the shape of leadership

Always Say ‘Thank You’

What I learned from an NCAA Division 1 football coach

Dillon Wilson on May 13, 2019

I will never forget the moment I received my first letter from Hall of Fame Coach Bill Snyder. I found it early one morning when I arrived at my locker. Opening it, I recognized the purple ink from the pen my coach held in his hand every day at practice. This was not a generic letter. It was to me, on purpose, and from a man for whom I had the utmost respect.

I played football for the Kansas State University Wildcats from 2011–16. During that time, we played in five consecutive bowl games and won a Big 12 championship. The victories were exhilarating, the bowl rings flashy, and the friendships strong, but what I most remember are the 4-by-8 letters I received in my locker. These letters inspired me in a way nothing else could. Here is why:

Coach Snyder’s words held weight. The words in purple ink were special to me, because they came from someone I highly esteemed. When a leader has gained respect, the words that leader speaks are weighty. They penetrate just a little deeper into one’s heart. Coach Snyder’s words were all of those things to me.

Coach Snyder’s time was intentional. I knew how busy Coach Snyder was, and every time I received a letter from him (whether it was a two-word “Happy Birthday” or a longer letter addressing a monumental moment), I thought, Amidst all of his responsibilities, Coach sees me. He knows what’s happening in my life, and acknowledges me as someone worth taking time for.

Don’t just lead your team; personally invest in your team members.

Coach Snyder valued people over performance. There was no person too small or too insignificant for Coach. I was a backup kicker for five years, playing only twice my entire career. Coach still made time for me. He didn’t write because of my ability to perform, but simply because he wanted to acknowledge the personal wins in my own life, as Dillon.

You may be wondering how to integrate this practice into your life and ministry. A good place to start is with the church staff and volunteers you lead. Consider the impression your intentional words of encouragement could make.

I began implementing this practice in ministry by writing a letter a week. Over time, I created a system that allows me to do more. In my calendar, I now have a 25-minute spot blocked off three days a week for this purpose. I created a list of people I write to regularly, and another list of those I write to on occasion. Instead of writing a generic thank you note, I look for something specific and positive I can call out.

Whether you write a note or find some other way to let those you lead know you value them, develop a habit of making time for relationships. Don’t just lead your team; personally invest in your team members. Small, heartfelt gestures — like handwritten letters in purple ink — can make all the difference.

Coach, thank you. Your purple ink is imprinted on my life. And I am still feeling the ripple effects of your influence.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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