sue-enquistRecently I had the privilege to discuss leadership lessons with Sue Enquist, who holds more National Championships (11) than anyone in the history of softball. She is UCLA Softball’s first athletic scholarship,  All-American, National Champion, and Hall of Famer. Off the softball field, Sue is a dynamic communicator and has gained the reputation as a highly sought after international speaker. She equips leaders to connect with students at the heart level and bring out the very best in them.

Here are a few notes from our discussion…

Would you just take a minute to share your story? How you were gripped even as a UCLA softball player, and how it led you to pour back into others?

My parents did a great job of creating the conditions for me to be myself, but also had very clear boundaries about the standards of being an Enquist. People struggle with rules versus boundaries versus being relevant, but I think what is timeless is a clear voice in who you are, what you do and how you do it. We first must look within our own family unit and get clarity before we look outward and worry about being relevant.

I remember you telling this story: in the beginning, you were a part of the women’s softball team, and in the early days, you didn’t even have uniforms. Could you talk about that?

In the transition after Title XIV, we still hadn’t received our own uniforms yet. Luckily, we had a great leader who really taught us it’s not the uniform that defines you, but the person in the uniform.

But what was fun was that our track team was a perennial nation champion (they had multiple Olympians), and our little field was next to the track. And I remember them handing out the used practice track t-shirts that were going to become our uniforms. My jersey had a W.B. on the inside that stood for Willie Banks; those that know track and field know that he was a great champion. I remember getting that jersey, thinking ‘Oh yeah, I’m all it now.’ It was really about the messaging our head coach taught us about how you define success, and how you gain success is through this consistency of your effort and your attitude.


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Share some of the elements that made the difference for you as a student athlete. What enabled you to succeed at such a high level when there was no tradition for UCLA softball?

When you don’t have models to copy, you revert to familial standards. You can only control your effort and your attitude; simplicity can be one of the most difficult elements to remain disciplined in. Be your best when your best is needed, and your best is needed all the time.

You were there at UCLA when Coach Wooden was there, weren’t you? What are some of the greatest leadership lessons that you picked up from him (or from other places) while you were there?

Coach Wooden retired the same quarter that I arrived. I forged a relationship with him as an assistant coach, and then a deeper bond when I became the sole head coach at UCLA. The most important lessons he taught me were to not look left or right, as well as to not base your expectations on other people’s perception of you — you know what you’re capable of. 

One of the things I often say to coaches is that their athletes need you to be responsive and demanding. What are your thoughts on that?

We don’t need more Captain Obvious coaches. State the drills, but also give them the bridge between where they are and where they need to be.

From your angle, how are today’s students and student athletes different?

This generation needs to be guided a little more than others past. However, I think the next phase of great leadership is going to be uncoaching, in which they have their own true confidence because they built their path.

What’s one of the hardest parts about being a coach?

I want to share with the listeners something that I learned from Coach Wooden. There are days that you have to protect the kids from yourself. As a coach, as a leader, you are expected to be on all the time. So there are gonna be days that you have to protect the kids from yourself, when you’re not all fired up or don’t have your happy face on. Once you learn those boundaries, you’ll be more efficient and have a greater influence on others.

That’s one reason I love your style so much. Sports isn’t an end in itself — it’s a means to an end. It’s teaching about life, relationships, that you win, lose and get back up and try again. I think one of the reasons you’ve won at softball is because you’ve taught your athletes that it’s more than just about softball.

I’d love to speak from the perspective of the parent on this. We enter into this experience to help our children develop, but we often get sucked into this idea that he or she is somehow going to end up with a college scholarship. If we could put sports in a proper perspective, and use them as a launching pad to develop young children (and, ultimately, not worry about the scholarship), I believe athletes would be better prepared for life after their sports.

I remember reading last year about a high school league that required the parents not to say a word from the grand stands. What are your thoughts on that?

I had a coach that used to tell parents ‘Please don’t stop me in the parking lot; please don’t stop me on the way to the parking lot. If you want to question my tactics, please come volunteer at one of my three practices.’ In twenty years, he never had a parent complain.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one reality about schools and athletics today, what would you change?

The wand would be a document or an online experience that says the things all sport parents and educators need to understand. It would include conditions for a quality experience that asks parents to be quiet supporters on that journey. It would be a road map of timely, objective information for a parent, player and coach to abide by, with accountability throughout this 12-15 year experience. If we could do that, I think we’d be in good shape.

We are so honored to not only have you on this podcast, but to have you joining us at our National Leadership Forum in June. Can you wet our listeners’ appetites for the things you’re going to be covering as you step up on the stage?

I’m going to cover the core principles of what makes a champion on and off the field. I’ll talk about how we’re going to Stain the Brain to influence our younger generation.

I hope to see you at the 2015 National Leadership Forum. Here are the highlights of our forum last June.

Join Sue Enquist and your colleagues as we wrestle with mastering clear, compelling communication with the next generation—in writing, social media, teaching, coaching, inspiring talks and vital conversations!

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March Madness is upon us, and the University of Kentucky is 34-0 and not done. So say their blue t-shirts. Many expect them to finish the season undefeated as NCAA champions. It certainly looks likely. They are to be commended. Coach Calipari is a recruiting machine, and has an unusual way of developing talent.

Calipari holds class on the Kentucky bench. (Photo: The Lexington Herald-Leader)

Calipari holds class on the Kentucky bench. (Photo: The Lexington Herald-Leader)

Let’s assess John Calipari’s approach to recruitment and coaching. I lay out this information not to draw a conclusion for you—but to start a conversation: assess.

UK spent just under $2 million over the last 5 years in recruitment (one of the highest rates) and Coach Cailipari is among the best recruiters in NCAA basketball. His second string could beat most other team’s first-string players, and he can rest them during a game more than other teams.

Coach Calipari’s approach to recruitment and coaching is simple: I will develop you and get you ready for a career in the NBA. This is not a pipe dream. If you play for him at UK, you have a higher chance of making the NBA than other teams.

Here are the “pros” and “cons” of his approach, as I see it:

The Pro…

Career readiness—which is what so many grads lack. In a day where our surveys show students are finishing school and feeling very unready for their career, Coach Calipari gets them ready for a career in the industry they love. Many analysts believe his Kentucky team could beat many teams in the NBA today. Fourteen of his players have gone to NBA as 1st round draft picks in his six years at Kentucky. It’s amazing.

The Con…

Many of these guys may not graduate. It’s the proverbial “one and done.” Most of his starters are freshmen and sophomores because so many got drafted last year before graduating. Sadly, while they may get drafted and paid well in the NBA…they also may not have job skills or life skills beyond the few years as a player. They have learned one “trade” but that trade will be only last for a relatively short time.

So is John Calipari’s approach good or not?

To be honest, I wish more teachers were approaching their work with the end in mind, like he is. We must get kids career-ready, where they’ve not merely mastered a classroom but a work ethic. They’ve mastered a skill. John has certainly built a work ethic in his guys. My hat’s off to him.

At the same time, if all UK is doing is building better players, but they gain no life skills or employability skills (soft skills like emotional intelligence, communication skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, resourcefulness, etc)…their employment may be short-lived. Their skill development may just be shortsighted.

I have to think that winning it all, and going undefeated this season will add value to their lives. Consider how it must cultivate self-esteem in those young players, how it improves their marketability in the NBA, and deepens their confidence. I am just hopeful that what they learn goes beyond the basketball court. A whole world awaits them outside of an arena, where no one may be applauding them as they work in an office and they encounter no fame or fortune, no glitz or glamour in a workroom. I guess I simply wonder what’s best for those young men in the long run.

Is it possible to have both? John Wooden would say yes. So would Pat Summit. But it was more than about going pro. How do we get both?

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By now, you’ve likely seen the viral video, released by a student at Oklahoma University. It was awful. Two members at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were dismissed and sent home. That video, filled with racist remarks, was a wake-up call for these young men. Today, the fraternity on that campus has been shut down, the staff was fired and members are scrambling to find a new home.

If nothing else, this is one more example of students exemplifying risky conduct (that they obviously thought was clever and funny) without thinking of how damaging the consequences could be for them. After working with college students for 36 years, I can safely say—this kind of thing is on the rise. Thanks to social media we can now be “famous,” even if we have no talent, as risky words, actions, songs and posts go viral and lead to either fame or shame.

For some, either option is fine as long as they get “views.”

Yesterday, I mused about why and how our culture fosters this, and what kind of extreme behavior can arise from it. Today—I’d like to suggest some steps we can help students take to navigate risk better and use it to develop leadership skills.

Prevailing Realities that Foster Risky Behavior:

1. Herd Mentality. Very few, in my experience, want to stand up to someone else, even when something wrong has been done. They are fearful of confrontation or judgment. The racist song on the video from SAE wasn’t knew. It’s been around for a few years now—and former students say they now wish they had stopped it. But it’s hard to stop a herd. Most of us just need permission to behave in a certain way, either courageously or cowardly. Fear is contagious. Courage is contagious. Stupidity is contagious. It’s the herd mentality. We need to help students develop backbone to take a stand for right.

2. Amoral thinking. Many have bought into the notion that nothing is really wrong. One college student even had the audacity to say: “I can’t say that what the terrorists are doing is wrong. Who am I to judge them?” Less and less today appears black and white, and more seems gray. We need to help students embrace ethics and values.

3. Dependent lifestyles. Far too often, they remain dependent upon someone else, often parents, to make choices for them. This disables them from maturing into responsible adults themselves. The more resources we give them, the less resourceful they tend to become. The more we do for them, the less they can do for themselves. We must help students develop a sense of ownership of their choices.

So What Must We Do to Lead Them into Healthy Risks?

Let me suggest some steps to take with your students to navigate risk-taking:

1. Start with a set of values.

I believe we only are ready for adult decisions when we have first constructed a sense of identity and values. I came up with my list of personal core values as a sophomore in college. While I am far from perfect, they have guided me well since that time. These principles or values act as a compass for choices.

2. Show them engaging places to take healthy risks.

Because I believe adolescence is a stage where people want to spread their wings and take risks, adults need to expose them to places where risk taking can actually be redemptive and positive. Often kids take stupid risks because no one has challenged them to leverage that predisposition in positive ways.

3. Furnish them with the reality they desperately need.

Yesterday, I wrote about how young adults react to their world so far. Many have been sheltered from reality (by parents) and need to be pushed into more autonomy, taking risks instead of playing it safe. Others react by going to the other extreme, taking stupid risks, because adults have rescued them in their poor decisions. They need to be exposed to responsibility.

Autonomy and responsibility are the two ingredients that mature adolescents. Some need more autonomy and some need more responsibility.

  •  Autonomy: the ability to act independently, taking risks and making choices until I no longer fear being on my own.
  • Responsibility: the ability to own my choices, along with their benefits and consequences, until my risks are wise and redemptive.

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The Missing Piece to Career Readiness is a series of three videos aimed to help adults:

  • Understand why students (both in high school and college) aren’t graduating career ready
  • Gain insights on what employers are seeking in today’s graduates
  • Create a sense of urgency in students to master career ready skills
  • Discover a teaching style that engages today’s “screenagers”

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I recently heard three news stories, each a narrative about students “acting out” both on and off the campus. What do these stories have in common?

  • A skateboarder was hit and killed by a train at a railroad crossing when he tried to beat the train while riding across the tracks.
  • Parents of a 19-year old student negotiated with a local community college to pay a fine to keep him enrolled after he painted graffiti all over a building.
  • A Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member’s video went viral. The song lyrics were full of racist remarks about African-Americans at Oklahoma University.

All three were pitiful examples of stories from a population of kids born since 1990. (These kids make up the second half of the Millennials, and I call them Generation iY.) They’re all tragic examples of young people who failed to factor in the consequences of poor decisions. They were unable or unwilling to comprehend the weight of their actions—and later required someone to be responsible…for their irresponsibility.

Rewards and consequences are a huge part of life. In fact, I could argue life is all about benefits and consequences. Neurologists remind us that one of the toughest parts of adolescence is the distorted development of interpreting risky behavior. The part of their brain that signals a reward for risky behavior develops before the part of their brain that signals the consequences for failing at risky behavior. This is why a teen will attempt a ludicrous stunt, like the ones I listed above: they can see the benefits of their peers’ response, and cannot yet see the price tag of failing. This allows someone who is 18 or older to still act like a “pre-adult.”

What Have We Done to Them?

Too often, these students have filled their minds with data from Google, YouTube, Netflix and social media outlets, yet have not actually lived with outcomes from this information. Their experiences have often been virtual ones. In short:

Their minds are filled with content without context,
and contexts without consequences.

This can disable a teen or twenty-something from maturing and being responsible. We never truly become responsible until we are given responsibility…and, we take it. This means we navigate the consequences of our decisions and actions. Failure to do this leads to immature behavior. Depending on a student’s temperament, it results in one of two extreme behaviors:

1. Low Risk – They become fearful young adults who run from risks. Having never been conditioned for responsibility, they fear encountering it. This is often because mom has unwittingly made them afraid. By doing so much for her child, she’s developed a fearful, fragile adult. Too often, she’s rescued him or her, filled out forms and negotiated conflict with a teacher or employer.

2. High Risk – They become young adults who live risky, even reckless lives, because they’ve never faced hard consequences. Life’s been good, but not real…so they go out on a limb, party-hardy, slip into addictive behaviors and assume someone else will pay for it all. Once again, some adult has swooped in to save the day. As long as this happens, growth will be stunted.

I just spoke to several fraternity advisors at a major university. They compared and contrasted life on campus years ago when they were students, with life on campus today. They admitted that they had partied and got drunk as collegians. In contrast, however, they described how their younger, fraternity brothers have gone to a whole new level. They don’t merely get drunk—but absolutely plastered, to the point they have no sense of self, and in fact, become violent, reckless, unable to stand up and out of control. They told me fraternities pay $30,000 in fees for taxis in preparation for this state. Or, should I say, mom and dad pay this fee. After all, we can’t expect a college student to be responsible, right?

What Can We Do?

Neither the low-risk student or the high-risk student is in a good place, and neither are balanced enough for leadership responsibilities. To get them ready, we must introduce the very element from which they’ve been protected.

Low Risk Students

These teens or young adults need to get past virtual experiences and given real responsibility. If parents or teachers have prevented “real life” from happening, they need to be mentored in how to navigate risky ventures, and it must be “on-the-job” training. Calculate the risk yourself, but then, push them into the pool so they can swim. Stay in communication, help them to make wise decisions, but be sure to actually lend them responsibility for outcomes. Faculty advisors—let go and turn the event or the strategy over to them. Residence Life staff—let go and empower them to choose how the hall will embody accountability. Youth workers—let go and genuinely let the kids oversee the fundraiser. We must let them do it.

High Risk Students

These teens or young adults have a different temperament that’s responded to their good life with risky living. So—we must introduce equations into their lives. This means, we talk over big decisions ahead of them (or behind them) and define how one choice leads to a specific benefit, but another choice leads to a negative consequence. Then, we must make sure we don’t remove those consequences. This does not mean we throw them to the “wolves” without any support. It simply means we talk through outcomes, then let life demonstrate it is full of equations. We must follow through and discuss both the perks and price of our choices. (Think: O.U. Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity aftermath, but with more mentoring discussions).

Tomorrow, we will examine further steps we can take to equip young leaders.

Get FREE Access to Our New Video Series on Career Readiness

The Missing Piece to Career Readiness is a series of three videos aimed to help adults:

  • Understand why students (both in high school and college) aren’t graduating career ready
  • Gain insights on what employers are seeking in today’s graduates
  • Create a sense of urgency in students to master career ready skills
  • Discover a teaching style that engages today’s “screenagers”

Get Your Free Access Here


Check out our new FREE video series, The Missing Piece to Career Readiness, where we discuss why students aren’t graduating career ready and how adults can help them prepare before leaving school.

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In 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave his final speech at West Point. It was a strong and clear farewell, but one that posed the question: How will new leaders be formed when, at least in the foreseeable future, the Army (which typically trains cadets to bring justice to horrific places around the world) now finds itself placing young leaders in a cubicle to re-arrange PowerPoint slides?

It’s a good question.

In this speech, Gates is in no way calling for troops to be sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan; he simply ponders how true leaders will be raised up without genuine challenges. How can the military break up the concrete of bureaucracy, politics and institutionalism that now prevails? He confessed he believes the army may be experiencing “bureaucratic constipation.”

Now here’s the clincher we can learn from.

Two Ingredients Young Leaders Need…

In the speech, Gates refers briefly to the fact that military conflict looks different now than it did in Vietnam or World War II. The enemy today is often not an evil country but a sub-group of terrorists. It makes war even more messy and complex than ever. On the other hand, our ability to shoot, move and communicate today is stunning. On any given day, decisions are made in real time, on the ground, even in the midst of a crisis — and they’re made less by the officers who listen in behind the lines in an office.


These new means actually produce more leaders than we have positions to fill. Did you catch that? More leaders than titles. Why? Because leaders emerge from problematic contexts. When those young men and women are making the tough decisions on the ground in real time, it generates leadership skills in them. To put it another way, ease does not cultivate leaders — problems do. Comfort doesn’t forge them — crisis does. It’s about moving outside of comfort zones to push a cause or a team of people forward. That’s what we must lay in front of our students.


In addition to this external ingredient, however, there is an internal ingredient needed. It’s the trait of responsibility. When a young person faces an external problem while possessing an internal sense of responsibility, magic happens. In fact, I believe young people never actually learn to lead in an organization without responsibility and authority being handed over to them. In the military, an increasing number of young soldiers were able to communicate real-time situations and were given authority to “take the shot” if needed. They were given permission to act. Nothing is more scary… or empowering.

Gates cited a letter that Abigail Adams wrote to her son John Quincy Adams during the era of the American Revolution: “These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or in the repose of a pacified station that great characters are formed. Great necessities call out great virtues.” Leaders are forged through problems and empowerment.

I believe many of us face the same obstacle that Gates brings up. If we’re simply attempting to fill some leadership positions and there’s no “battle” to fight, we may or may not develop genuine leaders. My guess is, true leaders will look for more legitimate roles in which to serve. Often, authentic leaders aren’t looking for titles but for trouble. They want to solve problems and need us to give them responsibility.

So, along with titles and positions, what if we challenge young leaders to do something that will engage them at the heart level? In addition to fulfilling the job description, why not ask them to look around and find a problem? Why not challenge them to seek out a situation that needs to be improved or transformed? Then, why not look them in the eye—and empower them to go after it?

Six Steps We Can Take…

  1. Equip your student leaders to solve problems…and to expect them.
  2. Encourage them to look at the horizon and choose a dilemma to take on.
  3. Give student leaders legitimate decision-making power.
  4. Welcome ideas and discuss how they can solve their chosen problem.
  5. Offer true responsibility to solve it. Leaders only surface with responsibility.
  6. Evaluate their leadership based on how they faced and solved challenges.

We’ve got to shake up the typical student — the one that plays it safe and never wants to fail, but, deep down, is longing to do something great. I actually believe young leaders want to do something that’s very important… maybe even something impossible. Far too often, we’ve created a risk-averse, zero-defect culture in our school systems. Let’s challenge students to dream big… and then challenge them to go after those dreams with everything they have.

Get FREE Access to a New Video Series With Tim Elmore

The Missing Piece to Career Readiness is a series of three videos with Tim aimed to help adults:

  • Understand why students (both in high school and college) aren’t graduating career ready
  • Gain insights on what employers are seeking in today’s graduates
  • Increase students’ awareness in preparing for a career
  • Discover a teaching style that engages today’s “screenagers”

Get Your Free Access Here