How My High School Coach Taught Me the True Meaning of Leadership

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It’s a hot afternoon in Texas. I’m a sophomore in high school and I’ve just been called up to Varsity. I’m crossing the finish line in the first race of the season, and  the clock shows that I have run my personal best. I’m the only sophomore to make it to the finals for the 400m.

The finals are about to begin. The starting pistol goes off, and I’m running my heart out. With 100m left in the race, I look to my right and see Mark, a senior from our school. Everyone knew that he was going to break the school record that year. I think to myself, All I need to do is not finish too far behind him. A split second later, Mark pulls past me with his strong sprint to the finish. He beats me by a single step. But when I look at the clock, it shows that I’ve finished with another personal best.
I’m ecstatic as I walk up to my coach. I’m thinking, This is the best day ever! Coach Simmons had called me up from JV, and I knew he’d want to share a moment of celebration. But when he walked up to me, there was no congratulations. Instead, he says simply, “You quit.”

“But coach,” I tell him. “I ran two personal bests!”

He says, “I saw you out there. With 100m to go, you were ahead of Mark. But you didn’t believe you could beat him. Inside, you quit. You’re a far better runner than you realize, but you have to believe in yourself.”

That moment changed everything for me. I had let my own doubts use me so much that I couldn’t even see that my personal best was only a fraction of my potential. In this moment, and during our many races and practices after, Coach Simmons helped me realize that believing in myself was a choice. He also brought me another powerful realization that has guided me through my own leadership journey:

A great leader helps others overcome doubt and unlock their greater potential.

Years later, as I was leading LinkedIn Europe, I saw doubt in my own team. Much like me on that race track, they were unsure of whether they could step up to the rapid growth of the company. Channeling Coach Simmons, I shared my “you quit” story with them. I told them about a time when I struggled to believe in myself. This act of empathy and vulnerability changed the game. Suddenly, doubt went from being a taboo to something we openly discussed around LinkedIn. I see the same transformation in my current work as an Executive Coach who helps leaders deliver results amid organizational challenges that bring doubt to the surface.

Not all leaders are blessed with Coach Simmons’ innate empathy. But with a few simple strategies, we can help those we lead overcome doubt, see their greater potential and choose to embrace it.

1. Notice the doubt in those you lead

Too often, leaders are defined by their operational expertise alone. But a Conscious Leader understands that leadership success also requires us to build strong teams and a positive culture that nurtures talent. Pay attention to how your team reacts to obstacles, especially these tell-tale signs of doubt:

  • When you ask for solutions, they respond in problems
  • When you ask for needs, they respond with constraints
  • When you talk about potential, they are stuck on shortfalls
  • When you ask for what they want, they respond with what they don’t want

When you notice doubt in those you lead, it’s your job to help them shift their perspective.

2. Speak up with empathy

Empathy is the antidote to doubt. It’s seeing a situation from another person’s point of view — truly listening and giving perspective. Coach Simmons didn’t say, “What is wrong with you? You quit!” He responded by empathy by saying, “I see you. You’re a far better runner than you realize.” 

By responding to doubt with empathy, you create an environment in which your team feels safe discussing their hesitations and fears. This opens the door for the meaningful process of helping them shift perspectives and open their eyes to the potential on the horizon.

It’s been decades since that day on the track, and I’ve since held leadership positions with many companies around the world. But no matter how many years pass or how far I am from Texas, I still feel the impact of Coach Simmons’ mentorship.

And ironically, just as I was putting this story to words, I got a call from Coach Simmons, checking in to see how I had been doing. I told him briefly about how he had helped me open my eyes, and he seemed surprised to hear how profoundly he had impacted me. For him, helping others see their potential was second nature, all part of his responsibility as a great leader. But to me, his leadership was — and still is — transformational.