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January 21, 2015

The Leaders We Need in a Nasty Time

rich harwood and rich johns
Article written Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
by Richard Harwood, The Harwood Institute

Amid the rising anxiety and anger vexing Americans today, I wanted to write about what it means to lead in this nasty environment. First I thought about focusing on the president, then congress, or corporate leaders; but each time I started, I found myself veering back to one person in particular: my high school tennis coach, who won a national award for his exemplary leadership, and who has some lessons to inspire us all.

There are more than enough examples these days of challenges of leading in a nasty world. But anything I would say points me back to Rich Johns, a real life example of a genuine leader. A couple of years ago, Rich won the Starfish Award given out by the United States Tennis Association, for his “no-cut” system of high school coaching. Every kid who comes out to play is on the team. But that’s only the beginning of the story.

First off, don’t misread how or why he won the USTA award: he’s no pushover. Lesson #1, He loves winning, and he’s not afraid to say so. Indeed, he’s one of the most demanding people I’ve ever known. His teams (both girls and boys) win religiously.

Lesson #2, he expects each player to leave everything they’ve got on the court. He will settle for nothing less than highly competitive play. I’ll never forget the season I played number one singles for him, and during one match I got sick and was hit by heat stroke. I didn’t want to quit, and nor did he ask me to. Instead, he laid me out on the cool shower-room floor, doused me with water, and then talked me into going back on the court to finish and win the match. He doesn’t like to lose.

But then there’s Lesson #3: he expects fair play at every turn and he brooks no one crossing the line. I’ve seen him argue firmly and openly with other coaches about their players’ cheating; and I’ve seen him take on his own players for the same. To him, there are some rules that should never be broken because they strike to the very heart of what it means to have integrity.

Lesson #4 is that he expects his players to play with respect. He’s a legend in my hometown for this, and it’s something he’s fast becoming nationally known for. Rich implores you to fight your hardest, but always treat others with honor and dignity. These can be difficult notions to hold simultaneously. But the bottom-most player deserves the same respect as the top dog. Everyone participates; no one sits courtside. No excuses, ever. You show respect for others, and you learn to respect yourself.

And yet, if it comes down to compromising his core principles, he’s willing to lose and play for another day. We need more leaders like Rich.

What does this have to do with the national scene today? Two keys I want to mention here. First, in sports, as in politics, and in all parts of life, we need more leaders like Rich Johns. You always know where he stands, and he always speaks clearly so you can hear him. He doesn’t hide, flinch, or retreat. What he values is crystal clear. What’s more, what he does is not about himself or his own aggrandizement; rather, he seeks to advance a cause larger than himself (in case, the life and growth of kids). And in pursuit of this cause, he is never dogmatic, always open to working things out. And yet, if it comes down to compromising his core principles, he’s willing to lose and play for another day. We need more leaders like Rich.

Here’s the second key: when you find leaders like Rich – whether they’re athletic coaches or politicians or someone else – let them know that you value and support them, even if, or especially when, you do not agree with them. Too many leaders are getting undercut in these nasty times. Please, sit down and write them a letter or email today to let them know! When we see good leaders, we must stand by them.

So, for me, thanks Rich Johns, for being my mentor and friend since 1974, when we first met, when I was only 14 years old. Thank you for being someone I look up to, stand by, and love with all my heart.