Starsia: Honesty, Truthfulness and Trust Form Foundation of Great Teams


I was out in Missouri recently, working with a notable high school program.

After a meeting with the team, an underclassman came up and asked me, “What is the single defining characteristic of outstanding individual leadership?”

He put me on the spot, but the word I chose that day, fearlessness, might still be my choice. It takes an exceptional person to be able to stand up to his teammates, define the unyielding requirements for success and, in the next moment, walk into the coach’s office on behalf of those same teammates.

The exercise leads me to consider the response if the young man had asked me the single determinant for exceptional team chemistry or performance. What is the distinguishing characteristic of those teams who have played closest to their potential?

All those teams had great leadership, but the formula for success — the “secret sauce” that created an environment for those leaders to influence their teammates — was honesty among all the participants.

The inverse is also true.  During seasons in which we may have struggled, a lack of trust among the team and the staff was often the culprit.

I find myself preoccupied with this topic as I consider the influence on young people of the deterioration of honesty in the public discourse.  Anyone who has raised a child knows that young children mimic what they see and hear. I am not asking Charles Barkley to raise my children, but all those in the public arena bear some responsibility to set a moral example.

It is of even greater concern to me in this historical moment that an impressionable young person may come to believe that a legitimate ascendancy to power can be obtained following an unprincipled pathway. What effect will this present environment have on our next generation of leaders?

The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Truth is contrary to our nature, not so error, and this for a very simple reason; truth demands that we should recognize ourselves as limited, error flatters us that, in one way or another, we are unlimited.”

Thomas Jefferson said, “Honesty is the first chapter in the Book of Wisdom.” Becoming a man or woman of value and wisdom can be an arduous journey, but it is built on truthfulness. Becoming a great lacrosse player (truthfulness to oneself), a great team leader (truthfulness to your peers) and part of a great organization (truthfulness to the environment) is worth the considerable sacrifices that may be required.

Truth is liberating, but it can also be unwieldy. Lying always requires more lying, “a liquid that oozes everywhere,” writes Michael Rosenberg. Any short-term benefit will make the long-term journey required of your personal legacy all the more difficult to navigate.

It all works together, and you will never be a true leader if you lie to teachers, academic coordinators, coaches, parents, peers or anyone else in your life.

I only began playing lacrosse as a freshman in college. One of the first players that made an impression on me was an unorthodox attackman from Freeport, N.Y.

Paul Wehrum played crease attack for SUNY Cortland in the early ’70s, when they were one of the top programs in all of college lacrosse. He played attack with a 6-foot stick and had a knack for grabbing those high feeds that made him nearly unstoppable.

Wehrum went on to win eight national championships as the coach at Herkimer Community College, is presently the coach at Union and was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1999. I heard Wehrum speak at the national coaches convention in 2003, and he said something so simply eloquent that never left me. He talked about the culture around his team and the rules they live by.

Or should I say rule, singular? Because they have just one.

Don’t lie.

Wehrum mentioned that they had some off-field issues and that he debated trying to cover all the possible infractions. In the end, the only thing that truly mattered to him was his relationship with the players, them taking responsibility for their lives and their ability to trust one another.

He finally told them that the only non-negotiable was, “Lie to me, and you’re off the team.”

Wehrum built a Hall of Fame career on that unconditional premise.

I am hopeful that we will emerge from this moment in our history stronger for the turmoil and reflection. Don’t let your judgment be clouded by murky visions of power and convenience. If your good name and your word come to mean something, you will be something.

Truthfulness is a zero-sum game, and if you are willing to live and play by that standard, you will find yourself a better student, friend, brother, sister or teammate — one of Albert Einstein’s “persons of value.”

Treat it as a New Year’s resolution if you like, but it is not too late to start, today. I suggest to any young players who aspire to greatness that alongside a commitment to the fundamentals of the game, a strong academic performance and a dedication to your overall athletic development, you remain mindful of Gandhi’s guideline to future goals: “Be truthful, gentle and fearless.”

I am not sure the Mahatma ever watched Hopkins-Maryland live at Homewood, but I can assure you that following his recommendation will improve your circumstance, on and off the lacrosse field.

Dom Starsia, a National Lacrosse Hall of Famer, is one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history and one of six head coaches for the inaugural season of the Premier Lacrosse League (@DomStarsiaPLL). He was a two-time All-American defenseman at Brown and played for the U.S. team in 1978.

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