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Is There More to Leadership than Popularity?

If you have ever volunteered or been elected captain of your team, you likely already know that leadership does not just mean being the most well-liked or popular person on the roster. Leadership, even if your primary job is simply moving your team through warmup drills, is about much more than if your teammates like you.

Board-certified family physician and TrueSport Expert Deborah Gilboa, MD, unpacks exactly what it means to be a true leader.

Respect, not popularity

“When you’re in high school, popularity and leadership may feel like exactly the same thing … or at least, it does until you’re put in a position of leadership,” says Gilboa. “Imagine you’re in charge of younger kids at a summer camp. When you’re in charge of them, at first you may want them to like you or think you’re cool, because then they’ll listen to you. But that’s not true. They have to respect you, or they won’t listen to you.”

She adds, “There’s a difference between popularity and respect. Popularity is doing what people want, and respect is doing what people need.” Picture yourself at practice, leading the team through warmup drills. Your team might like you if you say, “Sure, we can skip sprints today.” But what they need to perform at their best is to do those drills to the best of their abilities. So even though sprints may not be what the team wants, sprints are what the team needs.

Think back to leaders you remember

“Try to remember a teacher, coach, or team leader who made a positive impression on you or who made you a better athlete or student. You probably didn’t always like them, but you really respected them,” says Gilboa. “They probably made you work on things that you needed to but were not the most fun to focus on. But they never asked you to do something they wouldn’t do.”

Ask yourself, how did that person lead? What did they do?

Leadership is for many types of people

When you picture a team leader, you may automatically picture the movie star version of a team captain: the popular, extroverted person who is incredibly skilled in the sport and is willing to push their team to its furthest limits to win the state championship. But any personality type or skill level can make a great leader. “It’s not only about being tough. You don’t even have to be tough to be respected,” says Gilboa. “You don’t have to be extroverted or loud to be respected either. You just have to be willing to tell people what they need, even when it isn’t what they want.”

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