Unexpected leadership lessons from America’s worst high school hockey

By John U. Bacon 9 minute Learn

1. Be sure you’re the dumbest man within the room.

In 2000, the ice hockey workforce at my alma mater in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Huron High School River Rats, completed with a 0-22-3 report. The man they then picked to steer them, yours really, had by no means been a head hockey coach earlier than, and I additionally occurred to carry the report for essentially the most video games in a Huron uniform, 86, with the fewest objectives: zero. So, we had a workforce with zero wins, led by a coach who scored zero objectives.

However it labored! I ignored typical knowledge each likelihood I had, and we proved the critics unsuitable every day. So how did we do it, and what did I be taught within the course of?


Effectively, the very first thing you must do is get assist. Many leaders suppose they need to be invincible know-it-alls, however these leaders usually don’t make it. No one can lead by themselves, and the extra allow you to get, the higher off you and your workforce shall be.

As Warren Buffett mentioned, “When you’re the neatest man within the room, you’re within the unsuitable room.” Opposite to the CEO-as-Superman fantasy, you don’t need to be the neatest man within the room—it would even be a drawback. However you do want to determine who’s, get them in your workforce, and allow them to lead.

On our workers, we had guys who had performed faculty hockey, professional hockey, and even hockey in Sweden. At our first workforce assembly, I informed the dad and mom, “My purpose was to be the dumbest man within the coaches’ room—and I enormously exceeded my expectations.” I didn’t do it by interviews and résumés; I did it by attempting them out. And you may too! Rent slower, and fireplace quicker, if it’s important to.

“If two leaders all the time agree, certainly one of them is pointless.”

I additionally employed individuals who have been loyal, however robust sufficient to disagree. As gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. mentioned, “If two leaders all the time agree, certainly one of them is pointless.” Too usually leaders confuse loyalty with blind obedience, they usually worth it so extremely as a result of they don’t wish to be challenged. Signal that pact and you could get peace, however you’ll by no means get actual success.

So bear in mind, don’t be afraid to be the dumbest individual within the room. In reality, make it your purpose.

2. Make it particular to hitch your workforce.

Once I acquired the job, the very first thing I did was name my mentor, Culver Academy’s Al Clark, who retired in 2015 with essentially the most wins of any high school coach within the nation. He informed me, “It’s essential to make it particular to play for Huron. And one of the best ways to make it particular is to make it arduous.”

Clark had a degree. The Peace Corps takes about one in six candidates, and the Navy SEALS settle for a mere 6%. These jobs don’t pay a lot, both, however the individuals who apply are interested in the problem of these jobs. That’s the purpose. So you must make the folks in your workforce really feel like they needed to do one thing arduous simply to make the workforce, one thing that not everyone can be prepared to do. That manner, simply making the workforce means they’ve completed one thing. And as soon as that tradition is established, it’s simple to take care of as a result of your folks, with just a little steerage, will do it for you.


At our very first summer season exercise, I informed our gamers, “We’re going to be the hardest-working high school hockey workforce within the state. Our purpose is nothing lower than profitable the state title. It received’t be this 12 months, however the workforce that does it can invite you again to their banquet, and offer you a standing ovation.” They thought I used to be loopy, however they saved coming. That’s how starved they have been for a way of objective.

So one week after school acquired out, we have been within the weight room and the observe three days per week, each week, for 4 months—earlier than our season even began. And get this: Not one participant stop. In reality, folks from different sports activities began coming right down to see if they might survive our grueling exercises—and our guys smoked them.

“It’s essential to make the folks in your workforce really feel like they needed to do one thing arduous simply to make the workforce, one thing that not everyone can be prepared to do.”

The spotlight for me got here on the most well liked day of the 12 months in late August. We had a torrential rain that morning, adopted by 90-degree warmth. Steam began rising from the black rubber observe. I informed our gamers: “That is the most well liked hour of the most well liked day of the 12 months. One other workforce would whine about this and quit. However not you. You’re going to interrupt each report we’ve set on this observe.”

They have been pumped up, aside from one freshman, who groaned. Our captain, Mike Henry, turned to him and mentioned, “Hey, you play for Huron, and it’s tougher over right here.” That was precisely what I’d been ready to listen to. I appreciated it a lot that we put Mike’s phrase on an indication in our locker room. That’s what it appears like when your folks start to steer themselves—and that’s when issues begin getting enjoyable.

3. Be impatient with habits, however affected person with outcomes.

We have been nonetheless the worst workforce in America, so we couldn’t management the outcomes of our video games. However we may management our behaviors that went into these video games. So we had solely two guidelines: Work arduous, and help your teammates.

We received our first three video games, essentially the most we had the earlier two years mixed. However then we performed Trenton, who had 14 state titles. They crushed us 13-2. After we acquired to the locker room, our guys have been throwing their sticks and gloves round—indignant, harm, embarrassed. As quickly as I walked in, I mentioned, “Hey, I noticed the sport. 13-2. Can’t spin it. However that doesn’t matter. What issues are the 2 guidelines of Huron hockey.” They yelled again, “Work arduous and help your teammates!”

“That’s proper,” I mentioned. “And you probably did each. We preserve that up, and we’ll flip this round. We’re going to play Trenton once more, and it ain’t gonna be 13 to 2.” They walked out with their heads held high. Following our two rules allowed us to outline ourselves, as an alternative of letting the world do it for us.

“By emphasizing our inner habits, and never the exterior outcomes, we may deal with what we despatched out into the world, and never on what got here again.”

We completed that first season with 7 wins, the most-improved workforce in school historical past. However that’s not the purpose—by emphasizing our inner habits, and never the exterior outcomes, we may deal with what we despatched out into the world, and never on what got here again.

4. Water all of your crops, then watch who grows.

Leaders too usually suppose their persons are robots: They will do what they will do, they will’t do what they will’t do, and none of that can ever change. However the fact is that individuals can develop dramatically, and that features leaders. Expertise just isn’t mounted, neither is maturity, grit, or leadership means. So don’t attempt to predict who’s going to succeed, and who isn’t. Deal with all of them pretty, together with the quiet ones. Water all of your crops. Some will shoot proper up, and others will lie dormant for years earlier than sprouting—however they will all assist your workforce.

And that brings us to Nate Reichwage, our third-string goalie, far behind our high two. Our second 12 months, we had an excellent workforce, however our high two goalies have been struggling. Even worse, we have been about to play Grosse Pointe South, who in our final three conferences had overwhelmed us 5-0, 7-2, and 7-0. As Nate recollects, he was “clearly the least-skilled goaltender on the workforce.” However he labored so arduous that I used to be prepared to offer him an opportunity.

I nonetheless anticipated to get blown out that evening—however Nate made save after save after save, wanting like he’d been doing it his complete life. I don’t know what occurred that evening, however he then grew to become our beginning goalie. He earned the workforce’s Most Improved Participant award, and the nickname Darth Nater.


On the finish of our second 12 months we performed Trenton once more—the identical workforce that had crushed us 13-2 the 12 months earlier than. However this time it was a battle. Nate performed nice, and it got here proper right down to the wire. We misplaced 3-2, however their followers gave our gamers a standing ovation.

We completed our second season with 16 wins, the second-best in school historical past. However we by no means would have gotten there with out Nate Reichwage. Your folks will do wonderful issues, too, in case you simply water all of your crops, and watch who grows.

“Expertise just isn’t mounted, neither is maturity, grit, or leadership means. So don’t attempt to predict who’s going to succeed, and who isn’t. “

5. Create layers of leadership.

You’ll be able to’t be the one chief in your workforce. Jon Cooper, coach of the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning mentioned, “On unhealthy groups, no person leads. On good groups, leaders lead. On nice groups, everyone leads.”

So how do you do it? Main by instance is clearly essential. When you don’t, you’re a hypocrite, they usually received’t comply with you. However it’s not practically sufficient—and that’s the reason we created layers of leadership. The purpose is that everybody in your workforce can lead, whether or not they have a title or not.

Our final goal was to get the gamers to run the workforce—they usually did. They picked our workforce objectives, not me, and for that motive, they have been extra impressed to realize them. They even had a say in disciplinary points, which made all of them accountable to one another, not simply to me.

By our third season, we even allow them to coach a whole sport by themselves. We had had a 14-game unbeaten streak, then suffered two robust losses. So I referred to as up our captain, and informed him that the seniors have been going to teach the subsequent sport, begin to end, from selecting the beginning lineup to delivering the pregame speech to speaking to the Ann Arbor Information after the sport.

Don’t have any concern: The seniors coached a terrific sport, beating an excellent workforce 6-0. We completed our third season 17-4-5, the perfect in school historical past, with the identical gamers who had not received a sport three years earlier. We have been ranked 53rd within the nation, passing 95 p.c of the nation’s groups. However at our senior banquet, the gamers didn’t discuss concerning the victories. They talked concerning the values we stood for from the beginning.

Because of this I don’t imagine that individuals in the present day are lazy, or sloppy, or egocentric. They need self-discipline. They need route. They wish to be challenged. They need a way of mission, objective, and belonging. And so they wish to lead—so allow them to. When you give them this stuff, they will provide you with every little thing.

John U. Bacon has written for the Wall Avenue Journal, the New York Instances, the Washington Put up, Sports activities Illustrated, ESPN, and NPR, amongst others. He has authored seven nationwide bestsellers on sports activities, enterprise, well being, and historical past. A well-liked company speaker, government coach, and leadership advisor, Bacon lives in Ann Arbor together with his spouse and son.


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