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This Is How to Lead from the Ground Up

Leadership can be a function of raw power, or of influence. Based on analysis of a current news item, here are seven underlying principles that, when applied properly and consistently, ought to make any leadership coach proud. They’re not easy to practice, but they’re laid out clearly in the story of controversial quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Leadership Lessons from the Field of Play

  1. Do everything you can with whatever you’ve been given, even if it’s less than others have.
    Colin Kaepernick was adopted as a child when his destitute single mother could not care for him. He had a 4.0 GPA in high school, and was known for his baseball and basketball prowess. But he wanted to play football. He wasn’t ever anyone’s top pick, from college straight through to being selected by the San Francisco 49ers.
  1. Do the thing you believe is right even if you’re the only one.
    During the 2016 pre-season, Kaepernick chose first to sit, and then to kneel — “to take a knee” as it’s been popularly put — during the pre-game rendition of the national anthem to protest the systemic racism underlying police brutality and social injustice.
  1. Be clear about your purpose in ways that engage and motivate others.
    Other NFL players, athletes in other sports, cheerleading squads, marching bands, and entire high school football teams joined him in silent protest. Kaepernick’s jersey became the top seller in NFL merchandise.
  1. Have the confidence and tenacity to stick with your plan as long as it’s useful.
    He has expressed his belief in America: “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.” But he has also declared his need to take a stand: “I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
  1. Recognize when it’s time to change your approach because you’ve made your point and can move on to a new one.
    Kaepernick has stated publicly his intention to change his form of protest for the 2017 season. As part of explaining the shift, Shaun King of the New York Daily News described this change in the tactics of successful activism: “You tinker with your approach. You don’t march every single day. You march, then you boycott, then you build programs, then you do a sit in, then you host meetings. You mix it up. If you march every day, people tune you out and your actions become white noise. Every activist I know understands this.”

Leadership in the Face of Adversity

  1. Stay your course when external parties try to obstruct your progress and success.
    Kaepernick is now a free agent. But despite being called the “most dynamic QB of all these guys who are free” as well as having won the Len Eshmont Award, voted by active 49ers players, for the player who “best exemplifies the inspirational and courageous play of Len Eshmont,” he’s having trouble getting picked up.
  1. Help others who need the help rather than merely criticizing those who wrong them.
    It’s possible that, as President Trump has claimed, NFL owners are hesitating to hire Kaepernick, because “they don’t want to get a nasty tweet” from him. In the meantime, Kaepernick has responded to President Trump’s recent proposed budget cuts by donating $50 thousand to Meals on Wheels, one of the organizations threatened by the cuts, in addition to making very significant donations to the Love Army for Somalia and numerous other worthy causes.

Sportsmanship and Role Models

It’s true that not every athlete is a role model. As Charles Barkley famously said, “I’m not a role model… Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” But the classic definition of sportsmanship refers to displaying appropriate conduct during sport: fairness, respect for one’s opponents, and graciousness in both winning and losing.

These are all crucial elements of sound leadership, too, along with generosity, steadfastness, and integrity. Colin Kaepernick has exhibited them all. May his career be rewarding, satisfying, and successful, and may the rest of us apply the principles he has demonstrated in our professional roles.

Sources and good reading:

Onward and upward,


Photo credit: Sports Illustrated

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