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Thursday, 13 March 2014 15:57

What Can Hockey Teach Us About Empathy & Leadership?

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Nicholas Evlampios Fotiu was born May 25, 1952. He grew up in the New York city Borough of Staten Island. In July of 1976, Nick signed a contract to play in the NHL for the New York Rangers. He was a former semi-pro boxer who didn't learn to ice-skate until he was a teenager, rare for a player in the National Hockey League, where most have been skating and playing the game since before grade school. He would get up at 3AM, then take two subways and two buses to the hockey rink in New Hyde Park to practice on the rink before reversing the journey home so he could go to work. His tenacity paid off. His toughness may have outpaced his skill level, but he was a local hero to Ranger fans.

Prior to Nick's joining the team, the Rangers were knocked around by the opposition. That changed when they signed Nick. Infamous Hockey tough-guy Dave "The Hammer" Schulz said in his book that Fotiu was the only player in his career who he was scared to fight.

But what endeared Nick to the Ranger fans was not his physical toughness, though that was a big part of it. Fotiu is illustrious around the NHL for a ritual he conducted after the pre-game warm-ups at home games. Nick would skate around the ice, throwing pucks deep into the Madison Square Garden 'Blue Seats', the bleachers high in the arena where the local fans bellowed with enthusiasm. Certainly his fierce checking and willingness to 'drop the gloves' could fire up any game but when Nick threw those pucks up to the Blues, the Garden would rock with enthusiasm, Nick wasn't just pulling a stunt; he was demonstrating empathy. His simple act of kindness, generosity, compassion and the remembering of his roots made him one of the all-time favorite players in Ranger history. Because Nick understood the emotional attachment those fans had to him and the game, he was admired. Nick Fotiu, the moderately skilled, pugnacious hockey player, was an authentic sports hero.

Leadership

Mark 'Moose" Messier is widely considered hockey's greatest captain and one of the best leaders in all of team sports. Mark played for 25 professional seasons in a physically demanding, often brutal sport. He is a Hall of Fame player who won six Stanley Cups and is the only player to be the captain of two championship teams, The NY Rangers and Edmonton Oilers.

In a 1996 Sports Illustrated piece about Messier, Michael Farber said, "...fans in NY think Messier is a typo for Messiah." When Darren Langdon was called up from the minors to play in his first NHL game, he found a Hugo Boss suit hanging in his locker with a note attached, "from the team", that 'team' was Messier. Players and coaches have compared him to Patton, MacArthur and other leaders from history.

So what one word describes his style?

Empathy.

Messier - "To lead, you have to have the trust of the players, and to do that you have to find a way to connect with them, to find common ground with every  individual. It's a people issue, not a sports issue. The way to find that common thread is compassion."

For Mark Messier, who now runs leadership camps, it's all about understanding the emotions that can tear a team apart and those required to win, but it's always about the team." When his number was retired he said, "My jersey hanging from the ceiling is going to be a symbol of the hard work of those I played with."

For great leaders empathy is something to be fostered. To ensure this, a leader must be honest and authentic in demonstrating humility or be perceived as a phony. The Hockey Messiah once said, "There were a lot of people that helped me along the way, too many right now to name. But nobody can do it on their own, nobody can win a team sport on their own and nobody can be a leader on their own. And I had unbelievable help along the way."

In 1994, the year the Rangers won the Stanley Cup after a 54-year drought, there came a time the team was in danger of being knocked out of the playoffs. Messier had a private meeting with Coach Mike Keenan after what Messier believed to be an erratic and selfish performance by the coach the night before. To a man players said everything changed after that meeting. No one knows what was said, but the players all believed that meeting changed their destiny. Messier knew what the team needed to win. He understood the emotional drivers of team sports.

"As a captain, I think it's important that the players really know who you are and what you stand for, what your beliefs are, and to be consistent in those if things are going good or things are going bad."

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Read 6954 times Last modified on Thursday, 13 March 2014 16:15

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