Like many of you, I've been thinking about leadership nearly every day since the US 2016 primaries began. Careful consideration of what leadership and power are more important than ever in this age of political uncertainly. Holding the lion's share of nuclear weapon, the adage “with great power comes great responsibility” is more important than ever. Toss in accelerating climate change, structural inequality and racism into the mix, and we’ve got the recipe for a disaster, to say the least.
One of coaching’s great secrets is that when there is a way there is a will. Often what gets in our way is not being able to see our way out of the proverbial muck and mire. We need people who can show up the way forward, using our power responsibly, helping us to become honorable warrior(esse)s. My plan to help show the way forward is to interview people who I think exemplify what it means to wield power with responsibility.
My first pick is my cousin John Kevin Sterner (as an only child John is the closest I have to a brother. His father is my dad’s identical twin brother). Before you accuse me of nepotism, hear me out. John is an exemplary man. He is a talented artist and an athlete. He won both the state championship in wresting for his weight class in high school and the national championship in college. He teaches art and coaches football and wrestling at the local high school. His metal sculptures have places of honor in his hometown and grace the entrance of Southwestern Minnesota State University. He does plein air painting just about any day he has the time, and loves Italy. John also has Lakota and Northern/Eastern European ancestry. He practices a syncretic form of ELCA Lutheranism that is heavily influenced by the religious teachings of the Lakota.
Most recently John has turned around his town’s football team. From the time he took the reins three years ago, he transformed a losing streak into a district championship and a trip to state this past fall. I recently asked him questions about leadership and power. The results of our email conversation are below, which has been edited and formatted for length and clarity.
You live with a foot in two worlds, the White world and the Lakota world, which creates a complex identity for you. How does this influence your coaching and the way you make your way in the world?
It really affects the way I see things in life and who I am. Three of the men who raised me always expressed the importance of my Lakota heritage. Lakota culture and spirituality guide me to see clearly and to remain true to my path in life – it is a primary component of my identity. A Lakota warrior was a teacher first, a provider to all who were in need, a father, a brother, and lastly a defender. The key word is defender, because it isn't about fighting: It means to stand when others don’t. Honor is so important to the Lakota.
My 5x great grandfather, Milauha, was renamed Has a Knife because he was forced into defending his people from the encroachment of the US. During battle he expected to die, so he said hoka hey, which means “it is a good day to die!” According to the Lakota it is a good day to die when you have led a good life and done the things you were meant to do such as teaching and providing for your community. It is a good day to die when your life is in order in such a way that you can leave this world. Milauha staked himself to the ground and fought the US Calvary armed only with a knife and tied to the stake, and he survived. He touched many enemies that day, which was more important than killing. To the Lakota warrior, honor means to say to your enemy, “you are strong, so I will not kill you, but I will touch you and get away while you are trying to take my life.” This is a guiding principle for me.
How have your spiritual beliefs affected how you coach?
I always approach the game and the sport with the idea of being a servant. I am here to help provide young men with leadership that helps them grow physically, mentally, and spiritually. It is paramount to teach others as you wish to be treated. I have seen many coaches who only want to win, who only want their athletes to dominate, and I have also seen how many athletes dislike their coach and don't admire them. I am not seeking to be liked and admired, but I want to raise young athletes who are role models for both parents and children in the community.
In the past the West had the notion of the Renaissance Man, but it is my impression that being a man of artistic and athletic sensibility is actually a bit of a challenge these days. As your completely non-biased cousin, I see you as exemplifying the Yin/Yang symbol, where within every masculine aspect there is a feminine aspect and vice versa. How do you live this out? Has your masculinity ever been challenged by others on account of your artistic sensibilities?
The scientist in me says that they are the same being: Our brains have a right and a left hemisphere. The left controls time, language, math, sequential stuff and is organized like no other, and the right can’t speak, it is intuitive, it understands the relationships between objects, how things fit together, and it synthesizes information and sees wholes and not parts. To excel at playing sports you need what the right side of the brain does, to be able to think on the fly and make decisions based on immediate information, to be intuitive. Art is very similar, you can follow a prescribed route to get there but ultimately what makes strong art great is the intuitive portion, when to apply that paint or to move a portion of the sculpture to make it better or stronger. To me they are hand in hand and work as a team. The more I see with my right brain the more the world opens up.
John, how did you help the young men you were coaching to find their inner power and agency when you first took the reins? They must have felt some degree of powerless given their history.
As with all groups of people who find themselves in situations beyond their control, it affects not just the players, but the entire community. Changing the mood or the climate of the community is my first priority.
One of my first strategies was to use an axiom that my father always used to develop young men’s minds to understand the idea of team: A tight rope walker spans a great chasm with his rope and asks who among the crowd of people gathered believes he can walk a wheelbarrow across the gorge. People respond positively, negatively, and with ambivalence – the real killer. He grabs his wheelbarrow and walks across the rope to the other side, and returns triumphantly to the now ecstatic and joyful crowd. He looks to the crowd and says, “do you believe I can do this?” and the crowd cheers, “yes!” The tight rope walker says, “do you believe I can do it again?” The crowd screams, “yes!” He looks the audience over and says, “then hop in!”
This story is about the importance of believing, trusting, and ultimately having faith in what you are doing. The Bible says that we can move mountains with our faith; we just need to trust in the power. As a staff we worked hard to promote the young men’s faith in their abilities and their work, and that of the surrounding community.
We needed to establish that they had power to change their situation, and not others. "If it is to be, it is up to me" became one of our key slogans. We taught the young men that they needed to prepare themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually to reach their potential. To do this we focused on what they could do to make themselves better. The weight room, camps, and passing leagues brought physical change. Every day we taught the power of positivity to uplift them. We used quotes like “grind, hard work” and ideas that built upon what it means to be a team.
We described everything associated with the team using a train metaphor. Trains are always going somewhere and always driving hard, so hop on and get on board. We were the Laker train! Serendipity even played its part one day as we finished talking about the importance of getting on board the train of belief an actual train came through town roaring by and blowing its horn, as if on cue! Wooooo woooo! The Laker train is rollin’! Who's on board?
Now that your team is winning, how do you teach them to wield their power in ways that are honorable?
The three F’s are key to our approach: faith, family, and football. I attribute this philosophy to one of my assistant coaches, and we have used it since day one. It is ranked in order of importance and value. We believe the values you learn to live a spiritually good life should underpin how you play the sport. We stress good sportsmanship, and being a person who plays with joy and the love of the game first and foremost, and not the win at all costs mentality.
Tom Landry once said that the greatness of the sport of football is that “you can hit a man as hard as you want between the whistles but you help him up and tell him good job.” I firmly believe that our true character, our true inner self, arises in moments of tension and power displays, and you find what really drives that person in their actions.
When you see one of your young men using his power without honor, what do you do as his coach? I know ultimately he is under the guidance of his parents, but I do know that a coach can play a major role in a young man’s life (I remember my dad getting calls from jail to go bail out or pick up his college athletes. I can only imagine what the discussion was like in the car when he gave them a ride home.)
I will usually pull the young man aside and ask him what is appropriate and not appropriate. I ask them to be responsible for their actions – just as I have to be for mine. It doesn’t matter how many times we get knocked down. What truly matters is how often we get back up!
Anything else you would like to say?
Thanks cuz for the kind words and honoring me with this interview. Pilamaye Tukasila.