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Avoid Trying To Clone Yourself

If I learned one thing about leadership in the past 5 years it is to avoid trying to clone myself. Although I may be great (or think I am) at many aspects of the game, like defense, speed, agility, field sense, anticipating plays developing, I am by no means perfect. My throws are not technical, my confidence breaks down, I lose intensity and motivation when it’s cold, and I can rarely identify what the other team’s defensive and offensive strategies are, to name but a few of my weaknesses. Yet, erroneously, when I have been in a leadership role in the past, I have, inadvertently tried to create a team of “me’s”. I recently read an article on management tips and appreciated the one entitled avoid trying to clone yourself as a perfect summary of this type of leadership error.

Admittedly, I tried to create a group of people who worked hard like me, who played good defense like me, who were fast and agile like me, and who had good field sense like me. I would catch myself often saying things like “why can’t they just do it like this”… ‘this’ being the way I do it or how a prototype of me did it. And when they could not perform like I do, I was frustrated – a pattern that I have been privy to in many team environments, not just sports. Not too surprisingly then, these attempts to “clone” ourselves often fail to result in optimal team performance.

I think this happens because some of us leaders know only the path we have taken and know only the skills that got us to where we are and then we blindly assume that our path is THE path. Then we get stuck on this path. This attempt to clone necessarily leads to the dismissal of individuality and diversity, rather than leading to an honoring of individual differences.

Honoring Individual Differences

A problem with attempting to clone ourselves is that our expectation of others to do as we do, to think as we do, and be as we are, comes at the exclusion of many other talents out there – ones that may take to us to the same place via a difference path! These individual differences make up the uniqueness found in each season, each tournament, each game, each point. Individual differences – those that give rise to that “I” we try hard not to talk about in team sports, IS part of the foundation of a team. They give rise to the skill set that is greater than the sum of its parts – a collective skill set making the team what it is.

One way to honor individual differences is to provide positive feedback on individual strengths, another aspect of leadership that I learned, through leadership errors. I used to think that when I was telling someone how to do better, that this was positive feedback. In fact, positive feedback is about increasing the likelihood of a behaviour, plain and simple, and is very effective for creating change. Despite my 12 years of formal education in psychology, it took me several years of leading teams to fully understand the nature of positive feedback.

Providing Positive Feedback

Some of us get positive feedback in implicit ways, like getting the disc, scoring a point, shutting down our mark on D, etc. These rewards increase our chance of us re-enacting the behaviours (and skills) that lead to those rewards. But some of us require an explicit declaration of our strengths as positive feedback. Some of us need to HEAR what we are doing well in order to keep us doing those things well, particularly when confidence and experience is low. Some of us need to hear, “your defense is getting really good, your throws are really looking nice, and your cuts are smart.”

Sometimes this can be a challenge for a leader, particularly when we are trying to clone ourselves and are struck on why people aren’t like us and aren’t doing things like we are doing. If we can take a step back and start to see individual strengths, the ability to provide positive feedback starts to emerge naturally. And when it doesn’t, we can be mindful of our language when providing feedback.

For example, we can substitute “You’re not leaving enough cushion with your mark” with “it was really effective when you adjusted the space on your mark who was faster than you to prevent getting beat short.” We can also change “your throws aren’t very good, don’t throw up-field” to “that dump pass you made was really effective in helping us gain yardage.” In the former examples, we are essentially punishing someone for their behavior with negativity (i.e., you’re bad) and aren’t given much to go on for developing the skill. But in the latter examples, we are rewarding a behaviour (i.e., you are doing well, good job!) and implicitly giving feedback on whatto do. And what a difference! This can be very effective for beginners who have A LOT to learn as they come to the game of ultimate. Just knowing things we are doing well are really helpful in the interim before we manage reap the rewards of shutting down that mark or scoring a game winning point.

For more practice on feedback language, take a few minutes to transform the following examples into positive feedback. The more we work with this, the more it will stick in our minds. For some of us (myself included) it’s like learning a new language – a positive language – and it takes time!

Positive Feedback Exercise: Transform into positive statements as exampled above.

  1. You’re getting beat on the forced side
  2. You’re not getting open as a handler
  3. You’re not reading the disc very well on O (or D)
  4. You have to work on your speed
  5. You’re not vocal enough on the field (or from the sideline)

Good leadership also requires us, as leaders, to look inside, at what we are doing in this leadership role and to adjust as necessary. Staying fixated on a leadership style that is not working is not going to do anyone any good. Just like when we are on the field, if we keep getting beat deep, we would be pretty stupid not to adjust our mark, yet as leaders, we can often keep watching the same leadership errors happen over and over again and fail to look at ourselves as the source of frustration. For example, if we are repeatedly told “you’re not giving positive feedback” from a variety of sources, it’s probably time to stop saying “yes I am” and to take this constructive criticism to heart.


By looking inside and adjusting our behaviour and styles, we let ourselves be vulnerable to not being perfect and in the process cultivate openness and honesty with ourselves and with others. As leaders, it’s also in our best interest to be open to new ideas, to change, to different perspectives, and to different opinions. Freshness keeps us from going stale and rotten! Although it is often great to be surrounded by like-minded individuals, it can also result in our own demise as a leader by losing perspective and reinforcing our own bad leadership habits. And as Einstein said, we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that got us there in the first place. Which is exactly why attempts to clone ourselves can only take us so far.

Avoiding attempts to clone our selves, honoring individual differences, providing positive feedback, and being open are just some of the leadership qualities that I’ve learned over the years. That being said, I’m also eager to continue to learn qualities by watching excellent leaders around me, knowing that good leadership is never static!

Good luck to those who find themselves in leadership roles this season! Enjoy the individuals who will inevitably annoy you but also make you proud. They may even surprise you along the way if you let yourself see them for who they are!

9 thoughts on “Avoid Trying To Clone Yourself”

  1. Thanks for sharing this very nice article.

    I think one of the things that first impressed me (many, many years ago) about ultimate as an activity was the fact that people of widely varying levels of skill, fitness, and generall athleticism could have fun playing together. I noticed this first in pickup games and then was blown away by it again a couple of times in hat tournaments. But the delicate balance of psychological forces that is a team playing well poses a serious challenge to any would-be leader, especially one who also happens to be a player. And the fact that ultimate players tend to be smart and opinionated does nothing to simplify the task of managing egos – especially on a club team.

    It's weird, actually – I remember rolling my eyes as a kid when fat old guys would talk about sport as a metaphor for life. And I still do roll my eyes – most of the time. But I've noticed some patterns of behavior in coworkers (I'm a software engineer) that remind me of patterns of behavior I've seen on the field, and this may be because ultimate as a sport has more in common with other types of group activity that I normally engage in outside sports (or maybe I'm just getting older and fatter!).

    And yes, language does matter. I like your “Positive Feedback Exercise”. In general, I find that the more positive messages I send the more negative messages I can send before my audience starts to tune out or lose confidence (I learned this teaching math). Another fundamental point IMO is to acknowledge when someone acts on your suggestions or finds another solution to a problem which you pointed out.

  2. To the author of this article:
    Can you give more emphasis and examples to translating negative feedbacks to positive feedbacks. I really don’t understand how it should go.

  3. Hi Verdus,
    Thanks for asking for clarification!  I’m happy to help.  Here are some examples I can think of:
    “We’re not trying hard enough. We need to focus better.”  
    Although this may be true, a team/player may need to try harder and focus, saying it like that is not always helpful. And the comment focusses the mind on what is NOT working, so essentially it IS a negative comment. Instead, consider saying it like this:
    “Remember that game when we were really trying hard and we all seemed really focused? Remember how that felt? Remember what the outcome was? That level of play was stellar and got us into the championship!”
    “On that last point it was very obvious that so-and-so was super focused and trying really hard. She was digging deep, cutting like a mad woman, and made 100% throws and catches.”
    Those two alternatives allow the person (and the person’s mind) to focus on what is going well as opposed to what is not going well. 
    One of the examples above is “You’re getting beat on the forced side.”  That comment is essentially negative (albeit constructive) feedback. It is telling the person was he/she is doing wrong. An alternative would be to say something like:
    “Your defence on the break side is stronger than the forced side because you are giving a good amount of buffer, you have your head up, and you are aware of where the disc is.”  you could also add “when you do this on the forced side, you are also effective in shutting down your offender.”
    Does that distinction make sense? If you need more tweet me, cuz I don’t always see the comments on here quickly.
    🙂 Mandy

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