Leading from the Bench

One of the best awards the NBA gives out every year is the “Sixth Man of the Year” award. The purpose of the award is to recognize an outstanding contributor who isn’t a regular starter in the front five of an NBA team. Last year, JR Smith won for his contributions with the New York Knickerbockers. The year before, James Harden (and his beard) won for Oklahoma City. For any player to win the award they are seen as a substitute player who can come into a game and both maintain the level of excellence the starters have been displaying and, even, raise the level of performance on the floor.

sixthmanFor a league where egos and dynamic talents often are the lead story on Sportscenter, the Sixth Man of the Year is someone who, though they could likely start for any team in the NBA, allows themselves to be that “next guy up” and begins the game on the bench. These individuals have the talent to lead, but do so in a different, but just as meaningful way. In any basketball how a coach substitutes players is almost as important as the plays the team runs. Since no one player can play all the minutes of a game, the bench is an important part of a winning team.

In ministry, just like in other organizations, there are often leaders who are starters and those behind them who might be likened to bench players. A lot of times for those on the bench there is an inexorable tension between wanting to be a starter and recognize one’s role on the team.

Now, starters get their positions for a lot of reasons. On sports teams it may well be that a starter is there because of their past performance and current contract. You can’t have a $10 million dollar a year center on the bench if he can play well enough to contribute. Another reason is because some of the starters are legitimately good enough to have that position.

basketball bench

Perhaps the hardest time for any team (sports, ministry, business, etc) is when a starter has stopped producing and is no longer effective and someone on the bench at their position consistently contributes at a high level whenever called on.

Most of the time replacing a starter is a hard task. It takes time and, if a coach or leader lacks the skill set or honesty to talk with them, the transition can be difficult. Established starters are the hardest to replace, even when their performance and production has fallen off a cliff, often because of loyalty and past victories.

For the bench players, this time between being an effective substitute and being a starter is the hardest. So, how do we handle it?

1. Show up early and leave late – Nothing impresses your leaders’ leader(s) like seeing a bench player who is there when people arrive and stays after they leave to make things better. It might be the most difficult thing to do, but being called on often comes up after consistent contributions when people are in need.

2. Continue to contribute at a high level when called on – One of the temptations is to start mailing in your efforts, or sulking on the bench. Too often bench players stay bench players because they don’t project the competency to lead or have questions about their character.

3. Contribute in ways that make the starter at your position look good – Having the opportunity to build confidence into yourself and the starter above you will always help you. When others see that our “position” (read department, area, team, etc) is being handled well it will be spoken of well.

4. When it is time seek out other opportunities – Leaving one team for another is always hard and shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, sometimes the coach is so dedicated to the starter that even a future Hall of Famer won’t get the opportunity. When it comes time to leave make sure you’ve given it time and you aren’t leaving with spite. Other opportunities will arise, but make sure your next step is for a team that is a good fit for your skills.

5. Above all, stay motivated and stay focused – Your job on the bench is to contribute in a way that continues to put up points, run the plays, and perform in a way that it is like the starters haven’t left the floor. If you do this others will notice and your opportunities to contribute will abound.

6. One more, seek out a confidant or wise mentor – Know this, you are not alone. Though the bench is often overlooked, there are others on the bench with you. Your struggle might be their struggle. Find someone who is trustworthy and you can confide in so that you can blow off some steam and manage your struggle. Handling this tension alone and in private can be self-destructive.

Being part of any team is a struggle that is going to have its challenges and rewards. For Millennials, it is easy for us to get discouraged and defeated. Part of this is because so many of us have grown up in an entitlement age that we are “owed” certain roles. The truth of the matter is that we aren’t owed anything, but we can earn a whole lot.

Leading from the bench, whether in business or ministry, means we are ready, willing, and able to put forward an outstanding effort because we are called to greatness and know that it will, in the end, lead to something more meaningful.

As you look to lead from the bench in your life, I pray you find your meaning, look for learning moments, develop a steadfast character, and pursue excellence in all things.