3 Ways to Demonstrate Leadership in Athletic Programs

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Online Master of Athletic Administration

Athletic programs are organized in the form of a leadership chain-of-command. Athletes often follow the team captain who, in turn, listens to the coach. Coaches are athletic leaders, but even they answer to a higher leader: the athletic director. Athletic directors, the heads of athletic programs, lead through example and provide an overarching vision to pursue. They largely decide what their programs will be known for, as well as make difficult choices as they steer the department toward success.

Business woman standing on a track

Successful leaders in athletic programs utilize several methods in order to drive others. Without them, the leader’s impact may not be as strong. Consequently, the department may not thrive. To avoid the pitfalls associated with weak leadership, athletic directors can demonstrate leadership in the following three ways.

Be a Role Model

Actions speak louder than words. Setting an example is one of the most important aspects of successful leadership. As the leader, an athletic director’s actions are easily observable. Most students, athletes, and staff can see an athletic director’s actions due to the importance and high visibility of the position. If an athletic director wants a program to reflect integrity and respect, the director must treat everyone as such.

Open communication, honesty, and treating others with respect can make a substantial impression on student-athletes, as well as on administrative staff. Leaders who adhere to their own instructions and don’t think of themselves as “above the law” will see others genuinely follow suit. It can be a challenge to lead others if a leader doesn’t follow their own message. Being a role model means exemplifying the highest moral, ethical, and behavioral standards for coaches and athletes to imitate.

Having an outstanding leader as an athletic director is also important for the overall image of the athletic department. Athletic directors represent not only the athletic program but also the school itself. Throughout the year they will work with other schools to organize season schedules and competitions. The actions of athletic directors will naturally be associated with the character of their school. Due to the critical nature of the position, athletic directors are full-time role models. It’s a perpetual responsibility that reminds coaches and athletes what the athletic program stands for, and how to maintain its positive image.

Be Decisive

One of the leadership’s primary responsibilities is making decisions. Decisions are a driving force of an organization, capable of swaying athletic programs closer or further from their vision. An athletic director must frequently make complex choices based on what is best for the athletic program. If they make a decision haphazardly or with uncertainty, it will shake the athletic administration’s confidence in the leadership.

The athletic program’s image is shaped by decisions made by its athletic director. Decisions can be challenging to make when there are external factors pressuring for resolution. Athletic directors will be faced with time constraints and incomplete information. It is their responsibility to make a decision based on what they think will bring the most benefits. Their choices may not always be popular or well-received, but athletic directors have to demonstrate confidence to minimize doubt. An athletic program’s performance can suffer if there is doubt within the staff. To avoid it, athletic directors convey confidence by making choices with determination and commitment.

Decision-making can also prevent or mitigate conflict. Coaches, athletes, and others outside of athletics look to an athletic director for solutions. It is the athletic director’s responsibility to relieve these problems before they can cause irreparable damage to the program. Whether it is a financial or punitive decision, athletic directors can demonstrate their leadership through decisive choices made with confidence.

Communicate Effectively

A strong leader shouldn’t lead exclusively from the top of the department. To demonstrate leadership effectively, athletic directors need to communicate with every level of their programs. Genuinely listening and speaking with others will cultivate a supportive environment. Athletic directors who communicate effectively will have a better rapport with coaches, and coaches who follow the example may see the same from their athletes.

Communication relies on all parties being open with one another. To improve relationships and openness, athletic directors should be available to their staff and athletes. Listening intently and providing thoughtful feedback can cultivate a successful environment in which the athletic program can thrive. Staff and athletes who think of their athletic director as aloof or apathetic may be less invested and less likely to communicate freely. Without honest relationships, athletic directors may have to deal with frequent organizational, staff, and performance challenges—both on and off the field.

Demonstrating Leadership

An athletic director utilizes these methods to promote positive growth within their athletic programs. Being a leader is to be a role model, make decisions, and communicate properly. The administration, both athletic and academic, look to them for guidance and support. Weak leadership created by acting aloof and being indecisive can stunt an athletic program’s ability to perform successfully. It’s critical that an athletic director demonstrates the traits and behaviors they expect from others. Through strong leadership, an athletic program can achieve a sought after vision.

Learn More

The Ohio University online Master’s in Athletic Administration program specializes in developing interscholastic Athletic Directors, building on the students’ passion for serving young student-athletes and running a highly-successful athletic department. Ohio University is a pioneer in sports education. By establishing the first academic program in the field of sports administration, this online program is recognized today as the premier professional training program for candidates seeking careers in the sports industry.

Recommended Readings

Ohio University Blog, “The Importance of a Strong Coach-Athlete Relationship”
Ohio University Blog, “What Standards Should Sports Coaches Follow?”
Ohio University Blog, “Cost of School Athletics Increasing”

CNX, “High School Athletic Directors and Educational Leadership Traits: A Conceptual Analysis of the Literature”
The Sports journal, “Transformational Leadership Behaviors of Winning College Athletic Program Directors: A Qualitative Exploratory Study”
NCAA.org, “Leadership Development”
Forbes, “How To Demonstrate Successful Leadership In The Workplace”