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Bench boss

By Lucas Aykroyd | March 30, 2015
Bench boss
Mike Babcock

All CEOs feel pressure to be accountable to shareholders – but imagine a passionate nation of 35.5 million having a stake in your very public success or failure. That’s what Mike Babcock confronted when he coached Canada to men’s hockey gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and the 2014 sequel in Sochi.

Babcock’s impressive resume also includes an International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior crown (1997), an IIHF World Championship (2004) and the 2008 Stanley Cup with his Detroit Red Wings.

Currently the National Hockey League’s longest-tenured head coach, the 51-year-old Saskatoon native articulated his blueprint for success in the 2012 book Leave No Doubt: A Credo for Chasing Your Dreams. On and off the ice, Babcock never stops looking for new ways to improve.

What’s your definition of leadership?

Leadership is about modelling and doing the right thing every day. It’s going out and leading by example. It’s not what you say; it’s what you do. The greatest players I’ve ever been around aren’t skill-based. They put their work before their skill. They’ve got heart and soul, and they do it right every day. And that’s why they’re able to lead. You are what you are, and the people around you, who work with you, see you. They know exactly who you are. There’s no fooling them.

How did Nicklas Lidström, your Stanley Cup–winning captain, embody leadership?

It was how he went about his job, from the meticulous way he taped his stick to the way he made sure the trainers didn’t have to wait on him hand and foot. It was the way he trained in the summer and rested during the year. The way he practised, attended meetings, talked to the team on the bench or made a play with composure when things were going badly. Nick was a model of consistency and excellence. He was also a leader in how he treated his family, the community and the fans.

How did you make sure egos didn’t hamper your Olympic teams?

To me, the best players in the world are team-oriented. The positive side of the ego is the confidence to share yourself and the swagger that it gives you. The negative side of the ego is when it has to be about you. That’s the part that tears businesses and teams down, and the guys I’ve coached at the Olympics weren’t like that. What I made very clear to them was I believe in a three-step process. Work ethic comes first, structure comes second, and your skill comes out third. When you get organized and play a certain way and everybody buys in, we all look good.

What’s your approach to managing people?

I have 23 different guys, so I find a way to coach them 23 different ways. I believe accountability and having hard meetings are keys to success in the business world, as well as in hockey. All the athletes I’ve coached over the years wanted to please me. If you can tell them what you’d like them to do, they’ve got a better chance of doing it. What I try to do is be demanding and get them to maximize their skill set. At the same time, I try to be appreciative and care about them and their families. 

Can you learn from other industries?

I think there’s a lot to be learned outside this business. Everyone thinks R&D is research and development; I call it rob and do. You find a new idea from someone, take it, tweak it to make it better and make it your own. Now there are huge changes in hockey every year. Obviously, the science in our sport has advanced miles. There’s analytics and the video process. There’s such growth in the ability to gather and share information. I don’t know where all that is going, but you want to be on the cutting edge of new.

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