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Cindy Solomon

Why Dawn Staley is My Courageous Leader of the Week


Last week, I took some “me time” after being on the road and in the air for way too long. I arrived home well after midnight dazed, confused, wondering if I had youknowhat again—and promptly fell asleep. The next morning I bounced out of bed and haha just kidding. I slept in like any sane person would do. I ate things I should not eat. And I binge-watched NCAA women’s basketball. 

I NEVER watch sports like that. And I learned that when I do watch sports like that, I notice things besides the game. Like the unsung troupe of cheerleaders, the mini version of the marching band, and the way different coaches lead.

Case in point: There’s a basketball Hall of Fame player and NCAA coach named Dawn Staley. Her Wikipedia page is like, “Really? How could one person do all of this?” Three Olympic gold medals. One of the Top 15 players in WNBA history. Named best coach in the nation multiple times. They’re even erecting a statue of her in Columbia, S.C. A statue!

Staley started coaching at South Carolina in 2008. She rebuilt the team from the ground up—and they are magnificent. They function so cohesively as a unit and as a team, it’s a blast to watch. As I watched her work, I noticed that, unlike other coaches (ahem, Kim Mulkey, ahem) Staley didn’t prowl the sidelines screaming at her players.

Nope. For the most part, Coach Staley sat in her chair. Occasionally she’d pop up and say something, sure. Then she’d sit right back down. That’s what made me sit up and take note. Staley is a courageous coach who observes, analyses, and trusts her players to do what they came there to do. Which, on Sunday, was winning the SEC championship

After the final buzzer, in a twist not often seen in sports, the players hoisted the trophy and took ownership of the win, while Coach Staley thanked the band, the cheerleading squad, and all the fans. 

If you have ever wondered where all the fun in life has gone, that’s where. Real, honest to goodness fun is watching a cool-as-a-cucumber Courageous Leader lead courageous players to a well-earned win.

Four Lessons on Leadership From A Winning NCAA Coach


99% of leading happens before the game 

If you’re trying to execute on the court, and you’ve got somebody running up and down the sidelines screaming and gesticulating, that doesn’t allow you to make great, strategic plays. 

That’s not leadership. It’s distraction. Interference. And a great way to foster a fear of failure among your team members.

Look, nobody likes to get screamed at and everybody makes mistakes. Courageous Leadership is about where and when you create a space for those mistakes to happen.

In our Courageous Leadership Institute workshops, we talk about letting go of the wheel, allowing people to veer off course a little bit so they can learn through doing. If you’re providing coaching every day leading up to the game, you should be able to step back on game day and watch your people push themselves to the win.

True leaders keep the focus on what’s working

The NCAA broadcasters have this new thing where they’re showing the players and coaches in the huddles sometimes. I noticed that, in these huddles, Coach Staley talks about what’s working, what to do more of, and then things that they can tweak to be even better. 

As humans, we’re so conditioned to look for the flaws, to point out what’s wrong. Amirite? So naturally, when we become leaders, we double down on that. It’s easy to think our job is to point out people’s failures so they can correct them. But that’s backwards.

The truth is, if we point out what’s right, what’s working, what’s going well, our people will become much stronger players. Instead of fearing failure, they’ll seek out success and see their mistakes as opportunities to learn.

Ownership of the win belongs to the players

Despite her ferocious investment in the outcome of the tourney, Coach Staley didn’t make the win about herself. She gave the team the space to celebrate and really own what they had achieved. 

She never touched that trophy. Even at the end when they were all cheering her on, that was the players’ trophy, not hers. 

Generally, in women’s basketball, players bounce from team to team all the time for better deals, free tuition, or more playing time. But Dawn Staley’s team stays in place. 

And not because they are coddled; there’s no room for primadonnas on Coach Staley’s team. What there is room for, is feeling good about what the team accomplishes together. Getting to own the wins.

The more people we thank, the bigger the win

When the SEC division championship was won last Sunday, Coach Staley saw the whole picture. 

She celebrated the players on the court. She thanked the fans who were there supporting them. She conducted the band as they played the fight song. She thanked the cheerleading squad. 

And when the reporters and camera operators cornered her for interviews, she thanked “… every fan base that graced us with your presence.”

As Courageous Leaders in today’s workforce, we have a lot of unseen and unacknowledged supporters rooting for us every day. And when the business has a big win or our teams achieve hard-won goals, it’s easy to forget those supporters who helped us, cheered for us, encouraged us all the way to the finish line.

One of the most powerful habits we can instill in our people is seeing beyond themselves when there’s a win. And genuinely, graciously, meaningfully thanking every fan base that has graced us with their support.

WHAT’S NEXT? Right now, at Cindy Solomon & Associates, we are having a blast helping Courageous Leaders coach and lead for success. If you’re an executive or leader seeking guidance in how to engage, inspire, and develop your people, go to www.courageousleadershipinstitute.com and sign them up for a webinar, workshop, or keynote customized to your organization’s specific training needs.

Thanks for reading! KARMA POINTS: Take a minute right now to share this article with someone who needs to read it.

At the Courageous Leadership Institute, we leverage our work with over 300,000 leaders and employees from 400+ companies to offer leadership programs that impact results with customers and employees immediately. 

Cindy Solomon is CEO of the Courageous Leadership Institute, a thriving global leadership training and research organization with access to up-to-the-minute insights on how today’s most innovative corporations are defining the future of business. She is also the author of two books, The Rules of Woo and The Courage Challenge Workbook

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