's a regular team lunch, a quick game to break up a long meeting, or even just a group chat where people can share jokes and memes, these small injections of fun can go a long way in keeping the team energized.

Thirdly, it's about empowering your team members to take ownership of their work. There's a unique kind of energy that comes from autonomy, from knowing that you have the freedom and the trust to execute your vision. As a leader, your role is to provide the framework and the resources, but then to step back and let your team take the reins. This sense of empowerment not only boosts engagement but also fosters a culture of innovation and creativity.

Lastly, keeping the fun and energy alive means being attuned to the team's emotional temperature. Just as you'd notice if a 5-year-old on your flag football team was feeling down or disengaged, you need to be aware of the mood and morale of your team at work. This might involve more regular check-ins or making clear you have an open-door policy where team members truly feel comfortable sharing their concerns.

A young girl with a baseball smiling on a field

Final Whistle

The next time you find yourself on a flag football field—or any field, for that matter—take a moment to reflect. You might just discover that the lessons you learn there are precisely the insights you need to elevate your leadership game.

Maybe you won't be yelling at Jonny to not run the wrong direction, or telling Bradley the fine details of blitzing, but you will be teaching, mentoring, and guiding your team.

It's striking how these principles—adaptability, teamwork, communication, celebrating small wins, and keeping the energy alive—are not just relevant but essential in both settings.

With Love,

James Lawrence // Cofounder & CEO

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