If you talk to John Tortorella about the concepts of leadership in a hockey team you'll find out that he hates the title "coach."
"Leadership is not about you and thinking it's like a dictatorship," Tortorella said. "I think one of the most important aspects of being a leader is to empower people. I can't stand when players call me coach. I hate the title because it's all of us doing it together, first of all. And it takes you longer to peel away at being a team if they feel it's 'you' and 'us.'"
As he talks, Tortorella holds his hands up, palms parallel to his desk, the right ever so slightly higher than the left. He continues his thought and moves the right to emphasize its higher position and then moves the left as well.
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"You're not going to last long as a leader if you have that ego of 'it's me' and then 'it's you."
Slowly, Tortorella moves his hands so they are at the same height. Equal. It represents how he wants to work within his team.
"You've got to mesh in so you have two-way communication and the bottom line is to make (the team) better people and make them better players."
It's for this reason that Tortorella observes his players not just on the ice, but off. And works to be, as he calls it "with them" so that he can learn how to work with each individually to find the most effective way to communicate and motivate.
"I want to get it to there where we're right there 'with them," Tortorella explains. "I think a true leader looks for opportunities to be 'with them.' To let team members see your human side and vice versa. Show them that you care. Don't pretend because if you don't, they're going to see through it. But if you're the right person, and the proper leader you better care about your people."
How Tortorella sees it, getting to know your team is step one. Getting to a place of effective communication is step two. And that's not always easy.
Tortorella is known for sharing his thoughts directly, and encouraging a response, be it in agreement or otherwise. But it is a misconception that Tortorella pursues conflict for conflict's sake. What he is really in pursuit of is honesty.
"I think sometimes people are nervous about conflict but it's so important to get things out there," Tortorella said. "No matter if there's conflict or not because then there's honesty. Then you get to where you want to be. You get the problem solved and you move by. Because there's another problem coming the next day."
That's not to say that communication, or conflict, is one size fits all. Tortorella is fine with people who shy away from conflict. That's why knowing who is part of your team is so important, because not everyone responds to the same kind of feedback in the same way.
"I think this is a big part of coaching," Tortorella said. "Remember you're not there to just lean on a guy to get something off your chest as a coach and feel good. Maybe you had some feelings about him and the situation you're in.
"No matter what it is, it's always nice to say what you want to say, but if it hurts the player, and it's not going to help the player progress, you have to try a different way. You have to figure out how do you get to a player, all the different players, to perform as a team."
Why does all this matter? Because at the end of the day, Tortorella knows, a leader is going to be called on to sometimes make a difficult decision. That's the job. But to do the job properly, and to make the right call, you have to have the insight you need from the people on your team.
"You better get the information," Tortorella said. "And you better let people give it you. This is where I'm improving, I still have a long way to go, but you better let people give you information before you start making decisions on any situation going on in your locker room."
And all of this is necessary work before Tortorella even gets to thinking about X's and O's. He uses the foundation of understanding his players, coupled with the details of a specific situation, to know how to react. It's not a formula; it's instinct.
"We're trying to make people better people and for those people to understand you and then you can pave the way to get it to transfer on the ice as well."
Watch for the second part of this series coming soon.