What makes the ultimate leader? by Tom Banister-Fletcher

Before we can look at ourselves to assess our leadership, it is important to understand what makes the ultimate leader, and how we might start on the journey of defining our leadership with respect to the team's identity

Ultimate is a difficult sport in which to be a leader. On-pitch, teams are frequently split into smaller groups (e.g. offence and defence), need tactics communicated and large numbers of people motivated. Off the field they require lots of organising: money, recruitment, travel, pitch hire, session plans, all often done in our spare time. Often, the biggest challenge is just keeping the same group of people together, season after season. So, what “leader” means varies from team to team.

Leadership is often a badly defined concept, with varying examples of what ‘good’ looks like and success often being attributed to natural ability. Here we look beyond the stereotype of a good leader to the reality of what successful leadership looks like in Ultimate.

The leadership myth

Here’s a fact that might surprise you: sports teams who select their captains at random outperform those who elect them (1). The reason? We are not good at identifying what makes a good leader. Society stereotypes leaders based on their personality and background: often white (and often upper class), male and extroverted or charismatic, but this stereotype is rarely true. The myth is that successful leaders are born to lead; there is just something inherent about them that makes them great and therefore something about everyone else that means they are not. It is a myth we fall for time after time; think of the constant carousel of English Premier League managers as teams search for the one perfect leader who will solve all their problems.

The leadership reality

The reality is there is no leader without followers. Leadership is not about personality: it is a “relationship between a leader and their followers within a social group” (1) with successful leadership defined by the quality of this interaction.

Leaders in Ultimate must therefore have a good understanding of their team. They should know what is important to the team (its ‘values’) and what the players’ opinions are (the team’s ‘beliefs’). Having these in common is what keeps teams together and is the basis for leadership in sport: a team’s performance is dependent on its leader’s ability to embody the team’s identity and shape it in a way that alters its actions (2).

Taking the wider Ultimate community as an example, you could say it is a group whose values include playing with spirit no matter what the score and its beliefs include gender equity and placing each division on an equal footing.

The qualities of an effective leader

There are four qualities that effective leaders possess and all of them are related to how well they embody the identity of the team they lead. It is useful to think of working on each quality in the order presented below; start by understanding the identity of your team and embodying it before moving on to changing structures or activities (see also Figure 1). Table 1 gives some real-life examples of how each quality might look in an Ultimate team.

1. One of the team

Effective leaders need to represent the values and beliefs of their group (3): for example, it is hard to see a coach who believed in cheating being respected by most Ultimate players.

The key is to know what your team’s identity is (4). You may have a good idea already, especially if you are not new to the team, but check in to be sure.


  • Role model the beliefs and values of the team
  • Always listen to the team, especially when experiencing success. If you lose touch with what is important to the players you lose them as a leader
  • Take time to understand the group and the people in it: just to chat, have conversations, ask for feedback, build relationships
  • Wear the team kit!

2. A champion

Effective leaders are proactive about championing their team: the things they say or do always present the team and what it stands for in a positive light1. They always put the team before themselves.


  • Make individual success about the team, e.g. if one of your players makes a GB squad or if one person gets a layout block, make that a success for everyone by announcing it to the team or on social media. Link success to your values: e.g. “Alex getting a layout block is a result of everyone working hard”, “Alex getting selected for GB shows our youth development is working” etc.
  • Conversely, don’t make success about you or reward yourself as a leader
  • Be fair and treat everyone as equally as possible. Getting the players to set standards of behaviour (e.g. attending gym sessions, turning up to training) at the beginning of the season helps you with this

3. A storyteller

Effective leaders craft a narrative about the team that they lead: who are we and where are we going? They highlight what makes their team different or special5; they identify the things that connect the group together to make everyone feel a sense of ‘us’.


  • Identify what is special about your team: are you fun, serious, in a specific location?
  • Set your goals and ambitions as a team based on your values
  • Outwardly display what binds you together in how you talk to the team, use social media, your website, your kit, your team’s name
  • Select leaders around you that represent the group and where you want it to go

4. A builder

Finally, effective leaders turn the values and beliefs of the team into reality (1). Make sure your language you use, the team’s schedule and its activities are in line with its identity (5) (see the article on ‘Fostering your team’s identity’).


  • Match what you do to your identity. For example, a mixed team whose identity is centred on gender equity would alter drills or tactics to involve their women more, alter the puller between genders, ensure equal representation in leadership roles, use gender neutral language, etc.

The table below contains examples of the four leadership qualities. The same quality, e.g. being one of the team, can look very different depending on the identity of the team.

Example team Newtown Newbies Oldtown Pros
Team identity
  • Only team in the area
  • Young (15–18-year-olds) mix of girls and boys
  • Inexperienced team, but keen to get better
  • Players like that Ultimate is different to other sports and they have fun playing together
  • Reigning National champions
  • Experienced team of all ages
  • Competitive, driven, plays to win
What would an effective leader look like here?
One of the team
  • Has fun at sessions, enjoys being around the group
  • Chat to players before and after sessions; knows what’s going on with everyone at school and home
  • Sends Ultimate highlights videos to the group
  • Chats to parents and asks for feedback
  • Works hard. Leaves no stone unturned
  • Always early for training, last one to leave
  • Takes training very seriously
  • Takes extra coaching courses in order to improve
  • Studies tape of opposition before tournaments
  • Talks about the team positively, never criticises the team or a player publicly
  • Asks players if anyone has good news at the beginning of training and everyone celebrates it together
  • Name checks players who have improved that session or been a fun and supportive teammate
  • Got the players to agree consequences of swearing or behaving badly at training at the beginning of the season
  • Talks about team goals, desire to be the best, the experience and ability in the team
  • Asks players what their personal work-ons or goals for each session are
  • Name checks players who have done extra fitness or who surpassed fitness goals
  • Got the players to agree consequences of being late for training or missing fitness sessions
  • Talks about how this is the only team in the area, how they have more fun and work harder than the local football club, how this club gets the local girls playing with the boys
  • Talks about the club as being on a journey: plans to enter tournaments, expand to add younger players, hopes some of the players will make the GBu24 squad next year
  • Planning to let the players pick a new team name and design a kit
  • Talks about how this is the best team in the country, how nobody trains at the intensity we do, how we have an opportunity to win on the international stage
  • Talks about the club being on a journey: to win Euros, qualify for Worlds, recruit the best players in the country, ensure as many players as possible play for GB
  • Sessions are at weekends and after school
  • Language focuses on development and growing, never gets upset at losing, always focuses on mastering skills
  • Always brings cake after training if it’s somebody’s birthday
  • Player-led pickup once a week, so they can socialise outside of training
  • Three sessions a week, regular whole weekend trainings
  • Entering team into international tournaments to face tougher opposition
  • Language focuses on achievement, hard work, intensity, domination
  • Brings energy drinks and protein bars to training
  • Holds team meetings once a month to discuss goals, improvements

Where to start

Figure 1 gives an overview of how to develop these leadership qualities. Start by taking the time to understand the identity of your team before representing its values and altering how it operates.

  1. Reflect on your team identity: watch and listen. Write down what you think the beliefs and values are then find time to speak to the players and ask their thoughts. Be ready to hear something different to what you thought!
  2. Represent: start changing what you say and do to match the identity of the group. Nothing is too small to change. After a few weeks reflect on what you think has worked and what hasn’t: have your teammates noticed a difference?

Fig. 1: How to start developing your leadership qualities


1. Haslam SA, Reicher SD, Platow MJ. The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence and power. Routledge; 2020.

2. Slater MJ, Coffee P, Barker JB, Haslam SA, Steffens NK. Shared social identity content is the basis for leaders’ mobilization of followers. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2019; 43:271-8.

3. Van Knippenberg B, Van Knippenberg D. Leader self-sacrifice and leadership effectiveness: the moderating role of leader prototypicality. Journal of applied psychology. 2005; 90(1):25.

4. Slater MJ, Coffee P, Barker JB, Evans AL. Promoting shared meanings in group memberships: A social identity approach to leadership in sport. Reflective Practice. 2014;15 (5):672-85.

5. Boen F, Vanbeselaere N, Pandelaere M, Schutters K, Rowe P. When your team is not really your team anymore: Identification with a merged basketball club. Journal of applied sport psychology. 2008; 20(2):165-83.


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