Thursday, October 1, 2009

Captain, My Captain

Recent events in Canada point out very clearly that leadership is sorely lacking. Once again, we have been inundated by political ads on the airwaves pointing out the shortcomings or abilities of our "leaders". Also, the news has been dominated by threats of yet another election. It is as though the people in power are so desperate for attention that they vent spleen and call each other names as small children who don't get along would do.

The need for a true leader has never been more acute. A strong leader would rise above the petty squabling and childishness and demonstrate vision, control, and poise that our current crop of wannabees could never hope to emulate.
My version of a great leader, a man who was at the undisputed pinacle of his profession, and who dominated it not by words or posturing, but by his daily actions was the late Les Bartley, former coach of the Toronto Rock.

Under Bartley's leadership, the Rock were the cream of the crop in the National Lacrosse League. They played the game with fierce determination and, most of all, a commitment to excellence that bordered on frightening at times.
The Rock's supreme confidence in themselves was created by Bartley. He knew the game like no other. He created a team that, in my estimation, "flowed " rather than played the game. What I mean by that was that the Rock never seemed to waste action or effort, never seemed to lose their composure or focus, always played hard, but never seemed to display any type of desperation or panic in their games. The Rock believed in themselves and, more importantly, believed in their system. All this points back to Bartley.

Bartley knew his players, knew their attitudes, and was keenly aware of their strengths and limitations as athletes. Because of this, Bartley was able to design an approach to the game that met the strengths and abilities of his players. He never demanded his players to do things of which they were not capable . Like so many other great leaders in other fields of endeavour, he knew people and how to mould them and help them achieve their best.

As a result, his players were fiercely loyal to him. When it was learned that Bartley had cancer, the team and fans rallied around him. On a special night in his honour, Bartley heard the greatest tribute a leader can hear. His team captain, Jim Veltman, a true leader in his own right, called Bartley the greatest coach and mentor he had ever had. Invoking Carl Sandberg's elegy for Abraham Lincoln, Veltman called Bartley, "Captain, my Captain." Such a tribute is rare, but this came from the heart of a fine and honest man.
In fact, the combination of Bartley and Veltman was unbeatable. If Bartley was the creator, the visionary, Veltman was the willing instrument of Bartley's will and spirit. Veltman was a great player, skilled on offence and defence, tough and graceful at the same time, a player that opposition players feared and respected. Together, Bartley and Veltman forged an alliance that earned 4 championships for the Rock, and consistently successful seasons of brilliant, crowd pleasing, even artistic lacrosse.

When Bartley died, one day after the Rock won their most recent championship, the game lost one of its most innovative and scholarly figures. In many ways, the game, like the country itself, has not recovered from the loss of true leadership.
Our ship needs a captain.

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