When U.S. men’s rugby sevens coach Mike Friday named Madison Hughes captain of the squad in 2014, he was the team’s youngest player.
“I definitely questioned it,” Hughes said. “I dreamed of captaining the USA sevens team, but I never imagined it would happen so fast.”
Zack Test pulled Hughes, now 23, aside after the announcement and quickly erased all of Hughes’ concerns. Test, who is three years older, put his arm around Hughes and reminded him that he had already earned the respect of his teammates with his work ethic both on and off the pitch.
“I realized if you are able to set a high standard and continuously perform at that level,” Hughes said, “people will respect that and forget about your age.”
Hughes is now the unquestioned leader of the team. He helped the team accomplish several major milestones, including winning a World Rugby Sevens World Series tournament for the first time, beating New Zealand for the first time and qualifying for the Olympics.
“There’s nothing that you cannot like about Madison,” said his teammate, Carlin Isles. “So for him to be our captain and lead our team to battle day in and day out, we couldn’t have anybody better.”
Hughes revealed several leadership lessons to NBCOlympics.com.
When Hughes was just 6 years old, he was named the captain of his youth soccer team.
Several of his teammates had never played the sport before. Even at such a young age, Hughes would patiently teach his teammates the nuances of the sport.
“We were just 6 years old, so it was not exactly competing on the world stage like I’m doing now,” Hughes said. “But it was still about bringing the team together and molding our different aspects.”
Learn from other leaders
As a history major at Dartmouth College, Hughes studied countless leaders, including Napoleon Bonaparte.
“While he had massive negative aspects, his drive and ability to propel his army and get courage from them was absolutely amazing,” Hughes said.
Hughes also enjoys reading leadership books. As an avid Boston Celtics fan, Hughes read Bill Russell’s “Second Wind.”
“[Russell] was not about having the team put him in the best situation,” Hughes said. “He was about putting the team in the best situation.”
Lead by example
Hughes prides himself on watching hours of extra rugby footage.
“It would be a bit embarrassing to be the captain who shows up to the meeting without having watched the film,” he said.
He also pushes himself to always work hard during conditioning and weight training sessions.
“I know people are watching me,” he said. “I try to keep it at a level where I can challenge guys and say, ‘Hey, this is where I’m going to be. Are you going to come with me?’”
Hughes said that the biggest mistake a leader can make is to deviate from his or her true self.
He describes himself as more of a quiet leader. He is therefore more likely to pull a teammate aside after practice, rather than shouting at him on the pitch.
“If you’re not genuine, your teammates will sense that,” Hughes said. “It will give all the words you are saying and everything you are trying to instill in the team a bit of a hallow meaning.”