To Attract Younger Workers, the Best Way to Make it Special is to Make it Difficult – then Let Them Lead Themselves

by | Sep 24, 2021 | Uncategorized | 0 comments


As you might have heard, my next book, LET THEM LEAD: Unexpected Lessons in Leadership from America’s Worst High School Hockey Team, is launching this month. Already getting great reviews (linked below), including this line from the Boston Globe’s great Dan Shaughnessy: “It’s where Ted Lasso meets the Mighty Ducks.” I’ll take it.

You can order it at

And here’s some more news! The LET THEM LEAD PODCAST, about the risks and rewards of leading, is also launching this month. We talk to amazing leaders from just about every field you can think for their hard won wisdom. You can follow on Apple, Spotify, or Stitcher, all available from the link above.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program!


The complaints from managers today make it sound like a national epidemic: “This generation just doesn’t ‘get it’ – or I don’t get them. We have to cater to their every whim, including bean bag chairs!” 

Now many companies can’t get even get a warm body to fill their positions.  

I might agree with these complaints if I hadn’t had an experience that changed my opinion about the next generation forever. 

In 2000 the ice hockey team at my alma mater, the Ann Arbor Huron High School River Rats, did not win a single game. Worse, the guy they picked to coach, yours truly, had never been a head hockey coach before, and I’d never scored a goal as a player, either. 

A team with aero wins. A coach with zero goals. Not exactly a great combination.

What to do? My hockey mentor, Culver Academy’s Al Clark, told me: “You need to make it special to play for Huron. And the best way to make it special is to make it hard.”

This was the exact opposite of what everyone else told me. 

But Clark had a point. The Navy SEALS and the Peace Corps don’t offer fame or fortune, but a mission. The difficulty of those jobs attracts the right people, and they only take a fraction of those who apply.

Clark added: “If they had to do something hard just to make the team, they know that means they accomplished something. And once that culture is established, they will maintain it themselves.”  

So that’s what we did. At our very first summer work out, I told our players, “We are going to be the hardest working high school hockey team in the state. You will be the most important team in school history – the one that turns the program around. Our goal is nothing less than the state title. It won’t be this year, but the team that does it will give you a standing ovation at their banquet.” 

They thought I was crazy – but they kept coming. They were starved for a sense of purpose. How do I know? Not one player quit.   

I wasn’t trying to instill a dictatorship. That doesn’t work anymore. But I also wasn’t offering Casual Fridays and Taco Tuesdays. I was trying a third way: coaching. Set high expectations, then help themto run the team – and they did. 

They set our team goals, not me. They had a say on disciplinary issues, too, and one night they even coached an entire game by themselves – and won, 6-0. The more power I gave them, the better they got. 

We had only two rules: “Work Hard, and Support Your Teammates.”

These simple principles helped us define ourselves, instead of letting the world do it for us. What other people thought of us didn’t matter. 

Three years later the River Rats were 17-4-5, the best team in school history. Nationwide they had risen from dead last to the top 5 percent.  

These ideas work just as well when I’m teaching college students or working with corporations. If you think back to your favorite teachers, you understand why: they cared about you, and they pushed you – and that’s how they changed your life. If your company doesn’t care about your people the way your favorite teacher did, then your company will not get the results your favorite teacher did, either. 

Yes, I’ve heard today’s workers are lazy, sloppy, and selfish. But I’m here to tell you: they want more than a paycheck and a promotion. They want to be challenged. They want a sense of belonging. And they want to lead

If you give them those things, they will give you everything. 


Publisher’s Weekly 

Journalist Bacon (Overtime) delivers a heartfelt narrative about the leadership skills he learned when he returned to his alma mater to coach the lowest-ranked high school hockey team in Michigan… Interspersed are moving stories about the confidence, motivation, and humility the players gained. These valuable lessons will inspire readers regardless of whether they’ve ever picked up a hockey stick. 

Interview on the NHL TV Network with Stu Grimson, among other TV and radio appearances,

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Rare is the book that does two very different things well. But “Let Them Lead: Unexpected Lessons in Leadership from America’s Worst High School Hockey Team,” by John U. Bacon, accomplishes that feat winningly.

On the one hand, “Let Them Lead” shares a compelling sports story as Bacon returns to his high school alma mater to coach the boys hockey team. The team’s record the year prior to Bacon’s arrival? Zero wins, 22 losses and three ties. The new coach of the Ann Arbor Huron High School River Rats faces more than just repairing or rebuilding a team. Instead he must create an entirely new culture and vision for the hockey club with communitywide buy-in.

Interestingly, Bacon downplays the on-ice elements of the story in his opening “Author’s Note.” “This book isn’t about high school hockey any more than the movie ‘Rocky’ is about boxing,” he claims. While correct that extensive sports knowledge is hardly a prerequisite for finding his text engaging and potentially relevant, Bacon perhaps undersells the narrative that drives “Let Them Lead.”

Make no mistake that this is a great sports story. Bacon takes us inside the conditioning sessions, practices and games, sharing concise, relevant details that drive the plot and help readers know and easily differentiate a great number of players and coaches. In his introduction, Bacon credits those he worked with for enriching the text. He notes that when everyone was sent passages mentioning them for confirmation and corrections, their responses totaled 150 pages of additional stories and remembrances.

Unlike in a blockbuster Hollywood film, the River Rats do not go from “worst to first” in a single miraculous season. In fact, Bacon catalogs how the team celebrates other notable achievements on their way to impressive improvements during his 2000-2004 tenure. Guiding its work with two simple rules, work hard and support your teammates, the high school athletes come to recognize capabilities for leadership and personal improvement that many did not even know they had.

But while those tales prove at turns motivating, surprising, comic and moving, Bacon actually intends for “Let Them Lead” to be a book about “how to help [others] reach their potential.” He succeeds on that front, as well, by listing major ideas as bullet points at the start and close of each chapter and deftly reinforcing them through each story he details.

While Bacon frequently speaks at corporate events, his leadership tenets would work just as well in a school classroom as a business boardroom, a family’s backyard or a coach’s particular playing field. That only seems fitting given Bacon’s varied background in teaching, coaching, parenting and writing.

While none of Bacon’s philosophies seem particularly revolutionary, and he freely admits adapting many of his points from the work and ideas of others, they benefit from their clarity and adaptability. Bacon boils them down to three guiding principles: set high expectations right away, create “deep mutual trust” and help those working for you to eventually take over most, if not all, of what you do. Utilizing his experiences with the Huron hockey team, Bacon drills down on all those concepts and effectively illustrates the “how to’s” as well as the “whys.”

One especially profound way the two elements of “Let Them Lead” come together is in Bacon describing his part-time work with Insight Global, a $2.5 billion Atlanta-based staffing company. He is part of its Compass Division that shares ideas about leadership and culture with other businesses, a division created by one of Bacon’s former Huron hockey team captains, Stevie Wasik. “That’s right,” Bacon notes with more than a hint of pride. “I work for a guy I first met when he was just a 14-year-old kid who came up to my elbow — and nothing could make me happier.”

Plenty of adjectives describe “Let Them Lead” — practical, readable, lively, compelling, thought-provoking. Whether the story of the hockey program or the leadership principles proves the greater draw, both will stay with readers after finishing the book. This is a volume worth returning to for insight and inspiration.

John Young teaches seventh grade language arts and plays in the rock band The Optimists.

First Published September 9, 2021, 6:45am


Hey, Mighty Ducks. Meet the River Rats. 

It is not just a high-school hockey book, and it is not just a self-help book for aspiring bosses, teachers and coaches. Bacon works two timelines into one good story with ease. 

He’s quick to point out he played 86 high school games without scoring a goal. He found a greater reward as a coach, and that’s the heart of a must-read book for those who want to learn more about that pursuit. 

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