Soccer, Leadership and Empathy

My daughter’s soccer coach Paul Levy has written a book on leadership called Goal Play! Leadership Lessons from the Soccer Field. It may seem a curious title for a book on leadership, but Paul draws on his own experience turning around both the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center as well as his many years coaching girls’ soccer to explain his understanding of leadership and what it takes to create a work environment that is truly a successful team effort. Paul recommends that executives have ongoing 360 review built into their employment agreements to prevent them from developing blind spots, an idea I agree with wholeheartedly and one that resonates strongly with boss whispering: receiving specific feedback on one’s behavior as a leader is fundamental to the process, as is targeted coaching to develop insight into the behavior of others. The most important point that Paul makes in this chapter, though, is that “empathy between the leader and the team is the key element of [his] approach” to “creating an environment of respect for individual action and accomplishment.” He goes on to suggest that “empathy cannot exist unless it goes in both directions. When you ask people to open themselves up enough to learn, you have to likewise open up yourself enough to learn from them.” In the context of leadership, being willing to allow people who work for you to “hold themselves accountable to their own high standards” may mean letting go of your perceived control of your team and their actions and instead work to create an environment where learning can occur and mistakes can be made without fear of being perceived as incompetent. In soccer as in life, as one of his employees notes, “it is how we handle them [mistakes] that makes us who we are.”

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