Leadership development: If everything is leadership then nothing is leadership

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leadership development

The term leader might be the most overused vernacular within our athletic culture.  An athlete who plays through pain is labeled a leader, as well as any teammate who balances an academic full load and a part-time job. However, what really constitutes a leader in an intercollegiate athletic program? Is it the individual’s talent, should the best player on the team be named captain? Is it the player’s long term commitment to the program, should the player with the most seniority be named captain? Is it the player who is most liked among his/her peers, should the most popular player be named captain? If leadership is allowed to remain ambiguous within a culture, then any above average characteristic will draw praise to an individual as having exemplary leadership.

It seems the trend in most athletic programs is to place the most talented athletes or those with seniority into leadership positions. While I would agree this is the ideal scenario, we must remember that leadership is not instantly bestowed upon an individual during the summer between their junior and senior year. Leadership is primarily about influence so while those individuals with seniority and athletic success will have the potential to possess greater influence among their peers, the question coaches and athletic administers need to ask, is it the right influence?

A few concerns of naming the most talented athlete or individual with seniority into a leadership role is, a) they may lack the courage to communicate the appropriate message to their peers, b) they may be ill-equipped to lead, and/or c) they may possess character flaws which could stand in direct opposition to the team’s core values.

The problem is not just with student-athletes as too many coaches lack a vision for developing a leadership culture. This concern to adequately equip student-athletes as leaders continues to be problematic at all levels of sport. Regrettably coaches tend to see their primary role is to prepare their team for athletic achievement and rarely do they spend intentional time developing leaders.  Even more neglected is the equipping of emerging leaders, which usually consists of freshmen and sophomores who many believe to be the most pliable members of the group.

When coaches and athletic administrators fail to develop a leadership culture what usually takes place is athletes seeking out leadership opportunities for the entitled benefits. These perks might include the best locker, first choice seats on the bus, a captain’s symbol on the uniform, speaking at pep rallies, or simply avoiding the menial tasks at practices. The saddest reality of the leadership responsibilities within athletics today is that it’s often limited to a coin toss before a game or leading the team in stretches at practice.


Athletic leadership: Selection

It’s my belief that leadership development begins with team selection as great athletic cultures recognize, develop, and equip team captains to lead their peers. The selection of team leaders begins in the recruiting process as it is imperative to attract student-athletes who fit the mission of the institution. Jim Collins, management author, teaches that, “executives who ignite transformations do not figure out where to drive the bus and then hire their people. On the other hand, they first got the right people on the bus then figured out where to drive it.” The recruitment process is all about getting the right people on the bus.

Another great leader who believes in getting the right people on the bus was Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A. Athletic Departments would be wise to study the hiring processes of Chick-fil-A and implement its themes into their recruiting philosophy. Chick-fil-A’s philosophy of hiring operators is thorough, even lasting up to two years of extensive interviews and training before a position is formally offered. The final interview is in Atlanta, GA at the Chick-fil-A national headquarters where Cathy (orginally Truett, now Dan Cathy) attempts to talk potential operators out of accepting the coveted position. Chik-fil-A’s theory is that if they can talk someone out of the responsibilities, which they been pursuing for at least a year, in an afternoon, then that individual might not be as committed to their organization when challenges arise.

It is my belief that the basic principles of Chick-fil-A’s philosophy should be applied as a team building strategy among intercollegiate athletic programs. A typical basketball program consists of 12 team members; if the classes are balanced equally then each off-season a program would be looking to offer a roster spot to only three-to-five recruits. Integrating Chick-fil-A’s concepts of team selection would challenge coaches to be thorough in recruiting. Questions that should be asked include: Was the high school and AAU coach contacted? If the institution is faith-based, was the student active in their local church, was the youth pastor contacted? Was any formal interview conducted away from the basketball court? Was the leadership of the team consulted in regards to the character of the athlete when the coach was not present? How did the student-athlete perform in the classroom? Unfortunately, too many athletic programs lack the depth of investigation into their recruits. I have witnessed many athletes recruited simply for their athletic accomplishments and heard of too many roster spots being offered at the conclusion of an afternoon tryout.


Athletic leadership: Equipping/training

Coach Mike Lightfoot shared his thoughts on leadership and the investment of his staff into developing integrity and character, saying “I look at leadership from the perspective of spiritual leadership and skill more than anything else. We hammer them on leadership. I rely on my upperclassman to carry the baton and pass it on down related to responsibility, integrity, character, and honesty.  So I have to invest in those, you know 80/20, I have to invest most of my time in 20% of my team, then hopefully those guys will go out, but I have to lead by example before I can lead others.”

Initiating leadership development programs within intercollegiate athletics has become in vogue as administrators and coaches realize its importance. While leadership development begins with team selection, it is also critical that athletic departments take an active role in developing student-athletes into campus leaders once they arrive. I wasn’t surprised to see that the universities involved in my research highly valued their organizational culture and believe that leadership development was another pillar to their success.

While each university embraced different titles for their initiative, it was clear that leadership development was vital to the missional success of each athletic department. The different initiatives included Student Athlete Leadership Team (SALT) and The Leadership Summit.

1. SALT 

The Student Athletic Leadership Team, or SALT as it is referred to on-campus, was established by Athletic Director Jody Martinez in creating a leadership culture within the athletic department. Vice President Shawn Holtgren elaborated, “we have begun to invest dollars, time and energy into creating a leadership culture of our athletic leaders.” Team captains and leaders attended a fall orientation in which the athletic department staff and coaches equipped student-athletes on their leadership philosophy and expectations. Student-athlete Kelsey Caposey shared about the experience of creating relationships across the athletic department, noting “it is easy to be trapped in your sport and not talk to people outside of your team. SALT is cool because you get to know other teams and meet people across the athletic department.”

It was noted that each head coach was given the freedom to approach leadership development to their personality and coaching philosophy. Coach Jody Martinez shared his perspective, saying “I’ll be looking at each class, who is vocal, who steps up, who is not afraid to be bold, who serves and who wants to get after it.” The women’s basketball program created accountability groups, each led by one of the captains while men’s soccer implemented a similar leadership program in dividing the team into four accountability groups led by team leaders. Coach Thiago Pinto believed that accountability groups are “about leadership development and giving shared experiences.”

In developing a leadership culture in men’s basketball Coach Mike Lightfoot believed all his guys are all leaders because “they all have influence.” Lightfoot was convinced that upperclassman in his program should feel “more of a responsibility to be a part of the solution than part of the problem.” One creative approach to leadership development was how Coach Lightfoot interacted with each class individually, i.e. freshman, sophomore, juniors, and seniors.

2. The Leadership Summit

When Mark DeMichael became the athletic director his desire was to implement an athletic department wide leadership development program. The idea was to bring potential leaders together for an intensive servant leadership training led by coaches and to be held off-campus. The event grew into The Leadership Summit which is hosted in Montana each summer at no cost to the university; this is due to a generous grant from Harvey and Annie Gainey, who run a foundation on a 6,000 acre ranch in Glen, Montana. Student-athlete Jake Worrell, describing his experience in Montana, said “The Leadership Summit consisted of breakout sessions with Coach DeMichael, Coach Foss, and Vice President Keith Newman. The sessions focused on being a servant leader and leading your team.”

According to the student-athletes, the leadership investment into their lives was powerful and transformational. Another added benefit of the Leadership Summit was that the student-athletes, from across the athletic department, developed deeper relational connections. Geoff Bowman elaborated, “I never talked to anybody outside of my team, however the Leadership Summit opened me up to talk with people from other teams.”

A central theme common across the athletic department was selecting leaders that were willing to be servants. Coach Mark Castro described what he looks for in a leader: “First, a servant-leader attitude, then it goes back to the belief that the team has to be able to see our captains leading by serving.” In describing his team’s leadership philosophy, Coach Greg Tonagel revealed, “we talk about ‘I’m 3rd’ leadership, which means that you put God first, other’s second and then yourself third.” Tonagel also communicated that he meets with his leadership team on a bi-weekly basis and added, “I typically give them assignments, this year they have to speak twice, at an event in the community, then they have to be the biggest servants on the team.”


As previously stated the concern is that if everything is leadership then nothing is leadership. When the definition of leadership is espoused so freely, it leads to multiple interpretations and the need for athletic administrators to redefine leadership to their institutional values and beliefs. These institutions realized this need and established intentional leadership training programs, SALT-Student Athlete Leadership Team and The Leadership Summit, with retreats to equip team captains and emerging leaders. The retreats proved to be a catalyst in promoting the athletic department culture, developing leaders, and unifying student-athletes from across the athletic department.


Previous post in the series: Fish out of water? The relationships with non-believers at Christian universities

For all posts in the series, click here.

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About Duane Aagaard // Chair and Assistant Professor of Sport Management, Pfeiffer University

A resident of Concord, NC, Duane has spent the past 15 years in higher education, 9 years as Director of Athletics at Southeastern University (Lakeland, FL) and the past 4 as a Professor of Sport Management at Pfeiffer University (Charlotte, NC). He is passionate about inspiring the next generation of athletic leaders to use sport for a greater purpose in changing our world. He can be reached on Twitter at @DuaneAagaard or via email at duane.aagaard@pfeiffer.edu

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