As only the second American to captain one of Canada’s most treasured sports franchises, Brian Gionta should know a thing or two about leadership.
The Buffalo Sabres saw the quality in Gionta and, after trading for him last year, waited all of three months before installing the Rochester native as their team leader.
On Friday, the former Montreal Canadiens and current Sabres captain spoke to 150 high school student-athletes about the characteristics that make up great leaders.
“You need to make sure everyone has a role and that no one is more important than anyone else,” Gionta said at a leadership seminar at Erie Community College South in Orchard Park.
Sponsored by the FBI, the seminar brought together varsity captains from dozens of high schools in Erie County and exposed them to two world-class athletes regarded as role models and authority figures in their sports. Bruce Baumgartner, a former Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler, also spoke to the students.
Gionta, who is headed into his 14th NHL season, said he tries to lead by example – he’s not a rah-rah guy – and stay positive when mentoring younger players, of which the Sabres have a bundle.
“As an older guy, it’s on us to push them harder,” he told the crowd. “And as an older guy, you also have to go to them and say it’s OK to make a mistake, it’s OK to learn.”
Eager to play a role in the development of tomorrow’s leaders, Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo, organized the seminar around four qualities he associates with successful leadership – courage, character, competence and collaboration.
Boetig said he chose varsity sports captains because most of them have already exhibited some of those qualities and because many of them are likely to continue to be leaders in whatever they do in life.
Gionta focused on courage in a talk that ranged from the role of his father – whom he described as the greatest leader he ever knew – to how he leads a team that had finished in last place two years in a row.
“It’s very easy to be negative,” he said. “And if I’m bringing that to the team, I’m not helping them.”
Instead, he tries to stay positive, especially when working with younger players struggling with their transition to the NHL.
“It’s not about demeaning them,” he said of his teammates. “It’s about correcting them so it doesn’t happen again.”
The seminar also included Dr. Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, who spoke about character, and Vicki Mitchell, UB’s track and field coach, who spoke about collaboration.