Taking a Timeout

Athletic Management, 16.2, February/March 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1602/leadership.htm

Today's athletic director must be an efficient manager and an effective leader. The trick is doing both at the same time.

By Dr. Elizabeth Alden
Elizabeth "Betsy" Alden, PhD, is President of Alden & Associates, Inc., and a former athletic administrator and president of NACWAA. She can be reached through her Web site at betsy@aldenandassoc.com.

As we enter the last season of the school year, the question begs an answer: What have you accomplished in your athletics program this year? The response to this important question depends on two areas--your management skills and your leadership skills.

An athletic director is generally expected to oversee all aspects of the department from a management perspective while also being a leader to the coaches and student-athletes. But how many times, at the end of the day, do you wonder whether you actually provided leadership to your program? Most athletic administrators become so entrenched in the management-related tasks of their job that they are left struggling to find the time and tools to analyze whether they're also being effective as leaders.

In this article, I want to answer these questions: What are the differences between management and leadership? How does one find time to be a leader? What qualities are most important for a leader in an athletics setting?


The management side of directing an athletic program is like observing one's responsibilities through a microscope, while the leadership side is more like looking through a wide-angle lens. Management is micro, short-term, and smaller-scale. Leadership, on the other hand, involves more macro, long-term, and larger-scale thinking. And to be an effective athletic director, you need to do both.

What makes an athletic director an effective manager? It's the ability to systematically handle a multitude of responsibilities and tasks, efficiently and with expertise. It is being able to ensure the bus arrives on time to pick up the baseball team, the hazard on the lacrosse field gets fixed, the softball coach gets an important message from the conference office, and the track and field coach has help setting up for her meet--all in one afternoon. With the volume of detail-driven work facing athletic directors on a daily basis, good management skills are necessary so that the activities of the department can be executed in a cogent, coordinated fashion.

Leadership is not as easy to define. It can be summed up as the ability to lead others toward a common goal--to understand people, build their loyalty, and nurture their abilities. But its underlying components are more complicated. Often it is much easier to focus on managing rather than leading because managing seems to encompass concrete projects, daily interactions, and general administrative job tasks.

Leadership, of course, means different things in different settings, so let's look at the concept as it applies to intercollegiate and interscholastic athletics. Ultimately, our job is to serve the student-athletes from an ethical and educational perspective, with integrity and passion--we are to be role models with a clear and honest vision for our programs. Those words might seem unrealistically high-minded, yet that is exactly what is expected of a leader.

In fact, departing from those objectives is the best way to drop the ball as a leader. For example, if we take personal liberties with the use of facilities, such as using the swimming pool after hours when it has been made clear that this is not allowed for others, our leadership is questioned. Although it might seem insignificant to some people, others will feel you only "talk the talk," but don't "walk the walk."

Consider the less obvious examples, too. If you ask your student-athletes to form a leadership council to give you advice, but you never use their advice, what educational message are you sending? If you talk about promoting your women's sports better but never provide money or resources to make this happen, how will your staff know when to trust you?

Another part of being a successful leader in athletics is being competent. Coaches want a leader who follows through on what he or she says he or she will do. They want a leader who can set up systems that work. They want a leader who can get things done. They want the schedule to be set, the officials paid, and someone who can answer any questions they have--which brings us back to the management side of the job.

Ultimately, leadership and management are constantly intertwined. The best leadership strategy is useless without follow-through on the management side. A poor management strategy can hurt your ability to lead.

As an example, let's look at athletic team transportation. The managerial tasks are to reserve, contract, deliver, and pay for the transportation that will get teams to away contests. It also entails making sure that the policies which have been established for team travel are followed. At first glance, no leadership skills seem to be needed.

However, an athletic director who is a leader pauses when making sure all policies are followed. He or she keeps up on the trends in transportation and safety and considers whether the usual policies might need some alterations. Considering the institution's climate, current trends in liability, and the coaches' requests, the athletic director might recognize the need to re-examine a certain policy. He or she might look at safety issues involved with using 15-passenger vans, or re-evaluate the number of hours a coach should drive without a break. If the athletic director feels changes are needed, he or she creates options and presents them to an upper level administrator, complete with supporting documentation and recommendations.

The difference between these two sets of tasks is that the management duties need little judgment or subjective reasoning, while the leadership tasks depend in large part on judgments. The athletic director must rely on his or her understanding and interpretation of factors that are hard to measure, such as institutional climate. Then he or she must present or withhold various options based on that understanding.

There are differences, but also interactions, between management and leadership, and a good athletic director needs to be able to flex between the two roles at a moment's notice. He or she must manage the tasks, while noticing when to put on the leadership hat.


Okay, be honest with yourself for a minute. Are you ready to be a leader? Do you have a good grasp of the management principles and tasks needed to effectively operate an athletic department? Do you want to be a leader? Are you comfortable with responsibility, or does it make you nervous? These are big questions that need honest answers.

I can hear many of you answering, "Yes, I'm ready, but how do I find the time to lead, when I'm so bogged down with the management stuff?" That's either a really good question, or an excuse, depending on your situation. If you are truly inundated with signing papers, ordering supplies, and putting out little detail fires, you may have to work especially hard to find those leadership moments. The good news is that they are not all that hard to fit in.

In athletic administration, leadership does not have to be about those big "sermon on the mount" visionary speeches in front of large audiences. Rather, you can lead by your style of management, inclusiveness, and teamwork. Great leadership can occur during meetings with your staff, while talking with student-athletes, and by modeling the kinds of behavior and values that are part of your overall vision for your program. Leadership by example is one of the most effective leadership styles of all, because your very behaviors reinforce that which you feel is important.

Sometimes all it takes to be a great leader is recognizing that you want to assume the challenge of leadership. From there, you can begin to approach the management tasks you're already performing from a leadership perspective. This begins when you integrate the notions of vision, institutional consistency, and integrity into each facet of your job description. Try to view your daily "to-do" list through that wide-angle lens--see each task as part of the whole, not as an independent action with no philosophical basis in anything. Lead while you manage.

However, no matter how busy you are, from time to time, your "to-do" list ought to include an item or two directly related to leadership, as a concrete reminder of your larger responsibility. Maybe you could list something like "spend 15 minutes in the athletic training room talking to student-athletes and athletic trainers," as a concrete way to provoke interaction and a chance to reinforce your vision for the department. Engaging students in substantive conversation about their teams and the team's place in the institution helps create dialogue in which you can repeat those values and behaviors that you hold in high regard. However, if you continually put off this 15-minute chat, that opportunity probably won't present itself, unless you are confronted by those same people with a list of complaints.


Integrating leadership into your daily routine means paying more attention to how you make decisions, interact with others, and prioritize. Listed below are some of the qualities that I believe are found in effective leaders in athletic administration.

Plan for the Future: Leadership is about understanding the past, operating effectively in the present, and providing vision for the future. Understanding the past is critical--having an appreciation for where your department has been will serve you well in the present and allow you to better understand where you might be going in the future.

Good leaders are thinking several steps ahead, and have a plan for getting where they want to go. Many athletic directors put together strategic plans, which create a roadmap for their department and reduce anxiety about the future.

Proper strategic planning involves your staff and allows for their input. By delegating work to others, you show your confidence in them, while also providing direction as they arrive at conclusions. Strategic plans are also viewed very positively by senior administration. They attest to strong leadership on the part of the director of athletics and allow upper-level administrators to see the direction the program is trying to take and what resources will be needed in order to get there.

Play Follow the Leader: In this case, the "leader" is your institution, its overall mission and vision, and the campus culture. It is arrogant to assume that the institution will adjust to you and your way of thinking, and that it is up to "them" to change. You need to make the adjustments necessary to develop your vision and ideas within the context of the larger organization. State your views in private, to your supervisor, and try to persuade when you have your chances, but do not be stubborn--taking on the central administration is a battle that you will lose.

Face it, if you don't have the support of the heavy hitters of the institution, it doesn't matter if your vision is perfect, because it won't be allowed to see the light of day. Learn to follow the leadership of upper-level administrators with grace.

Be a Team Player: In my career as an athletic director, I found that pitching in to help my staff was an effective relationship-building method. When I was handing out equipment, working in concessions, helping to unload a bus, or even serving as a public address announcer for a contest, my staff could clearly see how much I respected their job duties. It showed them that I felt their jobs were just as important as my job. I was repaid by increased appreciation on the part of most of the staff, and greater respect and loyalty. The extra time spent with my managers also provided opportunities to get to know them better, and vice versa, and sent a message that "I'm here for you."

Don't Be Chicken: Leadership is being comfortable with risk. Being willing to take new steps, create new programs, hire new people, plan new buildings, and start new sports shows signs of leadership. You need to be willing to make mistakes and learn from them--to be vulnerable in a professional setting. It involves the ability to analyze both the obvious, such as budgetary issues, and the less obvious, such as political issues, and then select staff, strategies, and tones that best suit the needs of each specific situation. And even if you have some doubts, plan all the strategies with confidence.

Concentrate on Communication: Great leaders are great communicators who can utilize a variety of styles to communicate with others. To excel in this area, you need to be an avid listener, and be capable of delivering your message effectively. What works well with one group may not work with others, so an athletic director must be versatile enough to communicate effectively with all of his or her different constituencies. Internal audiences are very different from external audiences, and student-athletes are different from faculty. A critical skill is the ability to discern what style of communication would be most effective, and then choose the words, thoughts, and tones that will get the best results.

Your method of communication will invariably set the tone for your department, so it is better to be positive, except in very rare circumstances. Creating a positive atmosphere will allow your staff to relax and let their best qualities come out, rather than being on the defensive all the time. People need to sense that you are fair, trustworthy, and open-minded, and your communication, both verbal and non-verbal, will go a long way to establishing their impressions of you.

Don't Stop Coaching: I don't mean continue being the coach of an athletic team--though if that works in your situation, fine. I mean coaching in a broader sense. The best leaders are those who select, train, and develop good managers and coaches to be a part of their team. An effective leader motivates the team to share a vision, and then cultivates staff members to support the vision through their management decisions and practices.

Just because you've hired them, don't expect your staff to be finished products. Show them you care that they improve and grow. Provide opportunities for them, both internally and externally, to gain new knowledge and understanding. Remember, the more they develop, the better they can implement your vision.

Foster Teamwork: They know you're the boss, so don't remind them by being a dictator. A great leader doesn't beat people over the head to get them to produce, but rather encourages productivity by fostering an atmosphere of teamwork and respect. Displaying understanding and compassion will likely earn you more respect and loyalty than always being tough. Team members want a leader with confidence, not arrogance, and a genuine humility.

Ready, Set, Go

Neither management nor leadership is easy. Both take skills, training, and practice. Since most people perform management tasks in their daily lives, they have much more experience in management than in leadership. Hence, the challenge of leadership is decidedly more daunting.

As I have grown over the years, I have found my interest in leadership increasing. Early on in my career, I found it reaffirming to master tasks and details, as a sort of personal "checklist of capabilities." Those management tasks gave me confidence, but experience and maturity allowed me to make better judgments regarding which strategy would best resolve each situation. Only after I had gained experience and confidence managing did I actually begin to "lead" my department.

Solid management creates systematic competence, but solid leadership creates systematic excellence. Effective managers help keep their organizations in place, while effective leaders create the traction that moves organizations forward.


Making Decisions

Being a manager means being prepared for all situations. Being a leader means handling something you're not fully prepared for.

While I was the Director of Athletics at San Francisco State University, our intercollegiate athletics program experienced a terrible tragedy with the death of one of our male basketball players during a practice. I was sitting in my office on that terrible afternoon and was summoned into the gymnasium by a frantic teammate. I walked into the gym and discovered that one of the athletic trainers was indeed working hard to resuscitate this young man. The coaches and team were gathered around him and it was a general atmosphere of shock and panic.

This was a real turning point for me. I had never dealt with the death of a student-athlete. In a matter of seconds I seemed to experience a shift from manager of this program to leader of this program--I started making decisions immediately in the best interests of the student-athletes.

I knew the head coach was working hard to deal with the situation, so I told the assistant coaches to remove the team from the gym and to stay with them. I also remember that during the memorial service, on a whim, I invited the entire assemblage to come up and take a flower from a large wreath we had in the front. By the time the service was over there was not much left of the wreath. The days that followed were very difficult, but we all stuck together and worked very hard to make sure the team members got through it and that the family was taken care of.

Leadership is about combining common sense, knowledge, experiences of others, and a thorough understanding of the culture you are working within, and then making decisions--sometimes very quietly--in the best interests of the student-athletes, coaches, support staff, and others. It's not an easy task. I remember when I first became an athletic director, having such responsibility carried with it a weight that I sometimes wanted to lose, even if for a brief period of time. But providing leadership can also induce a real sense of pride in oneself, particularly if a situation has been handled well.