October 27, 2020

The Washington Post recently ran an article titled “Ron Rivera is coaching through his cancer; and the battle might be making his team better.” (Les Carpenter, September 16, 2020) The title gives you pause for thought… head coach of a professional sports team battling a life-threatening illness in the midst of the game season? But Rivera has shown how trusting your team and stepping away makes room and pulls others into leadership in remarkable ways.

“When guys start taking ownership, when they start taking leadership and they start making it their own, that’s when you start to see success,” Rivera said.

He sometimes misses practice or has IV treatments during halftime. In those moments, in a display of maturity that surprised Rivera, players step up. They push themselves to practice harder. They lead each other in the locker room. And the result is a team that is more collectively invested in success.

While the cancer wasn’t part of the plan, Rivera has been focused on building a culture of ownership. His openness about his absence for treatment has triggered a necessity for more peer-led and self-driven accountability among the players. Now they find themselves more willing and more capable of holding themselves accountable and leading each other. Rivera also believes the team’s recent challenges – coaching changes, name changes, racial injustice, the pandemic, and more – have made the team more resilient.

Let’s not overlook Rivera’s demonstration of vulnerability. (I’ve written blogs on the value of being vulnerable and embracing vulnerability in leadership. Find them here: Profiles In Candor – Kevin Love on Mental Health and here: Dr. Brene Brown on Shame.)
Although Rivera is not superfluous when he answers questions about his disease, treatment and prognosis (he has a right to privacy), he doesn’t hide his illness, and hasn’t ignored or delayed treatment. In a sport where “being tough” is a baseline requirement, Rivera’s vulnerability is remarkably refreshing and by doing so, he’s showing that it’s ok to address your health, it’s ok to shift control, it’s ok to share the responsibility, it’s ok to say you need help. His example shows his coaching staff and players they can do the same.

What would happen in your organization if you stepped away and made room? Who – or how many – would step into the space and lead?