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Leadership in Athletics

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Next week I travel to New York City for the presentation of this year's Campbell Trophy, of which I was honored to be the first recipient in 1990. I was privileged to serve on the National Football Foundation's Awards Committee, which selects the winner of the Campbell Trophy.

What makes the Campbell Trophy noteworthy is that it celebrates not just achievement on the football field but in the classroom as well, recognizing character and integrity. Intercollegiate athletics must uphold these virtues, and that's why I am proud to have recently joined the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and, as of January 2017, the NCAA Honors Committee. In October, I joined scores of other university presidents and athletics conference commissioners in signing the NCAA Presidential Pledge and Commitment to Promoting Diversity and Gender Equity in Intercollegiate Athletics.

Over the summer I was interviewed by David Paitson, associate athletics director for external operations at Sam Houston State University, as part of David’s doctoral dissertation research. The interview focused on the traits that make for an effective athletics director, the most important of which, as you’ll note, is integrity. David grasciously allowed me to share the Q & A with you:

What are the leadership traits and behaviors of an effective Athletic Director?

First off, integrity. There can be some very rocky phases and temptations in intercollegiate athletics. The person must have a high degree of integrity to get this role right. A good manager. Leadership and management walk side-by-side and to be effective you need a strong managerial acumen. Flexibility, the AD works in a flexible space that changes all of the time. Good communicators. Athletic Directors have to deal with so many constituencies and issues be it fundraising, policy, student-athletes, faculty, etc. The AD has to have the ability to communicate effectively with those constituencies. Strategic thinkers. Good strategic thinking is an important leadership quality.

In what ways does an Athletic Director demonstrate leadership behaviors that are consistent with integrity?

In how they interact with others. It is the ability to say what they mean and mean what they say, even when the consequences are not favorable. If they are talking with prospective student-athletes, or parents, or coaches they cannot present that everything is a #1 priority. When speaking to the University President they cannot promise there will be no violations or issues. It is not realistic. Transparency is important. They need to be careful not to over promise and the under deliver. If they authorize the coach to make a decision and that decision does not work out, then an AD with integrity will take some responsibility (for the failure). The AD needs to be a motivator and at the same time hold people to account. The AD has to put points on the board (with successful performances). In Higher Education measurements at times are not all that well defined, but in the Athletic Director role it is.

How does an Athletic Director demonstrate being flexible?

It is interesting because I may have a different point of view than others. It is similar to understanding the military commander’s intent. If the directive is that we want football to be more competitive in the next 3-5 years and we are focused on a turnaround, that first we need to raise the revenues to build a stadium and next to build a new weight room, or analyzing a move to another conference. You may find there currently is no appetite for a new stadium, so you focus on the weight room. Also, your program might be dealing with an NCAA rule change on social media and recruiting. You are flexible and don’t look at is as a problem, it is okay, you make adjustments and move on. In each case, you need to always know what the long term goal is and know that along the way you may need to change your path in the maze to get there. Some (AD’s/administrators) can’t do it. I call it focused flexibility. They (AD) always know where they are going. The University of Houston, under Mack Rhoades, did a good job of getting the right coaches in place to start a track record of success. There has to be a lot of nimbleness, but understand that you are still working towards the long term goal. It is the same end game. It’s the deeper part of what we are trying to achieve. Steven Covey said you begin with the end in mind. I believe that.

What specifically makes a good manager in an AD?

In Division I you need to have a manager’s acumen. The day-to-day responsibilities of the AD include everything from real estate broker to sales and marketing, legal, to facilities management. Thus, the AD needs to know how to read a balance sheet, know how debt works, and build a budget. We are working on a new $50 million arena/practice facility. Working on the corporate partnerships is a big deal. The Athletic Direct does not just set the vision, but executes the X’s and O’s of the job, including hiring and firing the right people, working through a construction punch list, etc. Leadership and vision are associated if you are doing things the right way.

How does the Athletic Director effectively communicate?

They need to communicate effectively both via written and spoken media . As President, I don’t have all day, so I would expect the Athletic Director to draw me to the things that are most important. They need to be effective and efficient in their conversations with student-athletes, coaches, parents, donors/alumni, etc. You don’t have to be the greatest public speaker in the world, but you have to be pretty good. They communicate with all kinds of audiences – student-athletes, coaches, community leaders, etc. They “Code switch” as a matter of necessity.

What do you mean by needing to set good strategies?

It’s about having the ability to create a shared understanding of where the organization wants to go over a given time period. If all you are doing is putting out fires, then all you are going to get is hot feet. It is up to the Athletic Director to motivate and encourage people to go the extra mile and participate in that shared vision. Standing still is equivalent to moving backwards.

How important is it that the AD keep a professional distance from his or her staff, coaches, etc. in order to maintain authority over them?

I am big on that. I am a little biased having been in the military for 21 years. To be more inclined on maintaining professional space. It is okay to be social, but in your mind and soul you need to know that you may have to fire this person. I am perhaps not as social outside of official university events with my senior staff, but I think it is okay for some (leaders) to have a beer or a meal (with people they supervise). It is up to you. You just have to recognize that it is okay to be friendly and love them (your staff), but not in the same way as you would with one of your friends in high school. It is made more complex when you have family ties (inside of your organization). If there are relatives or someone’s son is on the staff. In one example (in a previous role) there was a husband and wife team on staff.

Should the AD employ a collaborative process when it comes to making decisions on behalf of the department?

Yes, when possible. Always go with getting people’s buy-in. You make a better decision if your trusted allies are advising you. Still, the AD is accountable for the decision. However, there are other times you have to do what you have to do. Best not to be a dictator, but rather a collaborator.

Should an AD enthusiastically and visibly applaud staff members, coaches, etc. in front of their peers to recognize a job well done?

Yes, it is very important to give praise. It is a human nature thing. It is part of a deep human need for indemnification. But, you don’t have to hand it out like it is free cotton candy. On the other hand, do not admonish publicly. Instead, praise publicly and admonish privately. But, when giving someone the authority to make a decision you have in essence co-signed on the decision. If things don’t go well you need to take the wrap. It is all part of some kind of continuum. That’s on you. An AD with integrity doesn’t blame a staff member or say anything bad about others when reporting an issue to the President.

How much should the AD consider historical performance, level of resources, time factors, personnel, etc. when setting goals and objectives of the department or for individual team members?

You have to look at the body of work. Two things are important. First, you want to be building the program. Hopefully your AD is not a one hit wonder. Goals build on each other. For some you are only as good as last year. You put goodwill on the balance sheet. That should come into play. It applies the same with an AD to a coach. Yes, strive to build programs, not just to have successful seasons. Coaches earn goodwill with their past successful performances.

Should an Athletic Director be open to assisting staff members, coaches, etc. with personal or professional issues outside of the work environment, and if so, to what degree?

Yes, you have to be able to help. It’s 2016 and at times everything is a blur. Coaches time is spent constantly recruiting on the road and that can lead to stress on the marriage. Shutting off your staff is fool hardy. That being said, you have to maintain that professional line. Might have to draw a line. If you see immoral behavior you have a responsibility to speak up.

What leadership role, if any, should the AD play in the training and development of his or her staff?

The AD should play a huge role. In my opinion, you have to develop your senior leadership. Human capital is the most important thing you have to build. In the military captains develop lieutenants. At General Electric, VPs develop Assistant VPs. There is technical training meant for sharpening skills. Then there is training to encourage growth to expand a leader’s capacity.

Are there any leadership behaviors needed for the AD position that you would like to add?

Discipline – not necessarily time discipline, but discipline of process and fairness. You want your AD to be flexible, but also be disciplined enough to go through a process. Discipline to work with the budget and review numbers. Disciplined enough to make sure paperwork is submitted on time. Another way to say it is attention to detail.