The Leadership Code - Paul Kapsalis - ebook

The Leadership Code ebook

Paul Kapsalis



The conventional perception of a leader is someone who carries a certain status: captain, coach or manager of a sports team, or executive in a company. Those positions certainly place people in leadership roles, but anyone in any position in any organization can be a leader. The Leadership Code explores that unconventional notion of personal leadership and blends it with the conventional perception by telling the journey of Paul "Whitey" Kapsalis–who grew into leadership roles in sports, business, and other areas of life–and using his observations of the people he encountered on his path, the people he calls "exceptional everyday leaders." The authors' approach starts with philotimo–a Greek word that roughly translates to honor in doing the right thing, but encompasses a much broader philosophy akin to servant-leadership. It reflects a humility that values others above oneself. It also begins with a commitment to yourself and a decision to be a leader who cares more about those around you than individual acclaim; a leader with heart. In The Leadership Code, you'll read about the different places in life where leadership presents itself: in a family, in sports, in parenthood, in business, in friendship, and in your community. In each of those instances, the authors emphasize that it doesn't matter what place you occupy. What matters is how you occupy that place. Anyone can be a leader with heart.

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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

The Leadership Code

Maidenhead: Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2017

ISBN: 978-1-78255-448-6

All rights reserved, especially the right to copy and distribute, including the translation rights. No part of this work may be reproduced—including by photocopy, microfilm or any other means— processed, stored electronically, copied or distributed in any form whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher.

© 2017 by Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd.

Auckland, Beirut, Dubai, Hägendorf, Hong Kong, Indianapolis, Cairo, Cap Town, Manila, Maidenhead, New Delhi, Singapore, Sydney, Teheran, Vienna

Member of the World Sport Publishers’ Association (WSPA)

ISBN: 978-1-78255-448-6

E-Mail: [email protected]





Leadership in the Family


Leadership in Sports



Leadership as a Parent


Leadership in the Community


Leadership in Friendship




In the fall of 2015, I had the great fortune of reconnecting with my long-time friend, Paul “Whitey” Kapsalis, at my son’s high school soccer game in Indianapolis. While we were discussing our children, soccer, old times, and life in general, he encouraged me to read his book, To Chase a Dream.

I bought it and was so engrossed that I simply could not put it down. I read into the early hours of the morning to finish it. Both of my sons, Matthew and Michael, read the book and were mesmerized and positively affected by its imagery and messages.

Whitey’s next book, The Leadership Code, is a powerful, entertaining, and honest tale of his lifelong journey of leadership through his story and those of others. It is an inspiring collection of real-life examples of perseverance, resilience, belief, spirituality, commitment, reflection, and growth that Whitey distills into a rock-solid code—one he developed over the years and strives to live by.

At the core of Whitey’s belief is that anyone can be a successful leader in any occupation and at any stage or point of their lives. The examples and events he shares have helped him become masterful at helping others to believe, succeed, and, ultimately, lead.

Having spent many years in education as a teacher, coach, and administrator, the lessons learned from The Leadership Code most certainly align with my personal beliefs when it comes to leading people. Whitey’s story, grounded in the Greek word philotimo—pride in humility and placing others first—would empower anyone who reads it to embrace a leadership role wherever he or she is in life or simply inspire them to live more purpose-filled lives. I know this from experience. I’ve watched Whitey speak to hundreds of young people and adults at my school and have seen the impact of his words.

The Leadership Code is told in only the way that Whitey can tell it, which is transparent, engaging, forthright, and with great humility. Anyone who has worked hard and is interested in becoming an inspirational example of an everyday leader will be better for having read Whitey’s book. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

–John Bertram, Ed.S

Principal, Castle North Middle School


I’ve never counted them all, but I bet thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of books have been written about leadership. Many of those have included in-depth, academic studies and research, data, and analysis.

You won’t find much of that here.

In these pages, you’ll find what I gleaned from a lifetime of ups and downs on my journey to becoming a leader of sorts—and you’ll find similar observations from the stories of others I like to call exceptional everyday leaders. You may have heard of some; you’ve probably never heard of others. The common bond between them is they navigated their way to becoming leaders.

Like me, they grew into leaders through challenges and through trial and error; in other words, through getting their hands dirty. They, and I, saw examples in other people. Maybe they were fortunate enough to have mentors, as I was. Maybe they had to figure all of it out on their own. Whatever the individual situations and stories, we learned lessons and developed practices, approaches, and philosophies over time that worked, and we ditched those that didn’t.

The other common bond is that we have heart. We understand that leadership starts there and is inspired by genuinely caring for others.

I’m Greek American, and in my family we like to refer to a Greek word that has a lot to do with heart: philotimo. My mom displays it on a little plaque, along with a quote from Philippians 2:3-4, in her kitchen, one of my favorite places on earth. I’ll explain more about philotimo later.

For now, I’ll just say that philotimo roughly translates to honor in doing the right thing. I take that concept very, very seriously, as do the other people you’ll read about in this book.

The result is something like a mosaic that came together over the decades of my life and the lives of others who tell their stories in the pages that follow. From that mosaic I’ve created what I might call my leadership code—a general approach to life that mentors and inspires others.

Some of you picking up this book may think it’s irrelevant because you’re not in a leadership position, not in the conventional sense. Or maybe you think you’re too young to consider yourself a leader, or too old, or have been in a low-level career slot for decades.

But one of the fundamental messages I want to convey here is that you don’t have to be in a leadership position to be a leader. Leaders exist across all levels of our society and culture—not just CEOs or presidents or senior vice presidents or deans or superintendents or captains of your sports team or generals or other managers and administrators. Leaders can be sitting right next to you, maybe performing a role that wouldn’t generally be associated with leadership. Doesn’t matter where you are. You can still be a leader, and you can lead every day in small and large ways.

It actually begins much earlier than whatever exterior position you may attain in life. The onset of leadership begins with a commitment to yourself—a commitment to make good choices, to build healthy relationships, to be accountable to others, to care enough about what you are doing to make a positive impact and to leave a lasting and sustainable influence on the things you touch. To improve the culture.

You don’t have to be a general to do that.

It’s commonly known that in an airplane, if the oxygen masks drop down from the overhead compartment, the adults are instructed to put the masks on themselves, then place the masks on their children. The notion of making sure you’re healthy and safe before you can help others is the same for leadership. It means making the decision to take responsibility, and it takes grooming, some molding, some luck, and time. But first, you must be committed to leadership within yourself.

See, I believe a great leader is not chosen randomly. I believe a great leader chooses to lead and earns his or her way to that place over a period of time through respect for and from others. A great leader cares more about overall results than about individual success. A great leader leads from the heart with compassion, trust, and respect for those around him or her. A great leader is someone who left a place or situation better than the way he or she found it.

In the following pages, I’ll explore and explain some of the different places in life where leadership presents itself and how all of us can seize those chances to make the world a better place in small, medium, and large ways. I’ll do that by sharing my story and allowing others to share their stories.

You’ll read about leadership in a family, leadership in sports, leadership in fatherhood, leadership in your community, and leadership in friendship. In each of those instances, I’ll emphasize that it doesn’t matter what place you occupy. What matters is how you occupy that place.

And, I promise to keep it simple and practical. I don’t want this to be a massive tome that’s intimidating and overwhelming – one of those books you think you should and would read, but that you never will. Above all else, I’ve tried to make this accessible – something you could carry with you easily in a briefcase, backpack, carry-on bag, or whatever your preferred electronic device is.

No charts, graphs, data, diagrams, or dense scientific analysis that only management researchers or MBA candidates might find engaging. This is for everybody of all ages, even management researchers and MBA candidates.

These are real stories of people much like you, people with a lot of heart, who grew into leaders and absorbed lessons that I think you might find helpful wherever you are on your leadership journey and from whatever place you choose to lead.

In the end, I hope to accomplish my goals of giving you steps you can apply right now and giving you some things to ponder about why we lead the way we do. I hope you enjoy it.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the adventure getting here and will enjoy wherever the path may lead.

–Paul “Whitey” Kapsalis



Growing up, our family moved around quite a bit. My dad worked in the insurance industry, and every time he’d earn a promotion, we’d pack up and head to the next town. My parents started their family in Chicago. Then we moved to Rockford, Illinois; Collinsville, Illinois; Edina, Minnesota; Southfield, Michigan; and finally to Carmel, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. All those places by the time I was 15 years old.

It could be a little tough, moving that much, but one of the positive results was that my siblings—three brothers and one sister—and I became a pretty tight group. We’re fairly close in age, which probably made it a little easier. And, over time, we became leaders—something that I think happened without us really knowing it most of the time.

That’s because our parents, Andy and Becky Kapsalis, knew how to instill those qualities largely through the examples they set each and every day. All of us kids picked up on that and are eternally grateful for what they gave us.

As a parent, leadership obviously is crucial to the health, or illness, of a family. Whether they know it or not, parents are leaders. My parents, and probably every parent out there, understand that concept to some degree. What parents say—and more importantly what they do—creates the foundation and more for their children, who then will go into the world and make an impact on other lives.

I believe a misconception exists out there that parents, especially fathers, need to be almost like dictators to their children, telling them what they should do, how they should behave, what they should become, and how they should go about their journey.

I think parenting may be a lot simpler than that. More important than dictating is demonstrating genuine care and love, listening, supporting, being accessible and all-inclusive, and being present in the moment with your kids.

One of my favorite characteristics of those is listening, more specifically engaged listing. It’s a great tool in building togetherness. If you actively listen to your children, I bet you’ll find that they are pretty intuitive and aware when given the chance to talk.

The other misconception that I believe is out there is that many parents—again, especially fathers—feel they need to appear invincible to their children, that they never have doubts, fears, or struggles. While dads absolutely must try to be the rock within the family structure, I am a strong believer that this strength can be demonstrated in good times and in challenging times by being transparent with our children in small, appropriate doses. That can be a very powerful leadership and family-building tool. I will delve more into the magic of that characteristic in a later chapter.

I want to be clear here: I’m not saying parents should let kids do what they want. They need to lay down the law when they need to lay down the law. Children want and need boundaries, need to be corrected, need to understand what’s right and wrong, and need to appreciate that consequences exist for their actions. I simply believe that the less heavy-handed a parent can be—the more he or she looks for ways to be a guide rather than a dictator—the stronger the relationship with their children will be and the more likely those children will grow into healthy, purposeful adults who contribute to their community in uplifting ways. We need to help get them where they want to go, not necessarily where we think they should go.

In our family growing up, I think it started with the Greek word I mentioned in the introduction: philotimo, that honor in doing the right thing. But philotimo has a much broader definition that and, like a lot of words from foreign languages, doesn’t have an exact translation to English. It encompasses honor in self, honor in family, and honor in community. It’s not an ego-driven honor—although a certain level of quiet confidence is an integral part of it.

On a small board right next to the window in my parents’ kitchen is probably the most complete explanation of philotimo. Written on what looks like a chalkboard that school kids more than a century ago might have used, my mom placed right under the word an excerpt from Philippians 2: 3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”

I love that quote, and I think it gives maybe the richest English translation of philotimo.

The word conveys a strong sense of right, wrong, and unselfishness. If you wanted to distill philotimo to one word, I guess that might be “heart.”

That was the atmosphere we were raised in. And the physical “heart of the heart” was our kitchen table. In my family, so much happened around that kitchen table. It’s where we ate, where we talked, where we laughed, where we cried, and, most importantly, where we gathered and shared. I am so grateful for the kitchen table.

It is a bit of a lost art, but my wife and I still try to make the kitchen table in our house the center of all activity and communication among us. We don’t always get to eat and sit at the kitchen table as a family, but when we do we certainly maximize the opportunity. In fact, our kitchen table is my mom and dad’s old kitchen table, so the memories and stories continue to get passed on as a legacy of our family.

My parents always were accessible at their kitchen table, and while we shared so many terrific meals over the course of my lifetime at that table, the real benefit was the togetherness that we shared.

From our earliest years and through all our moves from city to city, we kids have memories of that kitchen table and of my parents doing a handful of things to foster that atmosphere of togetherness and sharing.

First, as I referred to earlier, they always looked to promote that concept of us as one tight unit, and we loved it because our parents genuinely enjoyed, even cherished, the notion of us all being together as one. They both come from very close, immigrant families—households that always had an open door and drew people to them, which I think strengthened the bond in their nuclear families.

That immigrant experience—one of the enduring components that makes our country so great—had another element for us. Our parents made us very aware of our roots and our grandparents’ journeys from the villages of Greece. As teenagers in the early 1900s, our Papous and Yiayias—grandfathers and grandmothers—summoned an enormous amount of courage, left remote regions of Greece where they’d barely heard about the United States of America, and traveled over the Atlantic Ocean “on the boat,” as they say. After they arrived, they connected with relatives or acquaintances, somehow carved out a life from virtually nothing, raised families, made it through the Great Depression, suffered their share of heartbreak, and laid a foundation for all of us to follow. They accomplished all that while barely being able to speak English.

It gets me choked up every time I think very long about their inner strength and commitment to make a better life—for themselves, yes, but most important, for their sons and daughters and grandchildren, all those who came after them. Talk about courage and sacrifice and philotimo.

All these decades later, their journeys remain a source of eternal appreciation and inspiration for me and my siblings to hunker down and move forward, to make our Papous and Yiayias proud of what they started, what they gave us. I guess I could call it philotimo forward.

My mom and dad understood how important that foundation was by making sure we spent as much time as possible with our grandparents. And, whether or not we could be with my grandparents, my folks shared stories about them with us.

Like the homes where my parents grew up—actually, they were tiny apartments on the north side of Chicago—our houses always had an open door. It was a place where all our friends and our parents’ friends liked to hang out. At the heart of all that was the seven of us: Andy, Becky, Pete, Danny, Paul, Deanne, and Dino—plus a few dogs along the way.

We often had great, big, loud parties filled with laughter and music and stories. At times, I’m sure it was overwhelming for some visitors, but they never forgot those gatherings and the atmosphere created, and most of them—the fun ones—always wanted to come back.

Another crucial thing my parents did to create that core strong family, which became one of the foundational tiles in the mosaic of leadership, revolved around our activities. All of us were graced with my parents’ athletic skills, and we loved sports. My dad and mom used sports to acclimate us to a new community quickly. It was a way for us to fit in and make friends fast. Our participation in sports and our capacities to hold our own against just about anybody gave us instant credibility with other kids. It also created in us a quiet confidence in new situations. We could be shy but not necessarily socially awkward in front of others, whether they were kids our age or adults.

Today, my parents will say that one of the things they stressed in raising us was giving us that inner, quiet confidence, and I think their conscious effort to do that through sports and in other ways worked, if you don’t mind me displaying some of that quiet confidence in saying that.

Another way our parents worked toward that was by placing a high priority on all of us supporting each other at our games or other activities. If one of us had a soccer or hockey game or a dance performance or a figure skating competition, all of us piled in the van and drove there to cheer. Our parents’ enthusiasm for doing that kind of thing was sincere and infectious. We caught on, never complained, and always looked forward to those outings.

And, they never compared one kid with another, nor did we do that with each other. If Pete had a hockey game and scored three goals, and I had a game a few hours later and got skunked, my parents wouldn’t note the difference. Instead, they celebrated Pete’s hat trick, which prompted us to celebrate it, too. And, you know what? It felt much better to celebrate Pete’s great performance than it did to wallow in my own pity.

We also had unspoken expectations. None of us really got to see my dad compete in baseball and basketball, two sports he excelled in. But in our houses the various trophies and awards he’d won over the years were displayed here and there. That was almost enough motivation for us kids, but both our parents supplemented that by encouraging us to be the best we could be. They made it clear that each of us could reach high achievements in whatever endeavor we were pursuing if we kept working hard and kept our enthusiasm levels high. The key concept here is encouragement.

All of us boys have done at least a little coaching—some of us a lot of coaching—and what we see too often is parents pushing, pushing, pushing their kids relentlessly in one direction. After a while, that pushing just causes many kids to implode, burn out, and hate an activity he or she started out loving.

We never had that. Our dad was a baseball and basketball guy growing up and through his twenties and thirties. Our mom was a cheerleader. We boys became primarily soccer players, but we also played quite a bit of hockey. Deanne was a dancer and ice skater.

They never pushed us to do those things that they were most familiar with and always encouraged us to do whatever it was we wanted, as long as we stayed active. My dad knew nothing about soccer. In fact, he used to make fun of soccer players when he was growing up. But, when he saw our interest start cooking, he realized what a wonderful team game it was and what valuable lessons it could teach about working together and discipline, among other things. He shifted gears and, right from the get-go, supported us 200 percent, as did my mom, who also knew next to nothing about the sport. In fact, in pretty short order they became true aficionados of the game. It’s an example not only of selflessness but also of allowing a kid to determine his or her own path—an early precursor to becoming a leader.

I had a pretty ideal childhood, but that doesn’t mean that we were always locking arms and singing Kumbayah while we strolled through our days and nights. As close and supportive as we are, we also can be very competitive with each other. We had our scuffles and scrapes. Imagine being Deanne, the one daughter tossed in with four spirited boys. We could be pretty rough on her. But, even in that competition, we created a sort of camaraderie among us kids.

If Danny and Pete, for example, got into an argument, our parents sometimes would let them fight it out, and most times, we turned out to be bluffing. My dad remembers more than a few occasions when Pete and Danny would start to tangle and my dad would say, “Okay, you know, I’d love to see a great fight. Let’s go out in the backyard so you don’t crack an elbow on the corner of the counter or break a chair.”

Pete and Danny suddenly would fall silent, look at each other, and say, “Well, we don’t really want to fight each other,” and the anger would just melt away.

My mom recalls the very first time she and my dad enlisted Pete to babysit for all of us. He was 11 years old, and my parents were only going across the street to a neighbor’s house for the evening.

“We were a nervous wreck. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re probably going to kill each other,’” my mom told me. “When we came home, there was a note and it read, ‘Mom, we broke a glass, and I had to pick it up.’ So, the next morning I was complimenting him, saying, ‘Gee, Pete, you did a good job.’ He says, ‘What do you think? We’re going to fight when you’re not around to break it up?’” My mom started laughing. “He’s eleven years old, and I thought, ‘Who’s the adult here?’”

Then, there were the times that we’d be playing in the backyard—I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of hours we played together in our backyards throughout the Midwest—and a fight actually would break out between us. Or we’d get into some other kind of trouble. My mom would come storming out of the house angry at us and ready to inflict her own punishment. The sight of her charging out the backdoor—sometimes armed with a hockey stick—would get us to stop immediately. Pete would sound the call for all of us to beat a hasty retreat. Faster than you could say “Pele,” we’d run out the backyard to the park or any other refuge safe from our mom’s wrath, laughing all the way, or at least most of the way, once the fear subsided. So, Pete demonstrated early leadership skills in that sense.

My parents also wouldn’t lie to us. If we had a bad game or performance or a poor grade in school, they wouldn’t confuse us by insisting we’d done well. They’d be silent, which was really the best approach because that let us process what had happened and not be judged. In that way and in many others, they let us be us, and each of us developed our own distinct personality, another tile at the base of the mosaic that led to a leadership code. But the common theme—the thing that our parents stressed and lived in their own lives—was our kindness and unconditional support for our siblings and for others.

Through all those experiences, we learned that in any of our roles we could be leaders, not in the conventional sense where we constantly were barking orders to the others. That would have created chaos. It was more like we had a shared set of values and perspectives so that, in any given set of circumstances, one or all of us could provide an example of leadership.

It started when we were squirts on the soccer field. One of the funnier pictures we have in our collection of thousands of family photos is of Danny and me surrounding little Dino—I think he was about four years old, maybe three feet tall—on the sidelines at halftime of his game. We’d pulled him aside and while the other kids on his team were enjoying snacks, Danny and I were talking intently to him, an eight-year-old and six-year-old giving coaching tips to their little brother. Poor Dino. The photo shows him staring into space, a lost, overwhelmed expression on his face.

Oh well, whatever we were telling him came from our hearts; pint-size philotimo on display.

It’s a little tricky, I’ll admit, to think of being a leader as a child in a family. What if, as in my case and in Danny’s, Deanne’s, and Dino’s cases, you have older siblings? How can it be possible to lead if you’re five years old and your older brother is 12? Heck, how can a 12-year-old be considered a leader?

Leadership as a child begins with the decision to be responsible to others within your family, regardless if you are an only child or if you come from a large family, and being a good son or daughter to your parents.

Most importantly you must be transparent. I’m the father of three, and let me tell you, the most difficult thing for me to gauge, and I believe it’s true for many parents, is how our children are feeling. By “feeling,” I don’t mean physically as much as I mean my children’s emotional and mental health. I want to know how they really are feeling. What their fears are. What their dreams are. What their possibilities and limitations are. Even who their friends are and what makes those friends special.

Being open and honest about all these scenarios within your family can be extremely tough and uncomfortable as a kid. But it is crucial. It builds a trust and bond that will last a lifetime. It builds a strong relationship in that family and in that home, and that strength builds confidence and leadership qualities outside the home. While growing up in my family, I learned that nothing is more powerful than the unyielding support from that family.

As a parent, it’s important to show your children that it is their responsibility, and a great opportunity, to build that trusted relationship by sharing their feelings, by not being afraid to show their emotions, by trusting that those around them can help them get to where they ultimately want to be, and, by being engaged with others in their own fears and struggles and triumphs. The child’s genuine interest in the well-being and support of his or her parents and siblings is as important as sharing his or her own feelings. It’s a healthy exchange that creates that strong relationship I’m talking about here. Showing their parents and siblings that they care is a great form of leadership and will allow them to be a resource to all family members for life. By the way, parents have their own responsibilities when it comes to sharing. We’ll get into that later.

That lifelong bond begins with a choice to be a leader wherever you fall in the family lineup—oldest to youngest. I’m smack dab in the middle of my siblings, third oldest of five. At some point, I guess I must have made a conscious choice to be a leader of my emotions, a leader of my contributions, a leader of my love and commitment to the group, above and beyond my own individual goals and objectives. I’m so glad that I did and that my brothers and sister did, that we followed the lead of our parents. When this type of leadership exists in the home, it translates outward into everyday life. It’s no coincidence that each of us were captains of our respective teams growing up, as far back as I can recall, and I remember the sense of responsibility and privilege of wearing the “C” on the jersey. I like to think we lead as captains of our teams in the same way that we lead within the walls of our home.

And, while I’m at it, let me point out that the examples my parents set went beyond our immediate family. Wherever we landed on our moves throughout the Midwest, my parents almost immediately assessed the situation in the community, went out, got involved, and initiated changes that made our corner of the universe—and often conditions beyond our corner—better places. Many times they faced fairly strong opposition to what they wanted to do.