Often as the head coach or leader in a sports organisation there can be an expectation (real or perceived) that you have all the answers and know which direction to steer the whole ship.

Whether this is real or perceived, it is a big job. Most elite professional sports teams now have multiple supporting departments made up of staff who are highly trained (often to doctorate level) in their area. It is a big jump from coaching a team of players to managing multiple departments of specialists in the support staff. This could prove daunting for someone used to coaching on the field or an assistant stepping into a head coach role for the first time.

Omnipotence (being all powerful), sits alongside omniscience (being all knowing) and omnipresence (being everywhere at once) as attributes associated with God in monotheistic religions. The key here is that you cannot have omnipotence without the other two. You cannot, as a leader, expect to be all powerful without having all the knowledge. There is a reason these are divine attributes; they are not for mere mortals.

Down here on Earth, insecurity and feeling like and impostor can ensue if we don’t acknowledge the environment in which we are operating. The complex nature of the modern sporting organisation means that the relationships between all the interacting components in a club (departments, players, staff members etc) have more of an influence on performance than the performance of each individual component alone. Because we cannot perceive these inter-relationships all the time, so we cannot perceive with certainty the outcomes of our actions. Any decision we take as a leader will have ripple effects across the organisation with consequences that we may be blind to.

This lack of omniscience means that we cannot be all powerful, and thus the decisions we take are essentially bets. Complex systems always run in a slightly degraded mode, nothing is ever perfect, the issue we have is we don’t know which version of imperfection we are going to get.

The one thing we can guarantee is that there will be a difference between our expectations and reality. This can be uncomfortable to acknowledge as a leader who is supposed to have a good grip on what is going on, as well as a solution to deal with it.

To thrive in complexity, we must acknowledge the lack of foresight we will have and be of the mindset to step into the gap between expectation and reality to understand why the difference occurred. Whenever there is a change in circumstances, there is an opportunity to reflect on what has happened, and in complexity, the circumstances are constantly changing, so there is always an opportunity to ask why.

Reflection as a practice is a key skill of the modern coach. Coaching on a field is a highly complex environment, where outcomes will often be unexpected, particularly if you are leading an open session without a fixed outcome. As the coach, you are an intrinsic part of the complex system of each session. Appreciating this furthers our understanding of how we can best perform our role as coaches. Therefore, reflection is a key part of becoming a successful coach. It is a highly personal process as we critically evaluate the outcomes of sessions based on the intrinsic role we played in shaping them.

Complexity nests, so when you step from being an assistant to a head coach, your level of complexity steps up a level (or several). The challenge, as you take a lead in an organisation, is to understand that the consequences of your actions will reach further and influence more people, who will react off your decision in making their own, which in turn affects others, and so on and so on.

Reflecting then, is a key learning process when operating in complexity. Whilst reflecting is highly personal, it is not enough for the leader to be the only person reflecting. The organisation must become a reflective organisation where learning is embedded through all departments and individuals.

As Jack Welch, legendary CEO of General Electric put it…

“An organisation’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

As leaders, we need to be comfortable acknowledging where we are operating and be open in our reflections on performance. The real impact is when you, as a leader, can compel others to step into this gap with you.


Some further things to consider…

  • What happens when something outside of your expectations occurs?
  • What happens when something outside of everyone’s expectations occurs?
  • Have you ever faced a situation where your expected outcomes were different to everyone else’s?
  • How do you draw learning across an organisation?
  • How do you create conscious space for personal reflection?
  • How intentional are you in creating space for others to reflect?