Unexpected Lessons in Leadership from America’s Worst High School Hockey Team
John U. Bacon
New York Times Bestselling Author
An uplifting leadership book about a coach who helped transform the nation’s worst high school hockey team into one of the best. Bacon’s strategy is straightforward: set high expectations, make them accountable to each other, and inspire them all to lead their team.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt • Available September 7, 2021
When John U. Bacon played for the Ann Arbor Huron High School River Rats, he never scored a goal. Yet somehow, years later he found himself leading his alma mater’s downtrodden program. How bad? The team hadn’t won a game in over a year, making them the nation’s worst squad—a fact they celebrated. With almost everyone expecting more failure, Bacon made it special to play for Huron by making it hard, which inspired the players to excel. Then he defied conventional wisdom again by putting the players in charge of team discipline, goal setting, and even decision-making – and it worked. In just three seasons the River Rats bypassed 95% of the nation’s teams.
A true story filled with unforgettable characters, stories, and lessons that apply to organizations everywhere, Let Them Lead includes the leader’s mistakes and the reactions of the players, who have since achieved great success as leaders themselves. Let Them Lead is a fast-paced, feel-good book that leaders of all kinds can embrace to motivate their teams to work harder, work together, and take responsibility for their own success.
WATCH THE TEDx TALK
A few years ago I gave a TEDx talk on leading my old high school hockey team from worst to first — but it’s really about leading today’s employees. When my editor saw this, he told me I had to turn this into a book — and we did: LET THEM LEAD.
What the Experts Are Saying
“How do you take the country’s worst hockey team and turn it into one of the best? John Bacon knows the answer, because he made it happen. This book is brimming with brilliant, concrete and actionable insights on leadership — like the importance of less theory and more practice, what we get wrong about motivational speeches, and why you should be strict on a few rules and loose on the others.
“But the best part is that Bacon’s a born storyteller. Some of his stories will inspire you, others will tug at your heartstrings. Some will do both – like the tale of the third string, quiet goalie who led his team to a championship season. But all of these stories will keep you turning the pages. This is the leadership book you’ve been looking for.”
Author of the New York Times Bestseller, Quiet
“The pandemic taught us what it’s like to be isolated, and the world has polarized around so many issues, our belief in the potential of younger folks to work hard and support each other has never been more important. John’s great stories show us why we need to work together to be successful. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and you will too.”
Retired President CEO, Ford Motor Company
“’My way or the highway’ simply doesn’t work anymore, especially with younger, intellectually curious men and women. So what does? Bacon knows: start with high expectations, make them accountable to each other, and before you know it, they’re leading the team. That’s how everybody wins – and that’s how they learn life’s valuable lessons, too. John Bacon and his crew delivered and LET THEM LEAD will deliver for you, too.”
D. Michael Abrashoff
Author of the New York Times Bestseller It’s Your Ship
“To lead your team through change, you need the best talent in the world. And the best people want to work for a company that stands for something. In one of the most inspiring turnaround stories I’ve ever read, John Bacon outlines thoughtful, relatable, and actionable insights that any leader can deploy with winning results.”
Chairman and CEO, Medtronic
“Once in a great while you run into a teacher who sends new lessons to you fast and furious — lessons worth learning. John U. Bacon is one of those teachers. He took over a team that hadn’t won a single game the season before, and lost the four best players to graduation. With the same players, angry parents, and doubtful administrators, John was able to turn this program around by drawing on the power hiding inside all the players on that team.
“Every leader who has thought ‘Why can’t I find good people?’ will benefit from this book. He is a masterful storyteller, but this isn’t a sports story. This is a life story — personal, dramatic, impactful – that will set you on a leadership journey that you will absolutely love. Buy it, read it, live it and change your world for the better.”
CEO Menlo Innovations, author, Chief Joy Officer
“John Bacon’s players are young, impressionable, and looking for direction. He takes them from nowhere to somewhere by allowing them to think for themselves, by giving them purpose, and instilling basic values like hard work and loyalty to each other. John listens, learns, thinks, then acts–the sign of good management! He stresses the team over the individual, and character over personal pride — the traits to success in a sport he loves, but also in business. But the real hero is Coach Lapper. You’ll see.”
Hall of Fame defenseman
“Trust. It’s all about Trust. John Bacon cuts right to the heart of what is great leadership. It’s not easy, but as Bacon illustrates, leading with trust is a beautiful thing. It can involve simple rules like Bacon’s ‘Work hard and support your teammates,’ but you’ll have to resist the urge to pile on more. You’ll need to bet on your people, so you better get to know them, and trust that your ‘grinders’ will become captains someday. They make the best leaders. Trust your gut in picking your leaders based on their ability to lead, rather on their ability to do their current job.
“This book is dripping with lessons in leadership and I can’t wait to have our entire organization read it, study it, and develop the courage to lead with trust. Thanks for showing us how, Coach.”
“Let Them Lead is the best leadership I have ever read, by far, because it’s so real! John Bacon’s story is inspirational, even to a coaching veteran like me. In today’s world, all teams and organizations need structure, boundaries, standards, and accountability! He demonstrates how you can get the best out of your people, but more importantly how they can get the best out of themselves! Truly inspiring. Got me all fired up to lead my team!”
NCAA champion softball coach, University of Michigan
“If you get half as much out of John U. Bacon’s beautiful new book as I did, by the time you’re done reading you’ll likely have a very long list of practical tools and techniques to adapt to your workplace. From his concept of ‘layers of leadership’ to letting the players coach an entire game to the unforgettable epilogue, Let Them Lead is loaded with hands-on techniques, out of the box approaches, elegantly simple yet exceptionally powerful tips and tools that will help any leader make a more positive difference in their work – all interspersed with the quick, insightful bits of wit that John is so exceptionally adept at.
“If we can do half as well implementing his ideas as he did, we will create the same kind of winning culture that will net us better bottom line results in the process. The story of how the River Rats went from worst to first is an inspiration to all of us! I can’t wait for the film!”
Author and CEO, Zingerman’s Community of Businesses
“John U. Bacon examines leadership in hockey, not through the familiar prism of Jean Béliveau or Mark Messier but through the worst high school hockey team in the country. He performs a service, not merely by coaching the River Rats to respectability but by offering hands-on lessons about effective leadership beyond the rink. Let Them Lead is a testament to shared values and shared expectations.”
Senior writer, Sports Illustrated
“Do we need ‘one more leadership book’? This book answers that question. We need Let Them Lead. My neck is sore from nodding. I think I really do agree with every word. Leadership that counts ain’t about plans and strategies. It is about helping others grow and exceed their wildest dreams—and John Bacon is the leader of that parade. One final thing, I wish to heck John B. had been my high school lacrosse coach!”
Co-author of the bestseller, In Search of Excellence
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