What Some 5th Grade Hoopsters Taught Me About Leadership

Les AuCoin By Les AuCoin, 6th Jul 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Personal Development>Leadership

Each of us has a vast store of individual potential. Real leaders help us tap it.

Wherein I Learned A Big Lesson

When I volunteered to coach ten little shavers on my son’s city parks and recreation team in the mid-70s, I never would have supposed that I’d learn more about life (and round ball) than the motley group of fifth and sixth graders who had gathered under my wings.

In an eventful life, I have managed a variety of enterprises. I credit no small part of my success to what those knobby-boys taught me back in the day.

My ragtag team included micro-tykes, imps, noodle-thin introverts, at least one half-pint with Coke bottle thick glasses, and a lad named Charley who could barely dribble the ball. I loved them, but luckily, I had a couple of players of genuine talent and a few others of more than passable competence.

League rules deemed that every boy would play equal minutes per game. No bench warming allowed. Here, the basketball experience trumped winning. I admired the rule’s virtue. But then again, as a politician-turned-coach, I rather liked to win, too.
So I came to our first game with a plan. I would play my starters for the first half of each quarter, then insert the scrubs for the last four minutes of the period. The idea was to let the first string run up first string run up a lead that wouldn’t evaporate when the second unit hit the floor. Equal playing time, but cleverly distributed to maximum the odds of winning. I thought it was brilliant.

It took one game to make me want to put a bag over my head in shame. At the four-minute mark of the first quarter, I had called time out and told the scrubs to check into the game, en bloc. Their expressions devastated me. As they trudged to the floor they seemed to know they were losers being used to occupy time until the stars returned.

We got trounced. Worse, I had unwittingly reinforced several boys’ inherent lack of self-esteem. I felt ill.

From then on, I mixed the scrubs with first-string players in every quarter of every game. Each player’s performance would be judged by not just his results. He’d also be responsible for mentoring his teammates.

We started winning a few games, then a lot more.

By the championship game, my collection of misfits and cast-offs went nose-to-nose with a posh team from Chevy Chase, an affluent DC suburb. The bench boys I had embarrassed in Game One were contributing timely buckets. In the last seconds, one of my big forwards rebounded a Chevy Chase miss and threw the ball three-quarters of the floor’s length to little Charley, the lad who had come to me to learn to dribble. Charley caught the ball over his shoulder, dribbled five steps, and went up for a perfectly executed game-winning layup. A parent came up to me and thanked me for bringing his son “out of his shell.”

In my real life, I continued the practice of matching people of latent talent with high achievers, letting the alchemy raise the performance of each.

A young woman who started as a receptionist in Portland, Oregon, became my legislative director in Washington, D.C., and is now a partner in a major Oregon law firm. One of my district “road men,” or drivers, rose through the ranks to become the CEO of a London-based financial services organization. A young caseworker in my Portland office now heads one of the Congressional Research Service’s research divisions in Washington.

The lesson is clear to me. In each of us burns an ember of success. A leader should find and stoke it. And then s/he should play the “long game.” Fully utilize the strength of your stars for results today, but also require them to be mentors to create an environment in which “ugly ducklings” emerge as tomorrow’s swans.

Esprit de corps in my office was palpable. Turnover in my staff was one of the lowest in the U.S. House.

I just wish I’d stayed in Congress long enough to give an internship to my prized hoopsters.


Basketball, Coaching, Leadership, Leading, Opportunity, Personal Development, Personal Experience, Personal Growth, Personal Story, Underdog

Meet the author

author avatar Les AuCoin
A retired US congressman & 45-year award-winning journalist, my work has run in the Washington Post, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Oregonian, Stars & Stripes and other major publications.

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author avatar Steve Kinsman
6th Jul 2014 (#)

Great article, Les. And good advice. Thank you.

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author avatar Les AuCoin
6th Jul 2014 (#)

Thanks, Steve.

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