How to Build a Leadership of Champions

leadership of champions

We use the label “leader” to describe a lot of people in our worlds. Politicians, athletes, CEOs and spiritual beings. We give the title without any real thought to the true meaning of the word. What does it take to make a great leader? I think we have an answer to this question when we look at Mark Dantonio, the coach of the Michigan State Spartan’s football team.

I attended MSU in the early 80’s. From that time forward, I got used to rooting for a team that wasn’t very good. Every once in a while, they would pull out a win, ruin someone else’s bowl chances and amaze their fans. But most of the time, well, they lost. It was something we just got used to. Until Mark Dantonio.

Here is a man who believes in his players. Who empowers them to believe in themselves. He lets them take chances, like faking a punt, knowing full well that they might fail. And when they fail, they learn from it.

At the end of the 2012 season team banquet, Coach Dantonio told the group “you will be the ones.” He knew it then; he believed in them then. He even went to Pasadena in May of last year and created a video telling the team it was where they were going. He believed back then that his team would be going to the Rose Bowl.

When interviewed by ESPN, Coach Dantonio said:

“I felt like they were destined for greatness, but we’ve got to do the work. It’s not our God-given ability. It’s an attitude and a culture. What separated last year’s team from this year’s team, quite honestly, were inches. We’re just finding the inches this year.”

There’s so much in that message. You don’t see blame, anger or frustration. You see determination, commitment and belief.

As I watched the Spartans win the Rose Bowl I was moved by this man, this quiet leader. Because there is so much we can learn from him.

Build a Leadership of Champions

Expectations Are Mandatory

There is no doubt that Coach Dantonio had very clear and specific expectations of his players. He built a leadership team around him that understood these expectations and agreed with them. Everyone was working in the same direction. And because he had expectations of the players, they had expectations of themselves.

So many times an organizational leader will become disillusioned and frustrated with his people. When you look closely you see that it’s because he isn’t communicating his expectations in a clear and consistent manner. There’s no foundation of belief behind those expectations. So, people go through the motions and everyone ends up dissatisfied.

Communicate Consistently

It’s not enough to know where you want to go and what you expect of others. You have to communicate those things clearly and often. A leader doesn’t just expect everyone to know these things. A leader understands that it is their responsibility to say it out loud – a lot. The consistency of messaging is the way you ensure that others know you are serious and that you mean what you say.

I see so many business owners who don’t communicate. Then when their staff isn’t performing up to expectations they get mad. “They should know” is what I hear all the time. Well, guess what – they don’t.

However, when a leader is reinforcing a vision, expectations, beliefs over and over again, people believe them. They see that the leader means what she says. They make the commitment to come along at that point.

Take a Chance

Good leaders empower their people to take chances and make decisions that might not work out. They realize this is the way most people learn and that most mistakes aren’t life threatening. When you let someone try something and fail, you are telling them in big, bold letters that you believe in them. You know they want to succeed and will learn from their experiences.

It all starts with the leader. This individual has to get right in their head. They have to like their “players” and believe in them. I think it starts with believing that the employee/player wants to be successful. When you start with that premise, everything you do is built around it and your attitude is more positive and constructive.

Believe that your players are going to win the Rose Bowl. Empower them to excel, try things and learn. Communicate on a regular basis about where you see the organization going, what their role is and how everything is going. Honest and open dialogue does wonders for the strength of an organization.

If you want people to follow you – believe that they are going to be successful in the journey.

Spartans Photo via Shutterstock


Diane Helbig Diane Helbig is a Professional Coach and the president of Seize This Day. Diane is a Contributing Editor on COSE Mindspring, a resource website for small business owners, as well as a member of the Top Sales World Experts Panel at Top Sales World.

6 Reactions
  1. That’s right. Expectations are important if you want to have great leaders. You cannot encourage people to be their best if you don’t expect them to be the best. It starts with one person who can believe in their potential.

  2. As a huge Michigan State fan, you must know Melissa Mackey? She’d love this!

  3. What a great example of someone who believed in themselves in the people around them and what they were doing. You have just got to love great leaders like that.