A few years ago, our daughter’s athletic director called and asked me to be the girls’ high school volleyball coach. He reminded me that the team would have no returning seniors and only one returning starter. He said he would like to get what we’re doing in Transformational Leadership into the school system. After checking with my daughter who was the one returning starter to see if she was okay with my being her coach, and even though I had never coached volleyball before, I accepted the role. 

After our third practice, we brought the team together for the day and started teaching these girls the tools we teach to build leadership in companies, schools, and churches. I knew we might not have a winning season, but that we would still have a good season. I did have a couple of secret weapons, two assistant coaches who did know the game of volleyball and a daughter who would end up teaching me the game as we went. She actually coached me in the sport.

Using the Transformational Leadership tools, we took the team through the five stages of building a team. I’ve talked about many of these tools before, but here’s an example of a team that actually progressed through the five stages of team building.

Stage 1: Visionary

That Saturday, we went through some tools such as the W.A.D.E.L. model that we use to conduct meetings. The W stands for welcoming and affirmations. The A is for asking questions from the team to see what they want to discuss. The D is to discuss the agenda. E stands for empowering the team to accomplish what they need to accomplish. And the D is to let go and let them go do what we all have decided. Then we put a social covenant in place which consists of two questions: 1) How are we going to treat each other when we’re together, and 2) How are we going to handle it when one of us doesn’t do what we’ve agreed to. From then on, when conflict arose during practice, we would pause to deal with it right there. After we set the social covenant in place, I found out what their goals were. I taught them about their hippocampus issues that can be subconscious responses to people and events and how their thoughts caused their feelings and actions, what we call TFA. I also shared with them the difference between men’s and women’s brains.

As we began using all of these tools, we deepened our social covenant which served as a foundation for our relationships. Since that foundation was established from the beginning, that made us a tightly knit team going forward. We had a vision for where we wanted to go together as a team. The girls set a goal of winning one match out of the twenty-three to be played.

Stage 2: Servant Leadership

From there, we moved into the servant leadership stage. I used the W.A.D.E.L. model to run the practices. At the beginning of our practices, the first thing I would do was to ask them to tell me something good that was going on in their lives. Then, I would give some affirmations. In this stage, I also used the S.L.O.W.E.R. model of listening The S.L.O.W.E.R. listening model consists of being silent, leaning in, having an open posture, being willing to be engaged, maintaining eye contact, and relaxing, responding, and repeating. I listened to them first.

I would ask the players to tell me something we did well and something we didn’t do well at the previous practice. Since I had never coached volleyball, my daughter would teach me about the game when we went home at night and the options on how to set up the defense and run the offense. With that teaching and our assistant coach who understood volleyball, we made a plan for practice, but usually would modify our practice schedule for the day based on the players’ feedback. We would tell the team we might not get to it all on that day, but we might be able to get to some of it. Then, we’d begin the practice after everyone had an opportunity to share what they thought had been going well and what they thought hadn’t been going so well.

Stage 3: Functional Responsibility

In this stage, we ensured that everyone had a clear understanding of each person’s role on the team. Who would be an outside hitter? A middle hitter? A right-side hitter? Who would play defense? Who would be the captains? Roll clarity was essential. We taught the captains that they were the leaders. It was the captain’s responsibility to help make the decisions of who would play where. They would learn how to deal with the team when people were upset.

We taught them how to walk out the social covenant when conflict arose. With input from the team, the captains wrote the team’s social covenant. It explained what would happen if a team member did not respect, care for, and honor another team member. They said, if that happened, they would go to the person one-on-one. If that didn’t work, they would bring a teammate into the discussion. If that didn’t work, they would bring the issue before the entire team. If that didn’t work, the person would be off the team.

They also wrote a social covenant for the parents of the players. They decided that if one of their parents yelled at a referee, coach, or a player that that parent would have to miss one set, which is one game out of a best-of-five match. If they did it twice, they would have to miss a whole match. If they did it again, they would be out for the season and would have to pay for therapy. And they made their parents sign it.

Early in the season, we had a dad on the sideline who was yelling at his daughter, which was making her cry. I looked over at him from the sidelines. When he saw me, he got up and walked out of the gym on his own. He knew what he had done. Because of our social covenant, he knew he had to sit out for a game. About two games later, he was yelling again. Once again, I looked at him from across the gym, and he walked out.

I found him after the match had ended and reminded him that if he yelled one more time during the season he would be out for the season. He said he understood. I reminded him that I don’t yell at the girls, that he can’t yell at them, and that he had agreed to that. I told him I couldn’t control what he did at home, but we had all agreed not to yell at them at practice or in games. Then I reminded him that if he yells again, he’ll also have to get paid professional counseling because that’s what the agreement says. I told him I charge $1000 an hour, and I would love to counsel him. For the rest of the season, he didn’t yell at them again.

Stage 4: Relactional

What were the results of the team going through this process and acquiring these transformational leadership tools, a team with no returning seniors and only one returning starter? This team was hoping to win only one out of twenty-three matches that year. But the team was now in the relactional stage, which means that relationships among the players are as important as the transactions (playing well, scoring, and winning). Now, there was no threat within the team. Everybody on the team was taking responsibility for how they played. If they caused conflict, they accepted responsibility. They had learned how to apologize to one another with the six-step apology which consists of stating the offense, saying I was wrong, saying I am sorry, asking if they will forgive you, asking if they will hold you accountable not to do that again, and asking if there is anything else they want to discuss between the two of you.

In our last league match of the season, we were playing a team that had beaten us badly the first time we played them that season. The winner of this match would get second place in our league. No team in the history of our school had ever won second place. By now, our athletic director was getting phone calls from other athletic directors saying he had lied about telling them his volleyball coach had never coached volleyball before.

During the match, the other team won the first game, but we won the second game. They won the third game, and we were in the fourth game out of five. In our previous match against this team, we never got close to winning a game. At one point in the fourth game, we were down by five points, and I called a timeout. When I would call a timeout, we would do things like dance in the huddle. I would give them very specific instructions on what to do to cover the floor and to change the game, but it was always done in an affirming way. I never yelled at them, because this way of treating people lowers their anxiety and helps them to perform at higher levels.

During the timeout, I asked them to look at the other coach. I told them I had been watching her and that if they went back out on that floor and dove for every ball and not let anything hit the floor, even if they didn’t win the point, the other team would get frustrated. They were already frustrated that we even beat them in one game. They didn’t know what to do with that. They were supposed to dominate us, but I told our team we have a chance. I told them if they could win these next five points what would happen. That coach would jump up, kick her chair, throw her clipboard, and start screaming at her players.

Earlier in the season, I had already explained to them how men’s brains and women’s brains work, that men think in boxes and women have spaghetti brains with everything connected to everything. I predicted that the other team of young women would hear the coach’s ranting and think back to the last arguments they had had with their boyfriend or their dad or just tune out, and they would forget about volleyball. All the girls laughed and went back out onto the court.

I could not believe it, but they won the next five points. Sure enough, when they did, the other team’s coach jumped up, yelled time out, and started screaming at her players. During the timeout, I told our team that we had them and to go back out there right then and be waiting for them when they came back on the floor. We won the match. That season, our team had the best record in the history of the school and won second place in the league to the number one team in the league who was completely undefeated and, at one point, was the top ranked team in the state in a bigger division than ours.

Stage 5: Continuous Improvement

Earlier in the season, one of the young ladies came to me and asked if she could share something with me. I met privately with her while her parents were outside, and she shared with me some difficulties she had experienced when she was younger and that she believed was a part of why she caused so much conflict. Why did she feel so free to share that with me? It was because she trusted me. I had shared my story with them about insecurities and how they had made me an arrogant person in high school, as well as later in life. I had shared with them how it had impacted my family. So, she knew she had the freedom to share her story with me. I talked her through it and helped her deal with it better. When a conflict arose about two weeks later, she raised her hand and said to the team that she was the problem. She then shared her story with the team. After she had finished, three other teammates said they had also dealt with the same thing and the insecurities that resulted from it.

After they had released those emotional burdens, they became better volleyball players. They became stronger as a team. They were now able to move into the continuous improvement stage. They could work together, practice together, plan together, and play together. They trusted each other. They believed that everyone’s opinion mattered. That little team of young ladies, high school students, went from a place where they didn’t think they could win more than one match and won second place in their division.

These tools helped us to win more. They can also help your organization to win more. The key is to be intentional about using them no matter where you are leading.

For me, the best part of that season was getting to work alongside my daughter. While I had the skill set to teach the team how to get along and work together, I had little knowledge of the game of volleyball. When we would come home at night after practice, she would teach me about volleyball. At practice and at games, I would act like I knew what I was doing based on what she was teaching me at night. In the games, I would tell the girls, if I told them to do something and my daughter told them something else, to listen to her. I got a lot of credit for the winning record of that team, and my daughter got a lot of credit for being a great player. But the reality was, she was a great coach to me, as well. These leadership tools and team building stages impact everyone in the team, including the leader.

Ford Taylor is a leadership strategist, keynote speaker, and the author of Relactional Leadership. As the Founder of Transformational Leadership, he is known as a man who can solve complex business issues, with straightforward practical solutions, while maintaining his focus on people.