A Fresh Start:  A Winning Leadership Strategy

I’ve been a Vancouver Canucks fan since I moved to Canada in 2003.  That doesn’t sound like a long-time to those who have been fans since the team’s inception in 1970 (the year I was born too, yes), but I can say that I am an above-average hockey fan who listens to sports radio even in the off-season and watches almost every game. 

In the mid-2000s I was sitting under a cabana on the white sand beaches of Boracay Island, Philippines, while watching a playoff game on my laptop which was connected by SlingBox to my cable TV box in Vancouver.  And yes, I’m still heartbroken from the 2011 Stanley Cup championship run.  I have more stories to tell but you get the picture. 

Anyway, recently my home team cleaned house.  They had been on one of their worst starts of a season and a losing streak that couldn’t seem to end.  It was grim and the whole situation felt hopeless.  Watching the games wasn’t fun anymore, and the players sure didn’t look like they were having any fun at all.  Last week, the fans were chanting “fire (insert GM’s name here)” and one threw their jersey onto the ice after another loss, in protest of the team, the organization, and its leadership.  It felt like it was time for a change.    

And change they did – the organization let go of the main coaching staff and the general manager, hired a veteran coach and a few days later hired an even more veteran hockey operations executive.  I agreed that they needed change, but I was skeptical.  What did they expect would happen on the ice?  The fans wanted to see results, wins.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to make some changes on the ice, and not off?

As of this writing, the Canucks have now won their last four games.  The arena came alive.  The players looked engaged and were playing to win.  The fans came up with new chants to honour the new coach (Bruce… there it is!) and the slumping star players were scoring again.  I’m not saying they will go to the playoffs or go on a 10-game win streak, but wow, I didn’t think we would see quite an improvement so quickly.

One thing that changed was putting some key players in high-risk situations, in roles they don’t usually play (e.g, putting an offense-oriented player in a defensive role while the team was shorthanded).  This willingness to take a chance, be creative, take risks, and demonstrate trust in the players’ commitment to win seemed to make a difference.  In an interview, a top defenseman said that it gave them a huge boost in confidence.  When the coach, the leader and decision-maker at gametime, showed that “he trusts us and wants to play us, it means a lot”.  That when you give a player a chance to shine in a tough situation, the player “will go through a wall for you.” 

Imagine being a player, determined to win, sitting on the bench.  You see that your team is floundering, again, and you desperately want to be out there on the ice to help.  Usually, you are kept on the bench during penalty kills (when your team takes a penalty and you get penalized by being one-man-down) because you were hired to be in offensive situations, not defensive ones.  Then you get a tap on the shoulder.  Get out there, your coach says.  Do what you can to prevent the other team from scoring.  You jump onto the ice full of energy, and you put your body in front of frozen pucks at high speed to prevent the other team from scoring.  You help your team win the game.  This, I imagine, is what he meant by going through a wall. 

I guess being a new coach with no baggage with the team helped the team try out new approaches.  On their first game out, the shift in mindset made them function like a whole new team.  Still the same players, with a different leadership mindset, allowed them to have a fresh start.

As this year comes to an end, in what ways can we have a fresh start when it comes to our leadership approaches?  Let’s dust ourselves off of the challenges of 2021 for a moment, and ask ourselves these questions (inspired by Peter Block’s book, The Answer to How is Yes):

  • What kind of environment am I creating in my team?  What environment do I want to create?
  • What problems do I see?  What is my contribution to the problems that concern me the most?
  • What is the price of not acting on what matters?
  • What commitment am I willing to make? 
  • What actions can I take, now?

As leaders, we have such an impact on how our team functions.  Probably more than we imagine.  How we show up can ultimately affect our team’s collective results.  We all know this.  We can’t win every game, but we pause and challenge our own thinking to give our team a fresh start when it matters. 

Are there big opportunities you can start tackling?  Or small acts – like tapping one of your players on the shoulder to show them you trust them – that can help you spark that winning feeling on your team?

Laura Villacrusis, Senior Consultant