Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal. —Vince Lombardi
BOULDER—For the first time in the Mike MacIntyre era, his team was against the ropes. It was a feeling which many of the athletes who have cycled through this football program in recent years had become all too familiar with. But for the 2013 Buffaloes, who were heavy on youth and inexperience, this was something they had never collectively experienced before.
The season was only a week old and things were already beginning to spin out of control. It was the fourth quarter and the Buffs were on the verge of falling to yet another band of unknowns from college football’s boondocks, this time those mighty Bears from Central Arkansas. Repressed memories of similar performances in recent years against teams the likes of Sacramento State, Montana State and Eastern Washington resurfaced just as 35,168 in attendance had finally locked those nightmares far from view.
It was one of those moments when players are often compelled to reach into the realm of the impossible. And like that, it happened. The ball, and the game’s momentum with it, was swiped out of mid-air and carried 79 yards in the opposite direction for a game-changing touchdown. The Buffs ultimately rode that wave of momentum to victory, but perhaps even more importantly, a leader emerged for the first time on that day. And as a result a nearly lost career was pulled from the wreckage and given new purpose.
Leadership guru Jeff Janssen has been preaching the values and virtues of solid leadership in sports for more than a decade now. He has spoken to emerging leaders on campuses all over the country and it is through his teachings that many of those universities have started their very own leadership academy programs to further those same ideals.
As the founder and president of the Janssen Sports Leadership Center and one of world’s most renowned leadership experts, Janssen has helped hundreds of student-athletes transform themselves into strong, vocal leaders on the field. Those same attributes can then transfer over into other aspects of their lives, thereby creating headstrong, confident and assertive individuals who will prosper in all they do. Recently, the renowned speaker wrapped up his first series of seminars at the University of Colorado in front of 67 student-athletes and 44 coaches from 12 of the school's athletic programs.
“It’s always great to come out here to the foot of the Rockies and speak to individuals at this university,” Janssen said. “Our leadership program is designed to help athletic departments like this one systematically and consciously develop good leadership over time. One of the neatest things to see in the 10 years I’ve been doing this is to witness the development of these kids into world-class leaders on and off the field. The skills they learn in our seminars will not only help them during their time here, but they’re going to help them even 40 or 50 years after they leave here.”
Prior to his career-changing interception on that auspicious early September night, senior safety Jered Bell’s football career at Colorado had reached a crossroads. He had arrived in Boulder in the fall of 2010 as one of the nation’s top prospects at his position. That kind of pedigree carries with it a certain level of expectation, but as the 2013 season was slated to begin, most of those expectations had yet to be fully realized. After three years Bell had managed to start in a total of just three games at CU. Various knee injuries, including an ACL tear that cost him the entire 2011 season and then continued to hamper him the next year, limited the early part of his career. As a result, his role on the team had never been clearly defined and he headed into his junior season aimlessly trying to resurrect his football life.
Just as frustration began to set in, fate brought MacIntyre’s and his staff to CU and Bell’s fortunes took their first turn towards redemption. One of MacIntyre’s first orders of business as head coach was to identify potential leaders on the team and cultivate them into exceptional examples of prototypical team players, which might then have a strong impact on the psyche of the rest of the team. His strategy correlated perfectly with Janssens’ official on-campus introduction in September, when he gave his first lecture to a group of emerging CU leaders on risks and responsibility.
Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand. —General Colin Powell
“I think kids today aren’t as adept at being leaders as kids may have been 20 years ago. They almost need to be taught leadership skills as much as they need to be taught sports skills. Athletic directors, administrators and coaches see how important leaders are probably not only for their sport’s success, but for holding others accountable for what students are doing in the classroom and in the community. Athletics is such a fish bowl that if there aren’t good leaders stepping up and saying ‘give me your keys; you’re not driving home tonight.’ Or ‘that’s not a good idea.’ Or ‘this isn’t a good decision,’ then, you’re probably in trouble.”
At the urging of MacIntyre, Bell was one of those ‘emerging leaders’ selected to attend that first lecture in September. Just days after making the play that marked the ‘rebirth' of his career on the field, Janssen’s seminar began to pour the foundation for Bell’s personal transformation off it.
“I think I really didn’t know where I was as a player on this team prior to that (Central Arkansas) game,” said Bell. “That was the first moment when a lot of people were like ‘ok, this guy can play.’ That play and (Janssen’s) program have really changed my career. Both helped me to become more of a leader. I never doubt my abilities as a player and I can really lead on the field. Now that I’ve been learning to become a better leader off it also, I think I’ve really been able to assert myself and my role on this team.”
Before all of this, Bell had never been much of a leader. He had never developed that commanding vocal presence in the huddle or been given the kind of playing time he might need to develop the characteristics of a leader. But the coaches saw something different in Bell, something that to them made it clear that he had the kind of untapped potential they were looking for.
"We knew from the day we got here that he had the heart and drive to be one of the biggest factors on this team in the locker room and the talent to be a star on the field," said MacIntyre. "It was only a matter of preparation meeting opportunity and Janssen's seminar really created the perfect backdrop."
After finally getting the opportunity to compete on the field and after spending a full year in Janssen’s program, Bell has developed into one the team’s most compelling forces. In addition to his development as both a top-flight safety and as the bedrock of a mostly inexperienced secondary, Bell is now also a key vocal and influential presence in the locker room. His attentive and meticulous approach to Janssen’s program has helped him become comfortable with the uncomfortable, thus giving him the confidence to become the kind of leader the program exemplifies.
“I think it has changed my whole perspective completely,” said Bell. “Growing up, leadership was always just about leading by example and how you played on the field. That’s how I had always carried myself throughout my career, but coming to his program has really helped me develop into more of a vocal leader. You need both sides to truly become a good leader and that’s what Jeff has brought to the table for me personally.”
Bell’s success story is just one of many Janssen has encountered over the years. Similar transformations have taken place on nearly every one of the 20 campuses who have called upon the services of his organization. Hundreds upon hundreds of student-athletes have benefitted from the program and the results are far-reaching. Players have made the jump into coaching, programs have made the leap towards success, and careers have been immensely impacted.
“We’ve had some really great success stories,” said Janssen. “One of the stories I shared with the kids early on is at Arizona, which was one of the programs I got to work 10 years with. They had a guy (Josh Pastner), a walk-on freshman who helped them win the 1997 national championship. He’s now the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Memphis and doing a great job there.
“There are a lot of examples like that. I’ve also gotten to witness firsthand the evolution of Michigan men’s basketball from a program that was 1-6 in the Big Ten and going to play at East Lansing (home of the Michigan State Spartans) and a lot of people were questioning ‘Are these the right coaches? Are these the right players?’ Now, I’ve seen them go from national runner-up last year to the Elite Eight this year. To see the evolution and transformation of those programs and the jobs those coaches are doing is really fun to watch and be a part of.”
One of the biggest purveyors of Janssen’s message has been MacIntyre. The coach uses his book The Commitment Continuum System as a teaching tool for his team. He even makes the book required reading for his captains many of whom are still trying to understand exactly what it is to be a leader at this level. MacIntyre recently named his team captains for the 2014 season, two of which will be true sophomores who at this time last year were high school seniors.
“That book has been really beneficial for our team,” said MacIntyre. “Our captains and I go through his book which talks about not only how to be a leader but, how to recognize different aspects of consistent players and compelled players. So, we’re trying to help our guys become committed and compelled players and the leaders on our team can help us do that. We just read the book in depth and go through all the details and everything.”
Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. —John F. Kennedy
The most fascinating thing about Janssen’s teachings may be that they can be translated to impact different kinds of leaders from young players to veterans, and assistants to head coaches at all levels of sport. Consequently, Janssen’s program has seen results from coaches across campus from one of the newest (MacIntyre) to some of its most experienced.
During her 15-year coaching career, CU women’s basketball assistant LaTonya Watson has become something of an expert on leadership. Her year in and year out dealings with players and fellow coaches, in addition to her book knowledge on the topic, has made her one of the university’s foremost authorities on the complexities of being a leader in a team sport. And when she first heard Janssen’s approach, she knew that his program had a chance to mold athletes on campus like no other seminar or teaching tool possibly could.
“I’m really big on leadership,” Watson said. “This is something that I’ve become passionate about over the years. I’ve done a lot of reading on leadership and his teachings are unlike anything else that I’ve heard.”
“Even if some of these individuals have actually heard or learned something he says, it still validates it. It’s actually very helpful. There are some twists and some tweaks and there are some things that are slightly different than what I’ve perceived or what I’ve been exposed to, but you can always get better. There are always good nuggets that you didn’t think about. This is good because people that aren’t really familiar with the whole leadership theme will be introduced to it in a way they never have before and those who are very familiar with it can grow by adding to their cache of ideas or thoughts.”
Janssen’s lectures to CU student-athletes and coaches over the last year have covered a variety of sub topics from team commitment, to constructively confronting teammates, to learning approaches in dealing with conflict. He has also delved into discussions on developing self-confidence and overall team building. After ending his year-long tour last week with a conversation on honing the leadership qualities of assistant coaches, Janssen now looks ahead to next fall when he will return to the university, and others like it, with a wealth of new ideas aimed at changing lives, not just athletic performance.