Strategic decisions will often be questioned by those who think they know better. Strong leaders, however, don’t allow themselves to be derailed by all that second-guessing.
For Team Canada coach Mike Babcock, the road to men’s hockey gold at the Sochi Winter Games was paved with second-guessing from sports fans and commentators at nearly every step of the way. The criticism began with the player selection process, continued through the development camp, and lingered for the first few games of the tournament.
But for Mr. Babcock, who demonstrated supreme confidence in his decision making, the criticism was nothing more than background noise.
“You’ve got to decide whether you want to lead or follow,” Mr. Babcock said. “When they hire me to make decisions, that’s what they hire me to do.”
Mr. Babcock, who has been head coach of the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings since 2005, said that throughout the tournament he had to make difficult decisions, many of which were met with criticism, but believes that strong leaders – in any endeavour – need to leave their emotions at the door if they’re going to be successful.
“If you address the hard issues, then you’re ready to move on, you’re ready to get better,” he said. “In any walk of life, you know who’s working, you know who’s not working, but you have to address it. We avoid addressing it because we don’t want to hurt any feelings, and then it just lingers. To me, that’s the biggest issue in sports and in business.”
For Mr. Babcock, there was no time to spare the feelings of his high-calibre hockey club in Sochi. He said that the all-star talent, who are used to being the top players on their respective NHL teams, had to learn how to take a back seat at times during the tournament.
“If they didn’t play well, they didn’t get to play, and the guys who played the best, played the most,” he said. “Kind of like in business, you’ve got to reward your top performers if you want success.”
Mr. Babcock adds that players are generally supportive of that policy unless it happens to be their own contributions that are coming under question.
“When it’s happening to you, usually your attitude is different,” he said. “To me as a coach, just like a leader in business, you have to make hard decisions. How do you know you’re right? You know you’re right when you win or your business has success, and if you don’t, then you re-evaluate.”
A native of Manitouwadge, Ont., about 300 kilometres east of Thunder Bay, Mr. Babcock is the only coach to belong to hockey’s “Triple Gold Club” – leading his charges to the Stanley Cup (as he did with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008); to Olympic gold (at Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014); and a world championship gold (at the International Ice Hockey Federation tournament in 2004).
After spending a decade coaching minor league hockey in the Western Hockey League and American Hockey League, Mr. Babcock went on to lead the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup finals in the 2002-2003 season. Following the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, Mr. Babcock was hired as the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings, where he has remained ever since.
Mr. Babcock, 51, is a firm believer in life-long learning, and said that the key to his success as a leader is arriving prepared, while constantly striving for improvement. He expects the same of the players who report to him.
“What we tried to do [in Sochi] is take a step a day, get better each and every day, understanding that we weren’t a finished product and we would have to get better,” he said. “Our last three games were our best three games, but that’s what has to happen if you’re going to be successful at the Olympics.”
While leaders often contemplate best practices for motivating their team, Mr. Babcock believes that the top performers in any field are self-motivated. Even when it comes to high-pressure situations, which were a regular occurrence during the Sochi Games, motivation wasn’t much of a concern for the coaching staff.
“The best of the best are beyond motivated. If you’re not motivated, you can only be good for a short period of time,” he said. “To be selected as an Olympian is an honour beyond belief. To have an opportunity to compete for a medal is another level, and then the opportunity to win gold for your country is a spectacular thing. I don’t think anyone needs more motivation.”
With the Detroit Red Wings 2013-14 season now in the history books, Mr. Babcock plans to “spend some time at the lake with family” before getting back to what he does best, studying his opponents, watching up-and-coming prospects and working hard at making his hockey club stronger with every season.
Though he’s proud to represent his country in international competition, Mr. Babcock couldn’t say whether he’d consider coaching an NHL team in Canada. “I coach the Red Wings right now, and I’m really fortunate to have that opportunity. I enjoy it a lot, and am not thinking about much else.”
Should that change in the future, however, Mr. Babcock is confident he can bring his winning formula just about anywhere.
“I believe the puck follows around good players and I believe winning follows around good coaches,” he said. “I believe the guy running a successful business in one place can run a successful business anywhere. Am I right? I don’t know. That’s just what I believe.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
The Globe and Mail presents the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Coach Reward Program, which recognizes the coaches of the Sochi 2014 Canadian Olympic Team medallists. As part of this series, we will be asking six Olympic coaches who are receiving the awards to share their stories on motivating, leading and managing talent.