Try this updated headline - "Championship Bell Rings a 3rd Time for Executive Coach Turned Sports Leadership Advisor." You've read the story of the first two "rings" (below). Now here's the back story on championship ring #3. On Sunday, December 7, 2014, UCLA Men's Water Polo won their 9th NCAA Championship, dethroning 6-time defending champion USC at UCSD's Canyonview Aquatic Center. It was UCLA Men's Water Polo's first title in a decade and the first for Head Coach Adam Wright since taking over the program in 2009. He had taken two previous teams to the finals, neither able to win the final match. Not this time. In a title match worthy of two titans, Adam's Bruins brought home UCLA's record-extending NCAA Championship #112. It was also my third ring. I began working as an Executive Coach to Head Coach Adam Wright earlier this year. The goal of our partnership was to help Adam become a more effective and self-aware leader similar to what I do with Fortune 50 CEOs. An elite athlete himself, and a passionate and charismatic presence to his teams, Adam was interested in learning about anything that would help him, and his teams take the final step to the top rung of the podium. Driving our work and conversations were two simple yet profound questions - what does your best as a leader look like, and what does it take for you to bring that every day? Over the eight months of working together leading up to December 7th, we addressed issues related to the program's vision, coaches' roles, clarity of communications, team leadership, culture and even self-care. Adam approached this work with the openness, commitment and determination that made him a world-class athlete - national champion and Olympian. Did a focus on leadership provided by an experienced Executive Coach make a difference to the Bruins' outstanding result? Who knows? It is, at least, a stunning coincidence that 3 coaches with whom I've worked closely have all won NCAA championships and two have won National Coach of the Year honors (we're still waiting to hear whether Adam receives that award for 2014). The better question is this - does leadership matter to performance? I believe it does, and I back that up with a lifetime of focus and training on enhancing the skills of those who lead others. First ring - call it luck. Second ring - coincidence, or trend? Third ring - much harder to call it a random occurrence. In my opinion, all three rings are symbols of the power of helping leaders and athletes play to the fullest of their talents. Conclusion I don't compete, not any more, other than an occasional age group run or triathlon. On my best day I never got to this elite level in any sport. And, I wasn't on the pool deck (or on the gym floor or softball dugout) while these gifted athletes won their titles and achieved their accomplishments. However, I figured out a long time ago that leadership matters to performance, and figured out ways to help coaches lead powerfully. Their teams do well - improvements measured both on the field and in the overall experiences of the student-athlete. As a ridiculous and happy consequence, I began winning NCAA championship rings, now 3 and counting. Ridiculous.
In the Native American tradition there is the "vision quest." In pre-modern times (and even today, in some more traditional cultures), upon reaching a certain age the young men of a band or tribe would venture into the wilderness with no food or water to survive until hunger and isolation brought them a hallucinatory vision. They would then return to the tribe and share what they had learned. It was a fundamental rite of passage. In today's oft-disconnected society, this tradition has been reintroduced for modern males. Men's groups around the country engage in multi-day vision quests that are often led by counselors or spiritual leaders. Such pursuits may smack of trendy pseudo-spirituality, but they actually address serious needs of busy, troubled men: grief, purpose, reflection and the desire for connection to a tribe that extends beyond Facebook. When such modern-day vision questers venture out into the wild, one of the first things they do is create a "sacred space" where they camp or meditate. The space is usually marked by stones, a talking stick or some other talismans and frequently blessed by the leader using shamanic language from Native American culture. None of these things changes the physical nature of the dirt, rocks or trees in the sacred space. What they do is create a psychological and emotional zone of safety in which men can open up, drop their armor and be their vulnerable, authentic selves without fear of judgment. I ask you, could there be a more accurate description of the Wise Leader's role in an organization? I analogize the leader's role with that of the shaman, the keeper of the tribal story. It's his or her job to create that sacred circle-the space of safety and truth-by virtue of his or her presence, acting from a clear stream with thoughtful responses to triggering events, and reducing the distracting noise for his or her people. In such a space, the other members of the organization are free to be their true selves-to pursue their own visions for what they and the organization can be - and to perform to the fullest extent of their capabilities. When the wise leader creates that ethos and climate, any level of performance is possible. Isn't that what we're all looking to attain?
2010 was a banner year for Foster's work in developing high-performing teams... literally.
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