I’m a huge hockey fan.  A lot of people say that, but I really am.  My dad was one of the earliest season ticket holders for the Buffalo Sabres (he bought his first pair of seats in 1971) and has had them ever since.  Growing up we went to at least ten games per year – plus play off games and exhibition games.  I was in the stands for the 1989 Red Army vs Buffalo Sabres game.  I was there for the infamous “No Goal” game of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals.  All told, I’ve been to at least 300 live NHL games plus a smattering of high school, college, and minor-league games.  Even now our family makes it back to Buffalo at least once a year to take in a game live.  I subscribe to NHL Center Ice which means I can watch countless NHL games throughout the season.  While I’m a die-hard Sabres fan, I’m a fan of hockey in general.

Anyone who follows hockey knows that my beloved Sabres have not been the best team lately.  Two years in a row they finished dead last in the league and this year they improved, but still finished 23rd and well out of a playoff spot.  Because of that, we (Sabres fans) been focused a lot on the future and what this team could be, rather than what they are now.  So, I’ve listened to a lot – I mean a lot – of Buffalo sports talk radio in the last few years.  And what’s funny is that along the way, I’ve learned a lot about leadership, and a lot I think that applies to leadership even within the church.

  • Potential and Ceiling – Since the Sabres have been focused a lot on prospects, the question is often asked “What’s this guy’s ceiling?”  In other words, can he someday be a #1 center that carries your team or a top defensemen that plays half the game?  Or, long term, can you expect him to be a third line guy – a solid contributor, but not a super star.  In leadership it’s crucial to identify someone’s potential and their ceiling.  What can they be?  There are great leaders in our churches but if they’re not in the right roles, their leadership skills aren’t going to be well used.  But sometimes we stretch people beyond their potential and that simply leads to burn out.  In my current role I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find the right leadership roles for high school students because we utilize an significant number of them to run our two summer ministry programs for children.  But because they are high school students, I’ve got a limited window to utilize them and need to make the best use of it (for their sake, and the sake of the ministry).  To do that I ask: What’s their potential?  Is this someone who can be  squad leader as a high school student, or are they just not ready for that?  It can sound harsh (and even judgmental) but it’s critical in leadership to identify whether someone has the gifts and therefore the potential to excel in a given role.    What I’ve found is that if I try and squeeze a kid into a role that they don’t have the potential for, it ends up being a negative experience for everyone.
  • Development Matters – In the NHL, most guys are drafted when they’re 18 or 19, but don’t play an NHL game for at least a few years after that.  The teams that have the most success are the teams that have been able to not only pick the right players to start with, but develop them well too.  What an NHL team does in the years between drafting a player and when they finally make a pro lineup can be the difference between a guy becoming an NHL regular or being a bust.  As a quick example – Sam Reinhart.  The Sabres drafted Sam Reinhart with the #2 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft (for those who are sports-ignorant, that’s a huge accomplishment and a really big deal).  But Sam just wasn’t ready for the NHL when he was 18 and after a few games they sent him back to his Junior team for one more season.  In addition to sending him back to Junior, they sent him with an assignment to get stronger and improve his endurance.  This season?  Sam played 79 games, scoring 23 goals and accumulating 42 points.  He finished among the top-10 in points and tied for 3rd in goals among rookies this season.  It safe to say that if the Sabres hadn’t of sent him back to Junior last season and given him another year to prepare and develop, he wouldn’t have had the success he had this season.  In the same way, once we recognize potential, we need to develop that potential appropriately.  Potential isn’t actuality and potential doesn’t guarantee success.  This year our camp staff has a number of individuals on it who will someday be ready for big roles within the operations of our camp – but not yet.  They definitely have the potential, but they need the time to develop.  They need to spend time on the work crew so they become immersed in the culture and behind the scenes operations.  They need a year or two to be Junior Counselors and work with people more experienced that they are.  They need to work with kids who are a lot younger than them so that there’s a large enough difference in maturity before they work with the older groups of students.  Being strategic about this development process allows their potential to develop into actuality appropriately.  
  • “Past their Prime” doesn’t equal “not valuable” – A lot of the hosts (and guests) on sports talk radio are former NHL players and they often talk about what a guy was like in the locker room.  Sometimes the most valued and appreciated team members don’t have the big roles, but rather they shape and influence the culture (or environment) of the team.  They’re the most encouraging and supportive, etc.  This season the Sabres had the services of David Legwand.  Legwand was, in his prime, a top player in the league but in his later years his performance has dropped off considerably.  But, this year the Sabres had a lot of young guys who had been high draft picks (just like David Legwand had been almost 20 years ago).  Thus, it was no surprise to read this article: Sabres’ David Legwand Encourages Younger Teammates.  Although Legwand played limited minutes on the 4th line, scored all of five goals and had a total of 14 points, he was a critical part of the culture of this team this year.  He was able to encourage and support younger players, even though he is past his own physical playing prime.  Within the church, we often have these people and they don’t even realize it.  A few years back we had a short term spot on our Elder board (Session) that we needed to fill.  We asked one of our most senior members who was well into his 90’s when we asked him.  His reply was priceless: “Well, I don’t even buy green bananas anymore”.  Even though he was “past his prime” energy wise and couldn’t make the commitment that some of our younger leaders could, he was a voice of reason and experience that we couldn’t easily discount.  He may not have been the one to spearhead a congregation-wide campaign, but it would be simply foolish to ignore his insight and advice.  Can you have too many “past their prime” voices, of course.  But it is to our own detriment to ignore the knowledge and wisdom of leaders who have walked the paths before us.

Are there differences between building a hockey team and leading a congregation?  Of course.  But I’ve been surprised at how often I’ve taken concepts I’ve learned about through being a hockey fan and applied them to leadership situations within the church.  As an unlikely leader myself, I’ve found that some of these unlikely sources have been the most beneficial in shaping my understanding of leadership.