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Paying It Forward Through Relational Leadership

By Omar Banks, Campbell University

Much has been written about influence as an essential element of leadership, with leaders enlisting the help and support of others through rational persuasion, personal and inspirational appeals, and varying degrees of reciprocity. To be effective influencers, leaders must actively work to understand the perspectives, values, and motivating factors of the individuals they desire to lead. Effective leaders care about the goals, passions, and struggles of others, make every interaction matter, and connect performance to a larger, meaningful purpose. If leadership is about anything, it is about relationships.


Since my appointment as Campbell University’s new athletic director, I have given considerable thought to the ways in which relational leadership has aided my professional growth and trajectory. My early professional days were spent working in corporate America, first for IBM and later for Fidelity Investments. When I made the decision to pursue a career in athletics administration, several individuals served as mentors and role models. Two in particular, Craig Littlepage, Director of Athletics Emeritus and Special Advisor to the President at the University of Virginia, gave me unfettered access to his management and leadership skills, and Whit Babcock, who hired me to serve at the University of Cincinnati and Virginia Tech, were both instrumental in demonstrating to me that empathetic and effective leadership is nurtured by small and large gestures and that those in positions of authority have the duty and privilege of one day “paying it forward.”


In the coming days, when I join the Campbell family, I will assume the athletic director role knowing that Campbell’s people are its greatest resource and thus should be at the center of all leadership efforts. Understandably, in my first few weeks on the job, individuals internal and external to the department will be eager to know my vision for Campbell Athletics. While I certainly have thoughts related to Campbell Athletics continued growth and direction, past experience has taught me that potential tends to coalesce around ideas, not position or authority.


By focusing on active listening, soliciting individual and team input, and taking the time to understand colleagues’ priorities, capabilities, and interests, I hope to recruit others in shaping a shared vision, rather than imposing my own. This work, based on the belief that people tend to support what they help create, will be time-intensive, energizing, and critical to the Camels’ pursuit of excellence in the classroom, on the playing field, and in the community.


To be clear, although I hold industry friendships dear, relational leadership is not about being buddies. It is about creating an organizational context that allows people to thrive, cultivating a deep sense of purpose, allowing a healthy degree of autonomy, establishing the psychological safety required for risk-taking and exploration, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of those you lead, and embedding opportunities for personal growth. These actions, for me, will emanate from my core values, namely learning, trust, discipline, and service.


Learning: Lead Others to Become Leaders Themselves


As leaders, we must strive to leave behind more than a record of wins and losses. We must actively enhance the learning of others, helping others to develop their own initiative and enabling them to grow and better contribute to the department. By virtue of their learning, the individuals that I lead are then more likely to become leaders and mentors to others, propelling the department or organization to greater heights. While I cannot cease learning more about people, processes, and systems, I will make a concerted effort to ensure the continued and constructive development of those around. The moment we stop learning is the same moment we are no longer growing, and we will continue to learn and grow as long as we are a part of this evolving industry.


Trust: Give Trust to get Trust


People want to know that their leaders are deserving of their trust. They want to trust in their leaders’ knowledge of who and what agenda is being advanced, they want to trust in why their leaders’ have been chosen to lead, and they want to trust in their leaders’ ability to pursue and achieve the vision and goals that have been set forward.


Relational leadership, of which trust is a cornerstone, requires not only an understanding of others, but also self-awareness. Before building trust and influence, one must self-reflect. Leaders must be aware of personal preferences, gifts, talents, and tendencies, otherwise they risk becoming oblivious to inherent thought patterns and beliefs. I am enthusiastic about bringing my authentic self to Campbell, paying attention to my words and actions and operating with a high degree of integrity and compassion. In turn, I look forward to giving my colleagues the support and space they need to be successful, understanding that the road to success is rarely smooth.


Discipline: Be Disciplined About Objectives, Standards, and Expectations


Uncertainty about the direction the department is taking or inconsistency in messages leads to stress and erodes feelings of trust among staff members. I take seriously the need to communicate regularly and consistently about department, office, team, and individual objectives, standards, and expectations, and I am disciplined about delivering such information clearly and concisely.


Putting aside unexpected team upsets, surprises in intercollegiate athletics, adverse personnel matters resulting from poorly and/or infrequently communicated expectations, are often cause for concern. Too often, we loosely define goals and objectives for an upcoming academic year during the months of June and July, only to forget about such goals and objectives until the following summer. It is critical that leaders remain disciplined about effectively communicating and evaluating the objectives, standards, and expectations for ourselves and others.


Service: Cultivate a Service-Oriented Sense of Purpose


Research repeatedly shows that people who believe their position or role has meaning and a broader purpose are more likely to work harder, take on challenging or unpopular tasks, and collaborate effectively. My hope is that Campbell staff members, coaches, and student-athletes alike feel driven by a sense of meaning and purpose that reflects a connection to the department and university, progress toward shared goals, and personal growth. Moreover, I hope this sense of purpose generates pride in the Camel experience.


I feel a particularly strong desire to cultivate a service-oriented sense of purpose among student-athletes, who spend their collegiate years on a campus that is deeply committed to making the world a better place for all. Working alongside staff members and coaches, I look forward to challenging Campbell’s student-athletes to become positive agents of social change, whereby they are empowered to lead and contribute to their community in lasting ways.


Serving others is fundamental to the Campbell University and the Camel student-athlete experience. This demands a recognition that in today’s digital world, in which the rampant use of digital and mobile technologies has reduced meaningful face-to-face interaction, students may have fewer opportunities to develop the critical life skills of empathy, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and compassion. If our young people are to serve, it is imperative that their moral, social and emotional development be a priority for those who are responsible for guiding, directly or indirectly, their educational journeys. At Campbell, I am eager to see to it that the moral, social, and emotional development of student-athletes is not shortchanged, but is instead enhanced by departmentally supported programs and people.