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The Self-Aware Athletic Director

By JASON BELZER
7 min read

We’ve come to expect a great deal from athletic directors. They are after all brilliant and shrewd masters of their craft, capable of steering tremendously complex business operations through an ever turbulent industry. They create grand visions for the future of their university’s athletic program, leveraging an uncanny ability to take ambiguous strategic concepts and turn them into perfectly executable reality, all the while rallying hundreds of employees to devotedly commit themselves to the great cause. We might as well call them flawless, because they are simply incapable of anything short of textbook leadership.

 

Ok, let’s get real. Those of us in athletic administration know that we are anything but flawless. While our presidents, coaches, fans and the media share in this delusion of perfect leadership, we slog away under the torment of the external pressure and our internal demons, futilely trying to be all things to all people. Look across the landscape of college athletics over the last decade, or even just the past few years, and you will see the carnage of a profession full of eminently qualified individuals chewed out and torn asunder by unrealistic expectations and a cruel intolerance for even the slightest of errors.

 

We can point the fingers of blame at many for creating the revolving door that college athletics has become, but instead, why not take a hard look in the mirror at our ourselves? As the industry demands that administrators become more self-aware of their own vulnerabilities, instead many have chosen to remain hopelessly dependent on the antiquated notion of leadership without fault.

 

The challenges that athletic directors face are complex, ambiguous and often overwhelming. It is all but impossible for any one person to make competent decisions on every problem that comes their way. Yet it is the fear of incompetence that drives us to try anyway, often destroying our careers and organizations in the process. Is it really so hard to believe that an animal who fails to adapt to its environment sows the seeds of its own demise?

 

Only when we begin to recognize that we will never fulfill every delusional expectation, that we are (and always will be) incomplete and lacking in our abilities, that we may finally be willing to surround ourselves with others who can help offset our weaknesses and augment our strengths. Effective leadership in college athletics isn’t about delegation and command, it’s about getting the best people in the right places and only then figuring out where (and how) to steer the ship.

 

Self-aware athletic directors know when to delegate and when to take responsibility. They are capable of asking difficult questions of their subordinates and their superiors without fearing animosity or repercussion. They know how to stand-up to powerful coaches and boosters with a tactful finesse. Most significantly, they understand that their success or failure depends on whether they are capable of cultivating a culture of open feedback within their department that allows them to generate and implement their vision for the program.

 

Of course, all of this is much easier said than done. These skills are both intricate and nuanced, requiring both strong emotional intelligence and a stomach for self-deprecation. Reality is that few collegiate administrators are skilled in all these areas, and so above all else, self-awareness of one’s competencies and an appreciation for how others can help shape them into better leaders is essential.

 

Let us go back for a moment to our earlier depiction of the flawless athletic director, the one who’s got it all figured out. Why would such a leader seek feedback and counsel from their subordinates? Why would they waste time building relationships with their employees when they could be out fundraising or focusing their attention on more important tasks?

 

The irony is that even as you sit here contemplating the absurdity of such questions, the next time your superior calls a meeting in which (s)he attempts to foster confidence or create some sort of consensus, you will be immediately cynical of their intentions. There are many reasons for this skepticism – most having to do with our natural inclination towards self-preservation in uncertain situations – but regardless, it makes any manager’s job exceedingly difficult.

 

Effective leadership is thus based on an individual’s ability to create a connection with their employees that is rooted in trust and commitment. The foundation for such relationships is grounded firmly on a leader’s ability to distinguish what they observe in their subordinates behavior from what they believe or judge that behavior should be. More importantly, it is conveying these observations in such a way that comes across as constructive feedback rather than criticism that insures good intentions don’t give way to cynicism.

 

According to Glenn Sugiyama, Managing Partner and Global Sports Practice Leader at DHR International, “We have seen instances in college athletics where administrators struggle when it comes to giving critical feedback to their employees while simultaneously preserving (much less strengthening) their relationships with those individuals. Much of this can be attributed to the complex ecosystem that exists with athletic departments, and the inherent difficulty in creating a universal scheme of expectations and feedback. Are you capable of frankly discussing the same issues with your administrative assistant that earns $30,000 a year as you are with your football coach who makes $3,000,000? The truth is that you should be, but it’s much easier said than done.”

 

As Sugiyama points out, there is no simple solution to resolving the delicate nature of promoting an environment where opinions can be shared freely and equitably, regardless of a person’s job title or compensation. One thing athletic directors can do though is adopt a simple set of rules from the onset of their tenures that requires every person within any working group in a department to share their observations and opinions on important issues. By conditioning people to the expectation of open dialogue and feedback, when it comes time for you to speak candidly with them, they will be far more likely to accept your viewpoint without reacting defensively or questioning your intentions.

 

Having an environment in which ideas, opinions and candid feedback can be shared without hesitation is essential for administrators if they want to create a strategic vision for their departments that is both highly achievable and grounded in reality. Being strategically aware is a fluid, collaborative process that requires us to communicate our visions to everyone within the organization, and then use their input to create something even grander.  Athletic directors must combine these collective insights with their own acute awareness of both the advantages and disadvantages of the institution, conference and industry landscape as a whole. They must then take this knowledge and channel it towards creating a compelling image of what their department and athletic program can be.

 

But to simply have a compelling vision is not enough, after all, administrators often give politicians a run for their money when it comes to producing hot air. Actually being able to ideate a plan and then transform the result from concept to finished product requires many different minds working in unison. It is in these situations that our willingness to be vulnerable is most significant.

 

“The key for leaders is to outline a suitable blueprint based on their defined organizational goals, and then draw a roadmap that fits within a framework which takes into account both the internal (institutional) and external (industry) operating environment,” explains Sugiyama. “Athletic directors who have strong strategic awareness understand how to grasp the intricacies of this tactical blueprint and explain them to their employees and constituents in simple terms. Above all else, this will ensure that everyone within the organization is operating from the same page, which is critical to assure long term commitment and efficiency when things go wrong (and they always do).”

 

Indeed, if athletic administrators intend to be successful creating a new vision for their departments and effectively executing it, then it most likely means they have to stop doing what got them to where they are now. Generating new designs and practices for how people interact and get work done within the department is central to the success of implementing any new organizational strategy. Above all, athletic directors must insure that the individuals ultimately responsible for executing the plan know they can make decisions when things go wrong without having to seek approval first. In self-aware organizations, finding and fixing problems is everybody’s problem, not just the person at the top.

 

As athletic directors begin to understand their capabilities, identifying their unique set of strengths and points of improvement, they must continue to surround themselves with those that can help fill in their gaps. Creating an organization composed of individuals who share the identical skills and traits of the managing executive are all but guaranteed to fail in the long run. Being able to zoom in and out and analyze our operating environment from all levels insures that we will be able to build a balanced organization where our employees complement one another’s strengths and offset one another’s weaknesses.

 

Lastly, we must remember that our failures as leaders should be viewed as a byproduct of quest of continued improvement and self-exploration. If we aren’t willing to experience failure, then we are making a far worse mistake by succumbing to our desires to avoid it. And as any experienced leader will tell you – by trying to avoid failure by outsmarting it, you are all but condemning yourself to fail.

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