7 Essential Traits of a Successful Athletic Director

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An athletic director faces one of the most complex, challenging, and rewarding leadership roles at any school, whether working at the high school or college level. He or she has the chance to develop a program’s strengths and set it on the path to long-term success. Like any leader, the director must wear many hats and be prepared to adapt to a wide range of situations. Flexibility, focus, and the skill to wield authority with limited resources are essential.

Businessman with briefcase at the starting line

Every athletic director brings their own interests, background, and skills to the position. Still, there are some core traits that can be seen at work again and again in the most successful athletic programs. To be the best, the director must strive for continuous improvement. Where to begin? Let’s look at some of the fundamental traits that great athletic directors bring to their roles.

Seven of the most essential traits for success include:

1. Strong Sense of Character Judgment – The Right People in the Right Places

One of the most important duties of any athletic director is to do the hiring that will shape the program as a whole. This is crucial since the director must delegate tasks in many different areas to achieve lasting success. A candidate’s credentials may look good on paper, but he or she must also have the right attitude to adapt to, strengthen, and represent the program’s unique culture. Often, this kind of judgment is based on intuition and a deep understanding of others. Without it, a program will have difficulty reaching its full potential, even with great student-athletes.

2. Excellent Communication Skills – Ready to Speak for the Program

The athletic director is responsible for clearly communicating the program’s vision to everyone involved with it. This demands great communication skills in both spoken and written forms. Plus, the director needs to adapt to all the different audiences he or she will address. Getting the message across to coaches is different from doing the same with students, parents, peers at the organization, or others within the community. Thus, a great athletic director understands the overall values of the program and is ready to articulate them in context at a moment’s notice.

3. A Passion for Athletics – Demonstrating What Sportsmanship Means

It might seem that this goes without saying, but it deserves to be emphasized: A deep and abiding love for athletics is absolutely crucial. No matter what the director’s background is, he or she needs to be able to offer full support to a diverse range of coaches, athletes, and sports. Although most directors know the athletic world well enough not to show bias to one sport or another, can you see through to the full potential of every element of the program? As a highly visible leader, the director’s passion for sport and the values it represents can inspire others.

4. Leadership – Modeling Tenacity and Heart to the Organization

In any large organization, there are bound to be times when people disagree or goals conflict. No matter what strife or temporary setbacks befall a program, it’s up to the athletic director to draw people together and chart a course. People take their cues from their supervisors, and the director is the ultimate leader of the athletic organization. When he or she shows resilience, diligence, vision, tenacity, and heart, others will be more motivated to work together. Leadership takes many forms, so the director needs to recognize his or her strengths and apply them appropriately.

5. Prioritization and Problem Solving – Making the Tough Calls

No athletic program has all the resources it might want or could use. When push comes to shove, it’s up to the athletic director to make tough calls about how to best allocate resources. This calls for a strategic mind coupled with project management skills. No matter what your goals are, you have to advance toward them under conditions of limited time, money, and personnel. At the same time, it’s important not to alienate the key talent who could expand your program. All these competing needs mean athletic directors need to be able to see all sides of a given challenge.

6. Vision and Inspiration – Guiding the Program in New Directions

What’s the ultimate strength you want to impart to student-athletes off the field? Being the best athletically is a core goal, but organizational partners want to know athletic programs offer something that lasts beyond the end of the season. This calls for athletic directors who understand the needs of the community and how the program relates to the wider world. There may be a need to adapt to changing situations at the school and among parents, educators, and community leaders. The director carries on a proud tradition, but he or she is also the architect of how the program looks, where it focuses, and how participants behave. That calls for taking a long view.

7. The Ability to Keep it All in Perspective – Not Forgetting to Have Fun

Athletic directors, like coaches, often find fame in being hard workers who show up early and leave late. This is a hallmark of athletic success and something anyone can benefit from. Still, it’s important to remember that student-athletes are just that: Students. They come to the program from the love of the game. Being young, they might not know how to deal with major setbacks or “the biggest loss of their career.” Tomorrow’s victories are built on yesterday’s setbacks. Create a supportive environment so colleagues and athletes alike can bounce back and win.

Learn More

Ohio University’s Online Master of 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.


Open Stack, “High School Athletic Directors and Educational Leadership Traits: A Conceptual Analysis of the Literature”
Athletic Business, “Common Mistakes Made by High-School Athletic Directors”
Forbes, “The Dynamic Role Of The Modern Day College Athletics Director”