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Four Years at the Mount

Role Models

Gentle Assertiveness

Michael Kenney Jr.
MSN Class of 2019

I remember standing on the preacher’s pulpit, knees shaking, ready to deliver my Student Council inauguration speech to the entire parochial middle school and every camera-ready parent in the audience. I recited the annual president’s address, full of leadership platitudes and fluffy quotes about empowerment.

"Leaders are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in," I stammered, feeling like a hypocrite because of my own stage fright.

As I rattled off the names of the newly elected class representatives, however, I grew increasingly smug. "...Stephanie Crowley…Daniel Rodriguez..." I said, letting each name roll off my tongue slowly and clearly, so to extrapolate the time I could spend basking in a blithe glory. I was a leader. I had the fancy title and shiny badge to prove it.

I closed with same line as every former middle school president had, and the crowd applauded at their cue.

I felt a loose relation to all others affiliated with the term "leadership." Alexander the Great, Henry Ford, and now, me, I thought as I flashed my braces for the camera ready mothers.

Though satirical, I think that my once amateurish misunderstanding of "leadership" is an easy trap to fall into. This misguided idea, that leadership is reserved for people with loquacious personalities and notable positions, dilutes the significance of the "everyday leader." Everyday leaders use their unique personalities and talents to inspire the best from the people and situations surrounding them without ever expecting and rarely receiving recognition.

Upon reflecting on the various everyday leaders in my life, I could not help but contrast my once misguided understanding of leadership with my eighth grade brother’s leadership style.

Ever since childhood, my younger brother, Jack, has embodied a distinctive leadership style. Jack’s quiet confidence coupled with his genuine care for others exudes what I call a "gentle assertiveness." While the phrasing of "gentle assertiveness" may seem like a dichotomy, Jack demonstrates that gentleness and assertiveness effectively bring out the best in the people and situations surrounding him. He is not passive aggressive nor is he hesitant to command charge. Rather, his distinctive demeanor enables him to deliver his messages effectively without ever needing to falter to a jaded attitude.

Jack’s leadership style has served him well, particularly in regard to his coaching. Even as a toddler, Jack could be found scribbling plays in his notebook or chalking down drills in our driveway so to design ways he could guide the athletes around him success. Jack has always inspired excellence without ever having to lose his cool. One story puts it in perspective pretty well.

Picture this: It’s a breezy autumn day, and leaves strewn across a field where a team of adolescent boys practice soccer. Amidst the teenagers marches a younger boy, Jack, who is about half their age and half their size. He scuttles around the young men as they complete their passing drills, commenting occasionally with a "Good job" or "Get a little bit more power behind that ball." Jack then spots one player intentionally rocket the ball far beyond his teammate and laughs at his own antics. Jack places his hands on his hips like an old man trapped in a youngster's body. With his clipboard in hand and whistle strung around his neck, he beelines towards the teenager.

"Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing?" Jack asks. The older boy laughs, regarding the question as a form of cheeky amusement. "I don’t find it funny," Jack says, stone faced. "Give me five pushups." The player’s expression deflated, and he complied. The pushups are done haphazardly, so Jack orders for five more. "Fool around one more time and you may become very comfortable down there in pushup position," the child says in a tone that is both gentle and assertive.

Jack has always been confident that gentle assertiveness is the most effective coaching style. Shortly after he "retired" from coaching soccer, eight year old Jack wrote a letter of advice to the University of Notre Dame’s head football coach, Brian Kelly. Kelly’s Fighting Irish team battled back-to-back 8-5 seasons -- an equivocal record for a highly talented team representing a football mecca. While sports analysts focused mainly on play-by-play analysis and scoreboard results, Jack honed in on the post-play interactions between Kelly and his team. Jack felt that Kelly’s then hot tempered leadership corroded the team’s morale more than it spurred success. Nevertheless, Jack penned a letter to Kelly in which he described ways Kelly could adopt a more composed and effective leadership style.

Jack, who serves as an assistant coach for a middle school boys’ basketball team, relates to John Wooden. Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach who led his team to ten NCAA National Championship titles in twelve years, never adopted an irascible coaching style. Instead, Wooden geared his energy towards creating a positive environment, and he consequently earned positive results. Wooden’s players did not respect him out of fear. Rather, they succeeded because Wooden lived by the expectation he set. Wooden established a blueprint for success which he called the "Pyramid of Success." This layout describes 15 leadership qualities that guided Wooden’s team both on and off the court.

Jack takes these characteristics to heart, and in particular lives by Wooden’s lesson, "Control of your organization begins with control of yourself. Be disciplined." Jack’s respectability stems from his discipline. His team knows that he expects and deserves a standard of excellence, so Jack never needs to falter to an ostentatious attitude.

His gentle assertiveness demonstrates that leaders do not need to be the most vocal to make the loudest impact.

Read other articles by Michael Kenney Jr.