There are lots of ways to point your department in the right direction. This author advocates for a subtle approach.
By Dr. David Hoch
David Hoch, EdD, CMAA, is the Athletic Director at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore County, Md. He is a past President of the Maryland State Athletic Directors' Association and a frequent contributor to Athletic Management. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
When people talk about great leaders, they usually point to individuals who are dynamic, animated, and energetic. I'm talking about leaders who can easily gain the rapt attention of a crowd and evoke a smile from everyone.
But not all of us have this talent. There are many of us in leadership positions who are quiet and subdued--who lead by example and thoughtful preparation. Can we be just as effective as the charismatic leader?
Tony Dungy, Head Coach of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, is a low-key leader. He takes a logical, controlled, and business-like approach to coaching. He provides reasons and details for his players to perform well rather than pumped up speeches. Based upon the success of the Colts, including the team's 2007 Super Bowl title, his style clearly works.
Dungy practices what I call "subtle leadership," a style I too have used throughout my career. It entails leading by example, by preparation, through mentoring, and by being a team player. It sometimes takes longer to win people over, but it can be just as powerful as being outwardly dynamic.
At a school I formerly worked at, the principal firmly believed that the physical school environment had a great impact on the decorum of the students. He insisted that the hallways and classrooms always be clean, there be no graffiti on the walls, and everyone--teachers as well as students--be dressed properly.
While he got his message across through staff meetings and announcements, he did so even more by his own example. Whenever possible, he was in the hallways when students were passing through, and without saying a word or attracting attention, he would often pick up a stray piece of paper or a dropped pencil. Students, teachers, and even visitors took notice and followed suit. Picking up litter simply became the thing to do.
For me, this was a tremendous lesson in how to lead by example. The principal's gestures were discreet, but they ended up shaping the school's culture.
There are many things an athletic director can do to lead by example. For instance, we all need our coaches to turn in their forms and necessary paperwork on time. Therefore, it can send a huge message when we respond to any requests they have in a timely fashion.
With our coaches, I value individuals who are positive, enthusiastic, and encouraging with our student-athletes. So I make sure to use these same traits when I interact with the coaching staff. If I can't be positive when having a tough day, how can I expect them to be continually patient and reaffirming with a group of teenagers?
For basketball, volleyball, and wrestling contests, our coaches and players have to set up and take down folding chairs before and after the events. If I am available, I pitch in and help them out. This models the behavior that everyone has a responsibility and needs to chip in. It also shows that I'm not asking people to do anything I'm not willing to do myself.
One of the things that impresses me most about Dungy is his leadership by preparation, which is another form of subtle leadership. Dungy gains his athletes' respect because he approaches every situation fully prepared for it. They know that he will have them ready for all of the possibilities and subtleties of that week's game, giving them confidence in his coaching capabilities.
In the world of athletic administration, being prepared can translate into a very powerful display of leadership. Today, we need to be knowledgeable in front of parents, upper-level administrators, and school board members. When we speak to any of these groups, our level of preparedness will gain their trust--or distrust--very quickly.
For example, before a meeting, an athletic director should try to provide participants with parameters of the project to be discussed, including due dates, available funding, and other considerations. It's also helpful to come up with a few key points that need to be discussed. People appreciate having the time to prepare their thoughts beforehand, and you will be seen as an effective leader if you can help them do this.
Providing extra information to people involved in a meeting is another way to show you are prepared. This demonstrates that you have done your homework and are an expert on the topic. For example, if you are attending an upcoming board of education meeting to speak on a new policy you'd like implemented, consider sending board members background information on the policy before the meeting. In addition, anticipate any questions and have the answers on the tip of your tongue.
Along the same lines, you can send your booster club officers an article pertaining to an idea that came up at their last meeting. Or consider supplying your principal with news about a new trend that might affect your school.
There are many ways to mentor your coaches, but I have found that a subtle approach can work best in the long run. Coaches don't want to be micro-managed, but most of them do need some guidance.
There is a tendency for us to jump in and take charge if a problem is looming. Instead, consider letting a coach make a few mistakes. This can be a great way for individuals to develop in their roles. While an occasional problem will result, learning from a mistake can provide a huge and lasting benefit.
Therefore, instead of constantly asking for updates and providing exact details and steps to follow, help only when asked. However, you can provide subtle guidance by sending general e-mails to remind or encourage the entire coaching staff.
BY BEING A TEAM PLAYER
As directors of athletics at our schools, we are automatically anointed leaders of our athletic program. But we also need to be a follower of those in upper-level administration. It can be difficult to be a leader and a follower at the same time, and this is where a low-key approach is a must.
We often want our initiatives to be accepted, but we don't have any allies. The best tactic here is consensus building and a soft approach, which can ensure you are still seen as loyal to your supervisors. Using openings like, "Have you considered ..." or "What about this idea ..." or "Can I get your opinion on ..." is a gentle way to bring up a new idea.
You can plant the seeds with informal conversations, then follow them up with more direct information. And if you gauge that sufficient support is not there, you can drop the initiative quietly.
Leading by example, by preparation, by mentoring, and by being part of the team are all critical aspects of being effective in today's world of athletic administration. And acting as a subtle leader can work well in all these areas.