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Athletic Directors – Leading From the Middle

By Michael J. Krueger, Ed.S., CAA, and Michael J. Hughes, CAA on November 21, 2014 hst Print

High school athletic/activity directors are in a position somewhere between upper-level management (the principal and superintendent) and the coaches and teachers who are working in the trenches.
Athletic directors strive to be strong leaders for those coaches and teachers. They have the freedom and flexibility to set policy, create procedures, establish a vision and mission for the athletic department, but in reality the job does come with restraints. They wear many hats and have many duties, but do not have the authority to make all the decisions.

As many athletic directors will attest, being in a position of middle management can be frustrating at times as they attempt to please both those working above them as well as those working for them. Feeling the pressure of trying to please both groups – the sense of being “handcuffed” or limited by decisions out of their control – can cause athletic directors to wonder how much influence they really have.

In his book “The 360 Degree Leader,” John Maxwell states that 99 percent of all leadership happens from the middle of an organization. He states that to be an effective leader from the middle you need to lead in three directions – up, down and across. Using that principle, following are ideas on how athletic and activity directors can lead effectively in each of those directions.

Leading Down

Among the leadership concepts, this is the one most familiar to athletic directors. They are in a position to lead coaches, parents and athletes. However, it is important to understand what separates managers and leaders.

Athletic directors can certainly manage the athletic department, but this is about “leading” the athletic department, which has more to do with relationship and influence than anything else. In other words, you manage “things” but you “lead” people. The title provides some credibility toward being a leader, but the individual has to give meaning to the leadership position.

In the “360 Degree Leader,” Maxwell said, “The position does not make the leader, the leader makes the position.” Simply put, leadership is about influence. As an example, the engineer on a train can be at the front of the train leading it down the tracks, but if the engineer looks back and the rest of the train isn’t attached, he or she isn’t leading and is merely out for a joy ride on the tracks.

“Leading down” means developing relationships with the people who work for you. Be committed to their development as professionals, encourage them, listen to them, inspire them, help them become everything they are capable of becoming. This is true leadership.

Following are questions that athletic directors should ask in terms of the “leading down” concept: 

• Am I accessible to my staff? Am I building relationships?
• Am I providing professional development opportunities for my coaches?
• Am I helping each person in my department realize his/her potential?
• Am I effectively sharing my vision and, more importantly, am I inspiring others to buy into that vision?
• Am I managing or am I leading?

Leading Across

As professionals in middle management, it is imperative that athletic directors find ways to help their colleagues to grow and to become successful.

Maxwell states that succeeding as a peer-to-peer leader requires “giving your colleagues reasons to respect and follow you.” There is truly no greater compliment than to be respected by your peers. To gain this type of respect and to become a leader to their peers, athletic directors need to be genuine with the people with whom they work. Administrators must truly care about these individuals – not what they might get in return.

In the context of “learning to lead across,” athletic directors should put completing others ahead of competing with others. This type of leadership approach promotes trust; if your peers trust you a leader, they will give you permission to lead them. Be someone who your colleagues can count on in times of success and in times of need. Be a true friend to your colleagues.

If leadership is about influence, aren’t our friends typically some of the most influential people in our lives? To build that trust and become a leader to their peers, athletic directors must also demonstrate humility. They should not be afraid to show that they have flaws and make mistakes. Think about how much easier it is to relate to someone who isn’t afraid to show that they are “human.” There is an incredible feeling of pride that comes with earning the respect and trust of colleagues; this trusting relationship must be built to “lead across.”

Leading Up

This might be the most challenging of the three concepts for athletic/activity directors. Sometimes, policies and procedures are created that athletic directors must support, even though they may not have played a role in developing them.

Along these same lines, athletic directors can be limited if they believe they don’t have any influence because they ultimately are not the one in charge. “Leading up” can be very challenging, but many times, athletic directors are only limited by their perception of the position.

Another challenge with the “leading up” concept is the struggle of following an ineffective leader. How do you promote a philosophy or vision you don’t support? What if the person you work for doesn’t want to be influenced by you?

Remember, leadership is simply about influence. These challenges cannot limit how you lead and the influence you maintain. Don’t occupy yourselves with trying to control those things over which you have no control.

The best plan for “leading up” is to show your principal and superintendent that you can take care of yourself. Be excellent at fulfilling your obligations and taking care of your own job responsibilities as an athletic director. When you do this, your leader will be more inclined to view you as someone who can be counted on for advice and insight.

Athletic directors should support their principal and others above them on the organizational chart in the same manner in which they want support from those they are leading. This serves to increase an athletic director’s influence in the organization. As athletic directors model this commitment to the team, it pays incredible dividends with those they are leading.

High school athletic/activities directors are leaders, not by title, but by influence, and are making a difference in the lives of their colleagues and students every day.