For over fifty years social psychologists have been studying role theory, especially the constructs of role ambiguity and role conflict.   We have a great amount of knowledge on how people think, feel, and act in a wide-range of organizations and situations.  Yet when it comes to leadership development of student-athletes I find myself constantly running into a brick wall.  When it comes to team leadership many student-athletes are dazed and confused.

For the past decade I’ve been interviewing—college and high school—team leaders and team captains, and a common theme emerges year after year.    Student-athletes consistently state that they are underprepared for the role of team leader.  The outcome is the inability to develop mature relationships with one’s teammate; connections that involve mutual acceptance of high expectations related to tasks, teammates, and relationships.

The issue of under prepared team leaders is visible in two domains of the leadership role.  One, student-athletes are not clear on what the role of a leader entails and what coaches and players expect from them and how to meet those expectations.  And second, the extent to which teammates perceive them as a leader and identify their behavior as a leadership action.  Role ambiguity renders the team leader dazed while role conflict leads to confusion.

Contrary to popular thought, it is more important to have a well-designed leadership development program than a good team leader.  Let me state this another way: a well-designed leadership development plan will benefit all players, thereby increasing willingness and ability to influence and be influenced by others.

Many coaches promote and value team leadership, yet inadequately prepare student-athletes for the role of team leader.  Student-athletes operating under this system feel tension and disorientation regarding the constructs of role ambiguity and conflict.  With insufficient support the athlete is likely to lack in self-confidence to take leadership actions beyond a small amount of comfortable behaviors.  In the end, the vulnerable team leader operates within a framework constructed of low expectations and low involvement.

The coach that wants otherwise had better “walk the walk”—and the walk involves serious thought and dedication of time, energy, and attention to the leadership development process.

The following questions are building blocks to solving role ambiguity and role conflict as a part of your team building process.

« What practices and structures need to be put into place to achieve highly functioning team leaders?
« What roles are negotiated among team members?  How do they negotiate these roles?
« How is trust developed, threatened, and repaired among team members?


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