Leadership in the roller derby ‘verse is a really heavy topic in general, but particularly in roller derby given the recent scandals in the sport. Victorian Roller Derby most recently was accused of chronic, unaddressed racism and bullying that was tolerated by league leadership in the pursuit of winning. Sexual abuse allegations toppled the longstanding derby legend Quadzilla, with the backlash spreading to a team USA coach who expressed support for him at the men’s world cup. Bay Area Derby was the target of multiple blog posts detailing the intense bullying problems and tolerance of those problems in the league, with the suggestion that it contributed to one player’s suicide (BAD’s statement has since been deleted). These accusations and others of bullying, toxic environments and inadequate leadership have been directed towards at teams of all levels, prompting a much needed discussion of what this sport is supposed to be. As leaders in this sport, we cannot hide under the guise of ‘derby love’ and a perception of inclusivity, because perception is not reality and this sport, like any other organization, has problems. Even if a player has had the fortune of not experience bullying to that level, the topic of poor leadership hits close to home for most players. Many of us have had difficult experiences with shitty cultures, bullying and favoritism, regardless of the size of leagues. And in the discussion of all of these things, particular attention needs to be given to the role of leadership and how they can potentially cause and resolve these problems.
This issue is something that has been a concern of mine for a while, but is especially relevant right now since I’m leaving my current and beloved roller derby team, the Maniac Monsters Mainz. Since I use this blog to write about topics I want my team to be aware of, this intimidating and serious topic is next on the agenda. Hopefully in the process of laying out what makes our league relatively cohesive and how to maintain our culture (I seriously love my fucking team), this post can be of some help to someone who is struggling with the some of these issues. That being said, however, a leader has to be open to the things I will detail in order for this to be of any help whatsoever. An individual’s ability to receive the information in this article is no different than your crazy, wildly controlling grandma yelling “Yea, why do you have to be so controlling!?’ at the television during Dr. Phil. If someone does not want to see the parallels in their own lives, they won’t. This article is not a silver bullet for shitty leadership. Even the people who I ambiguously discuss in some of the negative examples of leadership would read this and think they do all of these things perfectly, when the reality is more of the opposite. People will only see what they want to see.
There are two important points I want to make clear before getting into this discussion. First, I’m not pulling this shit out of my ass. I’m pulling this information from a bachelor’s degree in general psychology, a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in teaching adults, and an associate’s of business management, all of which are wrapped up with my practical life experience through work and being a member of and a leader in roller derby. A lot of the things I’m going to say are supported by research, reputable articles and instructional texts, so to demonstrate that these are legit I’m going to cite them in American Psychological Association style, using exclusively pdf files or articles that are available to the general public. So if I make a point that intrigues you with a citation, use google scholar to look up the title and author so that you can read more in depth.
The second point is that, in using examples from my life, I’m going to use the other league I’ve been in as examples of poor leadership and culture. I’m not trying to be a douchebag and make any person or league look bad. They are my experiences from my perspective, and I do not discuss it as a representative of Maniac Monsters Mainz. While I was in the other league the culture was shitty, but that was about two years ago. League cultures are difficult to change, but it’s possible, so I’m not making any statements about current league culture. As a teacher of adults I’m motivated to use multiple mediums in order to make my points, and some people learn best from more concrete examples. I’m only going to draw from my experience in order to discuss examples when it’s relevant. Although I tried to balance my examples, unfortunately all of my negative examples came from my previous league, despite my efforts to not put myself on a pedestal. If it seems that I am lionizing myself, let me be clear about something: I was not perfect. In my early twenties I was struggling with the aftermath of suicide, sexual abuse and emotional abuse, wherein my main motivation was survival, not learning how to make friends, socialize and interact like a functional person. So when I joined the league in my mid twenties, I was on a steep learning curve. I made a lot of mistakes in figuring out how to play politics and get what I wanted within an organization, so I’m no angel and was often more difficult than was necessary. I know that and I own it.
As I went about listing and explaining the different aspect of effective leadership per my experience, this shit ballooned to a stupid number of pages. Entire books have been written about the individual factors in effective leadership, so I need to break this up into separate posts. While the theory of the adult human attention span being 20 minutes has little to no empirical support, I don’t want to take any chances, so here’s part one.
- Everything is leadership’s fault. Drop the defensive attitude and the intense emotionality and take responsibility for the problem and the solution.
In the movie ‘A bug’s life’ from Pixar, one of the characters (Hopper, if anyone gives a shit) makes such an astoundingly succinct and insightful point for a kids’ movie that I’m obligated to quote it for this blog post. He says “The first rule of leadership: everything is your fault.”
One of the most fatal mistakes someone in a leadership position can make is being defensive and thinking that an organization’s issues are someone else’s fault. It is a way to avoid responsibility for leadership’s role in the situation and ends up exacerbating whatever problem there is. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding an issue, if you are the leader then it is your fault. That applies to both individual leaders and groups of leadership, such as a board of directors. A leader is responsible for setting examples of league culture, setting up effective channels of communication, for utilizing effective communication, paying attention to organizational problems and circumventing problems before they arise or become significantly problematic. If a leader dissolves him or herself of responsibility for a problem at any level, the leader is abdicating his or her ability to solve the problem. The things that happen around a leader are often a result of the leader’s actions, attitude and leadership style, which can both create and solve problems.
The point of not being defensive merits special consideration. Often people will give the advice ‘don’t take things personally’ because they confuse defensiveness with taking things personally. Those are actually two separate phenomena. Research indicates that a good leader WILL take problems personally, because he or she views problems as his or her responsibility, as a leader, to fix. He or she will be disappointed and frustrated by the problem, will seek out what happened and will learn a better way to handle future iterations of that problem. A good leader will take problems personally insofar as they can figure out, solve, and grow from the problem (Coombe, 2016). Even if defensiveness is a default knee jerk reaction, there is always opportunity to reflect and find lessons in something after the fact. Late is certainly better than never.
No matter how impossible a situation is a good leader will learn something from it. Maybe the problem went unaddressed for too long and got out of control. Maybe leadership intervened but didn’t hear the person out and only exacerbated their frustration. Maybe leadership didn’t create a safe enough environment for that person to express their concerns, and it exploded. No matter how bad a situation is, a really good leader will find a lesson in it instead of just writing it off as someone else’s fault.
In dealing with the problem and solution, a leader also has to limit how emotional he or she is about it. An excess of anger or sadness or whatever is off putting in different ways. You can easily alienate people by being too aggressive or shut down conversation by being too sad and making yourself the victim. Emotional attachment isn’t bad, but letting it dictate your engagement with a solution is.
For this I’m going to get into something I fucked up as a leader. We played a scrimmage that was tough to watch, because it looked like everything we had worked on went out the window. We were falling apart, not working together, not doing any of the techniques we had drilled. I was angry at myself for not preparing them enough, and my negativity and anger came through when I talked about the scrimmage at the next practice. It upset a lot of people and undermined their pride in their own personal accomplishments during the scrimmage. I let my anger dictate the conversation, and I damaged the league environment and my relationship with the skaters. I should have collected myself more or waited longer before engaging in that conversation.
- League culture is a top down phenomenon
The hard truth about problems in leagues is that they tend to mirror the examples set by leadership. How leaders deal with problems determines whether or not a problem is actually solved and what happens after. How leaders interact with others sets the example of how people treat each other. What leaders tolerate in a league determines what issues persist and escalate in an organization. How leaders listen to criticism sets the standard for feedback.
This is incredibly important to understand because, to the surprise of absolutely no one, organizational culture is one of -if not the- biggest predictor of happiness and engagement in an organization (Seppala & Cameron, 2015). Leadership, organizational culture and employee/skater/member happiness is all tied together, with the most salient connection for leaders being how leadership affects the other two. Research from the scientific community bears this relationship out with significant correlations between leadership and happiness, as well as organizational culture and happiness (Tsai, 2011).
An example of this is a trainer I had in my other league who was also on the board. This trainer was often condescending without meaning to be, but got extremely defensive when I tried to approach her about it. When an issue came up with people feeling that the points system for rostering was being used selectively and unfairly, she had a meeting and spent the majority of the time defending the rostering practices, even going so far as to interrupt skaters who were voicing their concerns. To absolutely no one’s surprise except hers, nothing was resolved, the problems escalated and the practice of not listening to each other was perpetuated by the entire league for the rest of my time in with them.
Coombe, D. (March 29, 2016). ‘Don’t Take It Personally’ Is Terrible Advice. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/03/dont-take-it-personally-is-terrible-work-advice
Myers, C. (March 27, 2017). Three uUndeniable Truths Ive Learned on My Leadership Journey. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrismyers/2017/03/24/3-undeniable-truths-ive-learned-on-my-leadership-journey/2/#5685123d3f9a
Seppala, E. & Cameron, K. (December 1, 2015). Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/12/proof-that-positive-work-cultures-are-more-productive
Tsai, Y. (2011). Relationship between organizational culture, leadership behavior and job satisfaction. BMC health services research, 11(1), 98.