I recently attended insightful seminars on the topic of leadership.
The first was run by the WGPA (Women’s Gaelic Players Association) for students attending the University Of Limerick and the second was facilitated by the GPA for those fortunate players, past and present, partaking in the Jim Madden GPA programme – a specialised course on leadership.
The overarching theme for both seminars was to highlight that athletes can, and have, developed great leadership qualities on the pitch and these invaluable qualities can be harnessed for use far beyond the playing fields.
For an athlete, the context or environment changes but they can use their experiences and potential to be effective as a leader in another capacity – particularly in their chosen professions.
The panelists from successful business backgrounds spoke about the unique advantage athletes and team players have in a work environment as they, more often than not, possess many of the necessary characteristics to be a successful leader.
Liam Sheedy, former Tipperary All-Ireland winning hurling manager, spoke about how leadership qualities can transfer across to other professional careers as well as sport and emphasised how athletes are highly regarded by employers for their ability to work in a team setting among other attributes.
He stressed the importance of being positive and not seeing losses as problems but opportunities to learn. He also spoke of the importance of having a solution-orientated approach and a willingness to work hard.
I had thought a lot about leadership in the weeks leading up to the seminars but having listened to the other panelists, among them Olympian Jessie Barr, I realised how much of the experiences around leadership were shared by so many people from a multitude of backgrounds.
It led me to examine my own experiences with leadership to understand what the common denominators of leadership are.
What makes a leader a leader? Is there a “natural leader”? Can anybody become a leader? What makes a leader influential? What leaders have influenced me in my life?
Leadership is not simply about leading people, it is about leading them in the best direction and in the best way possible for them.
There are many different roles leadership can take in sport, work and life. As an athlete, I experienced many different managerial styles and fortunate enough to have been surrounded by great leaders and role models. One of the most influential leaders in my life was Cork Ladies Football team coach of 12 years, Eamonn Ryan.
I would describe Eamonn as a facilitator for learning, a motivator and a nurturer with a holistic approach to developing his players. I use the word ‘facilitator’ because Eamonn always created situations that allowed players to learn for themselves. Instead of simply telling us or showing us what we should do, he created a learning environment and allowed us to flourish in it.
He wasn’t obsessed with tactics but instead helped us to take ownership of decision making. We were encouraged to be independent thinkers on the pitch and decide for ourselves what we would do in different circumstances as we saw fit. Often athletes over rely on their coach for constant advise and reassurance.
Eamonn strived for the opposite in many ways. This approach proved vital to the success of the Cork team over the years.
When unpredictable, high-pressure situations arose in a match we had to call on the skills we worked on tirelessly and our bank of experience to get us over the line. It was a template for players to become leaders.
s players, we didn’t feel bound by rules and that gave us the autonomy to do what we felt was right. It also allowed us to go out in every match and express ourselves by playing with an element of freedom that was liberating and enjoyable.
We weren’t punished for making mistakes and therefore we didn’t feel inhibited by the fear of making a mistake. I appreciated this particularly as a freetaker. I experienced slightly more of the pressure associated with making mistakes. My missed efforts were painfully obvious to everyone at times - most of all to me - and it was important I wasn’t punished for them.
As an athlete that fear can be crippling and as a result stifles a player’s development and willingness to be instinctive and adventurous on the pitch. Eamonn encouraged hours of practice on the fundamental skills of the game, which gave us the knowledge that we could achieve our goals.
From those experiences, we flourished as individuals. In time, leaders evolved, each contributing to the success of the team over 10 All Ireland winning campaigns.
The environment created by our coach encouraged every individual to be their own leader and thus fill various leadership roles when the needs arose.
Anyone who adheres to the basic knowledge that hard work and practice created success could provide valuable leadership in time. In order to benefit from all that leadership has to offer, management and players must be open to allowing others take the lead, to continue to learn from those around them and to delegate.
This requires trust in those around you.
It has been said that you learn most in defeat, but only if you deconstruct things honestly and look for solutions. I believe it is the process of being allowed to make your own mistakes, learning from them and continuing this pattern with commitment, fairness, enthusiasm and professionalism that ultimately creates influential leaders and lasting leadership.
When I was younger I would never have imagined I would be speaking about leadership and drawing on examples from my life on and off the field.
Yet, I have been privileged to have been influenced by successful leaders in an environment where I was allowed to develop as a person and eventually contribute to leadership as a teammate, as a teacher and coach.
There is potential in all of us to develop as leaders if given the conditions to flourish.
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