What Makes a Leader?

An effective leader can maximize the potential of any athletic training program. Here’s how to get the most out of your staff while maintaining optimal relations with coaches, administrators, and students.

By Shelly Wilson

Shelly Wilson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 11.4, May/June 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1104/leader.htm

The title of Head Athletic Trainer bestows a lot of authority on an individual. You have the power to hire and fire. You decide how money is spent. You hold significant sway over whether an athlete returns to competition. And, in many cases, you have the distinction of being a member of senior staff.

You may also be duly proud of your expertise in preventing, diagnosing, treating, and rehabilitating injuries. Your ability to procure the latest and greatest therapeutic equipment may make you the envy of other athletic trainers.

Unfortunately, none of those things can make your program completely successful. That’s because successful athletic training programs are not distinguished by how much the head athletic trainer knows or how much power he or she has over others. What sets the best programs apart is the head athletic trainer’s ability to act as an effective and positive leader—and leadership is something no title can guarantee.

Whether you realize it or not, your staff, your student-athletic trainers, the school’s coaches, other athletic department administrators, student-athletes, and even parents are looking up to you. They are looking for a mentor, someone they can trust and respect, and a person who inspires excellence.

In this article, top athletic trainers highlight the key points of modern leadership theories to show you how to improve these skills. And they explain why adopting a better leadership approach can help your program excel.

Direction and Responsibility
According to an article that ran in the September/October 2000 issue of the Harvard Business Review by leadership theorists Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones, leadership is about “inspiring people—capturing hearts, minds, and souls. This ability is not everything in business, but any experienced leader will tell you it is worth quite a lot. Indeed, great results may be impossible without it.”

Although the athletic training room is a different setting than the board room, many head athletic trainers agree. “Leaders provide the tools for the success of others,” says Joe Gieck, ATC, PT, EdD, Director of Sports Medicine and Professor of Clinical Orthopedics at the University of Virginia. “And they are concerned with results, whereas bosses are concerned with rules.

“Programs that lack positive leadership risk deteriorating,” he adds. “You see fragmented staff with poor attitudes—people don’t have pride in their jobs, and sometimes they just stop showing up. There’s a lot of bitching and complaining, and there’s often no loyalty to the program.”

Good leaders know that one way to overcome this threat is to set and promote a program ethos and objectives that can be used as guidelines for all staff efforts. Gieck advocates a businesslike approach. “I think you should develop a mission statement for the athletic training department explaining what is important and what the program is about,” he says. “Or even better, work with your staff and student athletic trainers to develop one. Then everybody has a particular goal and philosophy that they can buy into, rather than just showing up to do rehab on teams. It’s a foundation from which to work from, and if everyone on staff knows and supports that mission statement, it’s much easier for everyone to go in the same direction.”

And while both leaders and staff will use that mission statement to guide their efforts in the athletic training room, the most successful leaders also follow this second philosophy: While your number-one responsibility as an athletic trainer is to see to the injuries and recovery of your student-athletes, your top duty as a leader is to cultivate your staff, provide direction, and create a positive environment in which to work. In this role, you must be less a doer and more a facilitator.

In fact, when it comes to promoting job satisfaction, one technique used by highly effective leaders is the delegation of real responsibility. “You need to give employees the power to make decisions, give them things to be responsible for, and then meet with them to make sure things are under control,” says Bernie DePalma, ATC, PT, Head Athletic Trainer at Cornell University. “This gives your assistants a sense of empowerment and helps foster job satisfaction.”

Jim Berry, ATC, SCAT/EMT-B, MEd, Head Athletic Trainer and Director of Sports Medicine at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High School, agrees. “Delegating responsibility and involving staff in the management of projects gives them ownership of the situation,” he says. “Professionals become extremely effective when they feel like they are making a contribution to the work being done in the program and have a role in the final product. It makes them feel valued, they work harder and more efficiently, and morale goes up because people feel good about what they do. So, effective leaders encourage people to be independent thinkers. In the end, your staff will value you more because they feel valued by you.”

What kind of responsibilities do leaders relinquish to their staffs? “When I first began at Cornell, the assistant athletic trainers didn’t do any of the rehab,” says DePalma. “There wasn’t a lot they were allowed to do. So, when I first started the student athletic trainer program, rather than overseeing that myself, I put one of my staff members in charge of it and then had that person report to me. When I began the graduate assistant program, I put another staff member in charge of that. The same goes for organizing medical event coverage.

“I have also given my staff the power to schedule their own work hours,” he adds. “Every semester I ask them to sit down and make up the schedule. They decide how things are going to be covered and what times everyone is working. And over the last 18 years, I have never had to tell anybody when they have to work.”

Even when menial tasks are delegated, nurturing leaders make certain to attach value to those duties. “For example,” says Berry, “the majority of stuff my student athletic trainers do is the really crappy work that no one else wants to do: getting water ready, hauling water to the fields, cleaning up, and entering athlete injuries into the computer. But I make sure to show my appreciation and express that even though these are mundane tasks, the work they’re doing is just as important as the work the assistant athletic trainers are doing, because their help frees me up to do what I need to get done.”

The most respected program leaders also recognize that delegation is a two-part process. Not only must you assign your staff responsibilities, but you must also trust them to carry out those duties without interjecting. If you can’t trust them to do so, you need to re-examine why you hired them.

“An effective leader is one who lets people do their job,” says Berry. “Too often, head athletic trainers are micro-managers, and you can’t do that and still have people work effectively. You have to give your staff the responsibility to do what you need done and then let them do it.

“I’ve been the victim of a micro-manager, and the most serious problem that arises from that type of management style is that it reduces morale,” Berry continues. “It takes ownership away from the individuals and it sends a message that you don’t think the people working for you are intelligent enough or have the capability to do their jobs. It’s insulting, and it creates a lot of dissension.”

Setting An Example
A program’s leader is always under watch. Staff look to that person for information and approval as well as to set standards on performance and behavioral expectations. The example you set, says Julie Ramsey-Emrhein, ATC, MEd, Head Athletic Trainer at Dickenson College, can really have an impact on staff professionalism, which is why she makes great efforts to be consistent in her dealings with staff, students, coaches, and athletes.

“You need to be consistent with your standards,” she says. “You don’t break the rules you’ve established to please somebody. For example, I could have an injured athlete who in most cases would not be cleared to play. But because it’s a playoff game, the coaches and parents are putting pressure on me to release him. If all of a sudden I break a rule to please them, I’m going to lose someone’s respect, and that’s going to prevent them from viewing me as a leader. Plus, if I make exceptions like that, what does that say to my staff? That they have license to reduce our standard of care now and then?

“Or, I could have a graduate assistant who didn’t show up on time for an event,” she continues. “If I penalize her, yet tell another GA who does the same thing not to worry about it, not only is that unfair of me, but it leaves the impression that sometimes I’ll excuse unprofessional behavior. And that’s not acting as a good leader, because a good leader sends the same message each time.”

In addition to setting the professional tone for the department, inspirational leaders also establish standards on how members of the athletic training program should be treated. Berry sets this example while at the same time demonstrating another quality of good leadership: showing support.

“All leaders have to support their staff unconditionally,” he says. “People who work for you need to know that if they’re doing their job, and everything you’re asking of them, that you’re going to back them up.

“For example, I am very protective of my student athletic training aides,” explains Berry. “I don’t allow coaches to abuse them and I don’t allow athletes to make derogatory comments about them or make them feel unimportant. That’s not appropriate, and as the person in charge of sports medicine, I owe it to my students to defend them in those instances.

“I can think of an occasion a few years ago when our varsity football coach referred to one of my student aides as ‘the waterboy’ in front of the whole team after a scrimmage,” he recalls. “In private the next day, I let him know I didn’t appreciate that, and he apologized.”

But, according to Berry, it’s not only the youngsters in your program you need to look out for. Good leaders also recognize when their adult staff needs their support.

“I had an incident last fall where, while I was out of town, my assistant made a decision about a player,” says Berry. “When I returned, the parent came in all upset and tried to use me to reverse the decision. And I said, ‘Look, I was gone, she was in charge, she made the decision, she didn’t do anything wrong. End of discussion.’

“To remain silent in either of those situations,” he continues, “would have made my staff believe that I held them in as low regard as that coach and parent did. And I never want that to happen.”

Because leaders set the tone for a program, both their verbal and physical behaviors have great influence on a program’s atmosphere. “You can’t have a bad day, because then your staff has a bad day,” says Denny Miller, ATC, PT, Director of Sports Medicine at Purdue University and former NATA President. “But if you’re enthusiastic about what’s going on, if you meet each day as a new challenge, if you face each competition as a new opportunity to take you to the next step, and you see each setback as an opportunity to learn how to do things better, then that positive attitude becomes ingrained in your staff and students.”

Confidence and Humility
Two other traits that are crucial for all good leaders are confidence and humility. While they may seem at odds, both traits need to be expressed in good measure and carefully balanced.

“A good leader has to be confident in him or herself,” explains Ramsey-Emhrein. “I don’t mean cocky or aggressive. But if you are confident in your work, you will be more respected by your staff, coaches, and colleagues. Your confidence sets a professional tone for the whole department, and it rubs off onto all your staff and students.”

Without confidence, managers appear indecisive, inexperienced, and uneducated. This, in turn, has a negative impact on athletes’ and coaches’ trust in your skills, your capabilities in the eyes of administrators, and your ability to effectively teach and influence your staff and students.

Yet staff do not respond well to people who constantly strut their own abilities, achievements, or status at the expense of others’ self-esteem. Such individuals, even if the head of the department, may quickly become objects of staff derision. And the distance they create makes them incapable of connecting with the staff and inspiring them to take up the goals of the program with enthusiasm. Instead, effective leaders are unassuming leaders who focus on program performance rather than their own images.

According to modern leadership theorists, unassuming leaders are characterized by the following:

• Understated offices. Unassum-ing leaders forgo the extravagance of enormous offices filled with fine furnishings in exchange for pleasant, inviting, and understated quarters.

• No pedestal. Rather than using their desks as a divider between themselves and visitors, unassuming leaders leave their perch to sit with guests in their offices.

• Meeting out. Unassuming leaders choose to hold meetings while making rounds, or in other people’s offices, rather than in their own offices.

• Holding their tongue. Unas-suming leaders often encourage open dialogue and staff contribution in meetings by withholding their own opinions until others have had a chance to express theirs. Not only does this communicate an open-mindedness to new ideas, but it also demonstrates an ability and willingness to listen to others, which encourages staff contribution and enhances employee satisfaction.

• Grunt Work. Unassuming leaders are willing to take part in the dirty work with the rest of the staff—elevating the importance of even the most menial tasks. “If people actually see you doing the sweat jobs—cleaning the whirlpools and sweeping the floors—along with everybody else, that helps build morale as much as anything else,” says Gieck. “Because then those tasks are no longer seen as being beneath anybody.”

Head athletic trainers also assert that the key to good leadership is being humble enough to realize that you are not perfect. “You can’t do this job and know it all,” DePalma says. “You can’t be an administrator, on the field, a clinician, run the budget, supervise staff, and not have weak areas. By openly admitting my weaknesses, my staff know that I’m counting on them to help me in those areas.”

But experts warn that when admitting your drawbacks, be careful to only reveal select weaknesses. Again, from the Goffee and Gareth article in last year’s Harvard Business Review: “The golden rule is never to expose a weakness that will be seen as a fatal flaw ... a flaw that jeopardizes central aspects of your professional role.” In other words, don’t suddenly confess that you’ve never really understood what indicates an ACL tear. Instead of your staff seeing you as a flawed but ultimately great leader, they’ll consider you ill-equipped for your position, and you will lose respect and credibility.

Beyond The Training Room
The best programs run smoothly, in part, because the head athletic trainer is able to act as a leader outside the athletic training room as well as within it. After all, it’s not only the sports medicine staff who you must influence and motivate. Coaches who don’t respect a head athletic trainer can create all kinds of difficulties and confrontations. And administrators who see an athletic trainer who doesn’t command his or her program aren’t going to be overly concerned with fulfilling program needs.

Fortunately, much of this work is already done if you’re successful at leading your staff. “If the administration and coaches know that your staff is accountable to you and that they do the right things because of their respect for you, that positively influences how coaches and administrators regard you,” says Miller.

As with staff, respect is one of the main qualities you want to foster among coaches and administrators—and that respect can be achieved a number of ways. One is to be forthright about how your program will be run.

“You have to establish policies and procedures from the outset,” says Berry. “One of the first things you should do is set hours for your athletic training room. Your athletic training room is a medical facility. It doesn’t open whenever you feel like opening it, and it doesn’t close when the last team finishes practice.”

He also stresses the importance of maintaining your convictions when it comes to the care of athletes or the functioning of your program. “Too often, athletic trainers have the attitude that we should be seen and not heard,” says Berry. “But sometimes athletic trainers need to step up for what they believe in and take a position on things that affect them and their programs. Quality leaders do that. You don’t earn the respect of the people you work with or for by letting people walk all over you.”

Quality leaders also make sure they maintain constant communication with those outside of the athletic training room. “Athletic trainers have to have daily communication with their coaches,” explains DePalma. “And it doesn’t always have to be work related. In fact, if you can become a friend to the coaches you work with, they’ll trust and respect you more.

“You don’t have to go out drinking with them,” he continues, “but if there’s nothing going on with the team, stop by their offices and say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ or ‘I’m off to the store. Do you need anything?’ or invite them to lunch. Getting beyond the professional relationship is an asset when you have to tell that coach that his starting quarterback can’t play.”

Good and regular communication with coaches is also critical when injuries do occur. And according to Miller, your leadership can be enhanced by taking a positive approach.

“Athletic trainers are sometimes looked upon as the voice of doom,” explains Miller. “You often don’t meet with coaches unless there’s a problem, and that usually means someone can’t play.

“But there are ways to combat that image,” he continues. “For instance, if an athlete is starting to come back, instead of telling the coach what the athlete can’t do yet, or how debilitating the injury still is, focus on the positives. Say, ‘We can do this for him to help him get this function back by this date,’ and then ask the coach what he or she thinks can be done to make sure other athletes don’t follow the same pattern.” This simple technique, says Miller, repositions the athletic trainer from the bearer of bad tidings to a problem solver with initiative—thereby generating professional respect.

According to Linda S. Platt, EdD, ATC, Assistant Professor of Athletic Training at Duquesne University, who recently completed a dissertation on leadership, athletic trainers gain the respect of administrators by being informed, organized, and ready to answer any questions about the athletic training program swiftly. “A good command of your program can put you on good footing with administrators—even down to the documentation of your injuries,” she says. “That sounds so minor. But if you are efficient and everything is documented, if all of a sudden the AD comes in with a question about an injury case, and you can go right to your records and show everything that you did with that athlete, that shows your leadership. Even if it’s unlikely that your AD would ask you about any specific injuries, good leaders do their job to the fullest, regardless of who is or is not watching.”

Be Yourself
While any individual can take these suggestions and work to improve his or her leadership skills, there is one more quality that, if absent, will undermine your effectiveness: authenticity.

You can’t just mimic another leader. To be truly effective and inspire the confidence of others, these techniques must not only be carried out, they must become a part of who you are. Because if you can’t integrate these elements in conjunction with your own personality, your efforts are wasted.

“You have to be yourself,” says DePalma. “If people can sense that you’re not being yourself, it can lead to distrust.”

Berry agrees. “I get criticized for being too gruff sometimes,” he says. “But I have a certain personality. I’m very serious in what I do, and I’m not always a happy-go-lucky guy. But those who work with me and get to know me respect that that’s who I am. If I were to change who I was, people would pick up on my disingenuousness.”

With these tips, anyone can improve his or her leadership skills. And Gieck offers the following as the most convincing reason to make the effort: “Sociologists tell us that even the most introverted people will influence 10,000 people in their lifetime,” he says. “The question is, ‘how did they influence them?’ As the head athletic trainer, you’re going to be providing leadership, it’s just a matter of the kind of leadership you’re demonstrating.”

For a closer look at the findings in Platt’s dissertation, go to our Web site, at www.AthleticSearch.com, and click on “What Students Value” in the Bonus Editorial section.