Earning Permission to Lead Your Coaches

Ask any High School Athletic Director in America how they balance their time between management and leadership and you’re likely to find most would admit they spend the majority of their time on management. Scheduling games, buses, and officials, along with managing a budget and dealing with conflict are a big part of the job. These tasks can be overwhelming and often leave little time for leadership. With limited time, resources and access to head coaches, how can we as Athletic Directors have the greatest influence possible within our school community? How do we earn the right to lead?

I’ve spent the last two years in my position creating more efficient systems for scheduling, communication, and budget. By doing so, this has allowed me to spend more time creating a common language among my coaches, athletes, and parents around purpose-based athletics. The most important thing I’ve learned on this journey is leadership is a mindset, not a skill set. If you commit to our own professional development and invest time in building relationships you can have great influence over changing the win-at-all-costs sports culture in your community.

To Be a Better AD, You Have to a Be Better You
The first step in earning permission to lead is a commitment to your own professional development. Reading professionally and constant collaboration with others in the field has helped me define who I am as a servant leader and helped me develop my personal guiding principles. These principles (listed below) not only create trust between my office and all stakeholders, they also provide me with a lens to look through when creating a vision for my department.

1. Live your purpose
2. Do what you said you would do
3. All students deserve better
4. Plan your work, work your plan
5. Invest in relationships

Live Your Purpose
Going through the process of developing a transformational purpose statement has helped me become a better husband, father, athletic director, friend and person. My purpose statement is simple—love more, serve more and find value. I repeat this statement several times throughout my workday. When I am dealing with a student athlete’s chemical, academic or code of conduct violation, the voice inside my head say’s “love more.” When I’m cleaning the bleachers after a 14-hour workday, the voice in my head says “serve more.” When I am dealing with a difficult parent, coach, administrator or athlete, the voice in my head say’s “find value.” Sharing this purpose statement with my coaches, parents, and athletes has helped keep me accountable to it and has influenced our coaches to develop and share their own purpose statement.

Do What You Said You Would Do
It is nearly impossible for anyone who hasn’t been an athletic director to understand the demands of the job. Co-curricular activities aren’t the most important thing schools do, but it is often what people care the most about. With a lot of emotion behind the requests made, it is important for AD’s to provide clarity, competency and a commitment to the task. People trust the clear and mistrust the ambiguous. AD’s must be consistent and clear with expectations and decision-making. In addition, subordinates trust leaders who are visible, stay relevant and prove themselves capable during times of conflict and angst. Perhaps the greatest way to earn trust is to remain steadfast and committed to the task during times of adversity. I often utter the phrase, “I’d rather you be mad at me than me be mad at me.” Stay true to your guiding principals and be consistent when making decisions. Don’t make promises you can’t keep and always follow through on what you said you would do.

All Students Deserve Better
If we as AD’s aren’t intentional about creating our overall program culture, someone else will create it for us. In most cases, it won’t be the type of culture that cultivates inclusivity nor will it be the type of culture that has our student-athletes at the forefront. Why can’t our athletic departments operate as a village would? Our coaches, athletes, and parents should all act as neighbors who watch out for each other and work toward the good of the community. As AD’s, we must be unwavering about making decisions in the best interest of ALL our student-athletes. Allowing our programs to grow apart from one another or in isolation is not acceptable. We are all in this together.

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan
The ability to define and communicate where you’ve been as a program, where you currently are and where you’re going is crucial in increasing buy-in from your stakeholders. Have you created a vision for your program? How do you as the AD define success for your teams? Does your vision grant your coaches permission to use their platform for teaching life lessons? Do you have a collective purpose statement? At Prior Lake High School, we value and help our athletes identify performance and moral character traits. Performance character traits are tools our athletes use to better themselves. Moral character traits are tools our athletes use to help make others better. Our coaching staff identified what traits they felt were most important through the creation of a collective athletic department purpose statement. We are now intentional about teaching these traits and use our effectiveness as a way to determine true success. Sports alone do not teach character, coaches who take the time to embed them within the practice plan do. Below is a graphic we use to keep our performance and moral character traits fresh in the minds of coaches, athletes and parents.

Invest in Relationships
How often are you plugging away at work in your office when a coach, parent or athlete stops by to see you? I used to rush through conversations so I could get back to work. Through my own inside/out work, I’ve realized my biggest weakness, as a leader, is ‘action’ over ‘affection’. In order for me to earn the right to lead my coaches and athletes, I’ve learned to invest more of my time into relationships with all stakeholders.

The AD position is easily the most visible position in school districts. When at events, I model love, appreciation, kindness, empathy, and respect for others. I’ve been amazed at what comes back to me in return. I’m also seeing coaches and athletes model the same behaviors with each other. At the end of my career, I hope I am not judged on the number of state championships won, but rather on my ability to foster authentic and meaningful relationships with others.

I know the management part of the job of an AD is time-consuming. It is also safe, predictable and often unrewarding. I’ve watched really good AD’s burn out because their main focus is on scheduling, budgeting, and running events. If we as AD’s aren’t intentional about creating our vision and purpose, then winning will become our purpose and we will miss out on an opportunity to develop meaningful and long lasting relationships.

AD’s who are intentional about modeling a purpose-based approach, follow through on promises, make decisions in the best interest of students and have a vision for improvement and growth are the AD’s who experience far more joy in the position. I challenge you to do the inside/out work. Find a way to become the best version of yourself. Identify your guiding principles, write a transformational purpose statement and begin creating a vision for your athletic department.