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Craig Wood Blog: Leadership lessons from a cheerleader

Leadership Lessons from a Cheerleader

“Hi, my name is Craig…and I’m a former cheerleader.”


I must admit, that’s how it feels when I mention my cheerleading past – like a confession in front of an accountability group.


That’s probably because of the perception of the sport – the polyester uniforms, the choreographed dance routines and the insistence that cheerleading is not really a sport.


The reality couldn’t be further from that perception.


On the personal front, my four years of cheerleading at the University of Virginia (go Wahoos!) offered a lifetime of memories and stories. I was the four-year letter winner, three-year captain of a varsity sport at an ACC school, was provided all the benefits of a Division I athlete (weightlifting, athletic dining, tutoring – everything but a scholarship) and had a front row seat to some of the biggest basketball and football victories in school history. Not bad for a kid from Kansas.


But beyond the personal experiences, upon reflection, I realize that what I learned from cheerleading has shaped who I am as a leader in ways that I would have never imagined.


Let me share three of those leadership lessons:


1. Leadership requires communication.

Cheerleading taught me how to communicate – not just in leading cheers, but also as a representative of the university as I traveled throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia promoting UVA sports. I spoke to donors, business leaders, coaches, fans and even haters – and I had to learn to adapt my message and style to each audience. My message had to be clear, concise and compelling.


I also learned to speak in front of large groups, including emceeing 10-minute pre-game festivities in front of 45,000+ fans. Any lingering fears of public speaking were quickly washed away. Early in my business career, the sales pitch to a group of industry executives wasn’t nearly as intimidating.


2. Optimism matters.

Leadership requires authenticity and transparency – and it also requires optimism. One must see light where others see darkness; potential where others see constraints. I learned early in my cheerleading career that I had to lead with positivity, despite what the scoreboard said.


That optimism must be grounded in reality, for sure. But there’s possibility in every situation, challenge and game – and positive thinking helps you get there.


3. Everyone has a role – each equally important to the end goal.

Our cheerleading squad would practice every day for three hours, honing our routines and perfecting our stunts. Most importantly, we had to work together on our intricate mid-court human structures. Every single member of the team had a place and an important role – and one weak link would cause the whole structure to crash.


That fact was never more evident than on March 25, 1989 – when yours truly dropped my partner at mid-court in front of 23,000+ fans at Rupp Arena for the Elite Eight matchup between UVA and Michigan. Our entire pyramid crumpled to the ground because I did not play my role. A tough lesson in cheerleading…and in leadership.


Now, there’s never been a direct correlation ever established between my epic failure and UVA’s demoralizing 102-65 loss to the eventual national champions that night. Although, I hear rumors that folks are still trying to blame it on me!


Apparently, I am not the only one who saw cheerleading as a leadership training ground. Four former presidents have donned the polyester and megaphones as former college cheerleaders:


  • George W. Bush (Yale)
  • Ronald Reagan (Eureka College)
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower (West Point)
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Harvard)


Not to mention other political leaders like Mitt Romney, Kay Hutchinson, Trent Lott and even Ruth Bader Ginsburg in high school. Pretty good company – although my opportunity for a life in politics ended shortly after my failed attempt to win the Student Council Presidency at Dorothy Moody Elementary School in sixth grade.


So when you sit down to watch a college football game this fall, and notice the cheerleaders on the sidelines, remember – you just might be seeing the future leaders of tomorrow.


Go Team!