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Leadership is a Contact Sport

In the fast-paced worlds of sports and business, the daily demands of leaders are always increasing, which leaves little time for anything outside of our schedules.

But to be successful, we must make leadership a contact sport. By really putting in the effort to get to know your team better, you lay the foundation for Greater success within your organization.

[tweetthis url=””]Great leaders know that leadership requires genuine contact.[/tweetthis]

Great leaders in both sports and business know that if they desire to be successful, they must know – really know – those around them. The will to create opportunities for genuine contact is often seen as unimportant, but it is actually a key component in long-term winning teams. John Wooden, legendary coach of the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team, used to say that “it is impossible to lead people you don’t know and it’s difficult to know people you don’t touch.” Your job as an effective leader is to break down the barriers between you and those that represent your company. Together, you can accomplish much more if you, as a leader, begin simply by reaching out and making contact with those around you.

John Wooden and Kareem Abdul Jabbar

Those of us who aspire to lead must ask ourselves if we are in contact with the very people we want to trust us. Are we sitting with them—one-on-one—and really getting to know them as people? Even something as seemingly minor as this can open the opportunity to be engaged, create bonds, and strengthen relationships. Leadership through contact is so much more than just walking by and patting them on the back before moving on to another person. It’s about creating true connections.

[tweetthis url=””]Great leaders take the time to bond with their team.[/tweetthis]

Recently I had a chance to engage in conversation with a Great leadership thinker, and he remarked to me that he was fascinated by how most coaches on sporting teams truly know their frontline players, and how seldom the same is true in business. The customer-facing employees are the people who generally have more firsthand contact and interaction with the public than anyone else in the organization. The treatment that those front-line employees give to the public establishes the way customers see your brand. Yet most C-level execs seldom make time to sit, listen and learn from their teams. Imagine a corporate hotel executive dining with the bellmen or maids. As any experienced manager knows, we are all defined by the success of our employees—we need to recognize that our success is tied to theirs, and engage with them in meaningful ways to better understand their perspectives, challenges, and outlooks.

John Wooden

Having a better understanding of our employees allows us to empathize with them more. By getting a sense of what they are going through, we can lead them—and ourselves—towards Greater and more personally meaningful accomplishments. Success is different for all of us, and knowing what motivates and drives a person to their own definition of success can be highly advantageous to a leader of any organization.

Who in your career has best led through contact? Leave me a comment and share your story.

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Comments (2)

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    George Ferguson


    I’ve always observed that a team takes on the personality of a coach. My high school and college basketball coaches were very opposite in personality and discipline and the teams reflected that both on and off the court.

  • Avatar

    Tim Spiker



    Great post. Thanks for sharing it. I would like to add something to what you have shared if I could.

    As you have pointed out, we can’t lead to our best ability at arms length. Having genuine connections with those we lead is fuel to our endeavors as leaders and organizations. One of the challenges that exists in today’s perception-driven culture, however, is that leaders are tempted to be more concerned about creating the impression they are interested in their followers rather than actually being interested in them. Those that genuinely take interest in those they lead create a powerful partnership with their followers that leaders who focus on perception management will not realize.

    Whether or not we as leaders are actually interested in those we lead, interested enough to want to know them personally, is a function of that thing that sits within the chests: our hearts. The heart of the leader determines, more than anything, if followers are actually important people to the leader or are being manipulated by the leader through the appearance of high-touch.

    It is up to us as leaders to look in the mirror to understand which type of leader we currently are and want to be: genuinely interested in our followers or merely in it to be perceived as a leader who is interested in them. The former get the very best from their followers over the long haul. Don, I suspect you observe this often in your work and saw it in wonderful and positive display in your time with Coach Wooden.

    Thanks again for the post. It is good and needed reminder.

    Tim Spiker

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Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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