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Leadership Compass: Your Staff, Your Students, And Yourself

By Julie Soriero, MIT

As the 2018 academic year began, I was very interested in supporting and rounding out our efforts in leadership training. I wanted my staff and especially those student-athletes identified as emerging leaders by their coaches to focus on their personal leadership skills and values.


Most of these emerging leaders knew that meant engaging their teams in the obvious discussions: more effective practices, better conditioning, on-the-field techniques. The most effective captains will step up to have the difficult conversations: accountability to one’s teammates, off-the-court behavior, even relationships with coaches, administration, parents and fans. Some of those latter conversations can be challenging to navigate, especially for a young athlete taking on her or his first real leadership role.


I also wanted our coaches and staff to set expectations for their student-athletes, I believe strongly that it is important to have a common understanding of just what a leadership philosophy is and a common language to engage in a conversation about improvement. Jocelyn Luizzi ‘21 agreed, saying that setting clear expectations can have a huge positive impact on a group.


“Having everyone on the same page about what the expectations are will make a huge difference in anything you’re doing.” Luizzi said.


At a recent NACDA conference in San Diego, I attended a session with Ed Ruggero of Academy Leadership. I found the session very thought-provoking and a platform for those leaders to jump start and guide those critical discussions about expectations and improvement.


I invited Ed to speak to my staff as well as our student leaders. Using his book The Leader’s Compass, Ruggero helped participants write a personal leadership philosophy. In its most basic incarnation, a leadership philosophy tells people:


• Here’s what I think my role is as a leader

• Here’s what you can expect from me

• Here’s what I expect from you

• These things will attract negative attention


“In order to get there,” Ruggero says, “You have to do some soul-searching. Most people, even those in leadership roles, haven’t taken the time to articulate their basic beliefs about leadership.”


My first reaction to this workshop was that I had never experienced anything like it. Based on my own experience as a leader, I knew that clear expectations were a real gift to any organization. Every presentation I have attended on leadership functioned more as a checklist of qualities or actions. This workshop forced you to reflect and be very clear about your role, expectations and communication as a leader. The value is in the work and the personal reflection. I’ve always believed that any team will function better if everyone knows the expected behaviors and as a leader, you are clear about those expectations.


In September, we held a one-day, on-campus retreat that included the athletic department staff, MIT team captains and rising leaders. The staff had their programming in the morning, while the students held their program in the afternoon. Everyone went through similar, but separate workshops. Ed persuaded us that telling people what you expect reduces stress and wasted efforts. We were seeking a common language and clarity around our philosophies and an open forum to comfortably discuss these topics.


Additionally, a leader – student, staff or coach – who shares his or her thinking on leadership and personal interactions signals to everyone that how our team interacts and what is communicated is important to our success.


“Prior to this program, I had my own leadership philosophy and statement of sorts,” says Halston Taylor, Director of Track and Field and Cross Country. “I assumed that my knowing this meant others knew it because I live my life by my philosophy. Realizing that everyone I work with did not know my philosophy forced me to put my words to paper.  All of my captains have done the same.  We all helped each other with wording and to make sure our intended meanings were clearly worded with that intent.  These will soon be in a shared leadership google folder for everyone on our team to see.”


“Writing and sharing a leadership philosophy signals that you have adopted a continuous improvement mindset,” Ruggero tells audiences. “For example, if someone on your team comes up with a great idea about how to make something better, like a better conditioning drill, of course everyone would like to hear about it.”


“Well, if a teammate has an idea about how to improve the leadership climate on a team, ideally we’d want to hear that, too. A team captain who shares his or her thoughts about leadership is signaling to everyone that this is a topic worth discussing so that we can get better.”


By taking the time to reflect, write and then share a leadership philosophy, captains and coaches create a genuine and common understanding of how the work and actions of all impact the greater good and success of the whole. The process is thoughtful and at times can be uncomfortable as leaders wrestle with fundamental questions about values and priorities. A leader who commits, in writing, to a philosophy takes ownership and opens the conversation around what is best for the team and program. Writing and sharing are proactive ways to establish what is unacceptable. Once a leader has clearly stated and committed to a leadership philosophy, he or she is accountable to others to live up to those standards. The group will—rightfully—hold the leader to that promise.


“This program was very valuable in guiding my team as their coach,” says carol Matsuzaki, Head Coach of Women’s Tennis. “One of the ideas I took away from the training is to be thorough and specific/clear in laying out my expectations at the beginning of the season.  This helps me deal with difficult situations when they happen down the road.  It also lets everyone know that we have each other’s best interests in mind even when I need to confront someone with a hard decision or a tough consequence.  It allows room for compassion and that can make a big difference in how situations play out.”


As a staff, we have continued to have further discussion and continued sharing of our Leadership Compass Statement throughout this year. I recognize that if we want an on-going and thorough conversation about improving leadership, everyone must be engaged. With that in mind, I have shared my leadership statement (see below) with my Senior Management Staff and have asked my Senior Staff to likewise do the same for this group. From there, the intent is for staff members to cascade the leadership philosophies through their respective units so that everyone has the opportunity to learn and grow.


A number of coaches have stepped up already to share their leadership philosophies with their teams and have encouraged their captains to do the same. Some team captains have melded their personal statements to create on overarching leadership philosophy for their respective teams: the captains are making their expectations clear.


“Having a room full of student-athletes really dedicated to trying to become better leaders for both their individual purposes and their teams was something pretty special that I don’t think you get to do in many other settings,” commented Men’s Basketball player Cameron Korb ‘19. “Going forward in life, hopefully I will end up in some managerial position some day and the development of a leadership philosophy is definitely something that I am going to do.”


Having a focus on leadership and a common language has been beneficial to our department on many levels. The conversation about what we do and how we can get better has become more open and more direct. We are committed to excellence and improvement, and this tool helps guide our efforts.







As a leader who has coached and led in all three NCAA Divisions, the following are important to me in honoring and developing leadership across our department:


My job is to encourage you to thrive – professionally and personally.


• I consider professional development a priority for your professional growth and for the continued success of our programs. It is important that we are knowledgeable about current trends, governing rules and regulations and on-going national and local issues in our respective areas.


• I care about you as a person and within reason, I will support your family needs and activities as a priority.


• I will empower you with projects, work assignments and/or committees; and even challenge the way you think about your responsibilities or carry them out.   Your growth and success helps all of us grow and develop as a department.


• After conversation and deliberations, we might not necessarily agree on a final decision. Once a decision is made, however, it is important that we present a professional and supportive front as we move forward. As I have said in the past, we can disagree without being disagreeable.


No organization is immune from problems. I expect you to solve problems you encounter in your area in which you can take immediate action and offer support. I also expect you to keep me informed.


• If a problem has budget or personnel implications, I should be informed immediately.


• If a problem negatively impacts the student experience (even beyond DAPER), I expect to be informed immediately.


• Some challenges/problems will need to be addressed with deeper, broader conversations within our department or across campus. I fully expect that these be brought to my attention immediately in order for collaboration to occur in our attempts to mitigate the problem.


• If you are not sure – it is best to ask me. I would rather be informed than surprised.


As we shoulder the work of leading our staff, students and community – as well as each other – we will do so with honesty, integrity, compassion and professionalism.


• If you cannot meet those standards, this is not the place for you.


• Dishonesty, poor decision-making specific to personnel, personal relationships, and compliance as well as decisions that lack integrity will be reflected in your evaluation and can lead to termination.


• We should strive to create a work environment that is comprised of mutual respect, collaboration and support.


Our goal should always be to strive to do the best job in working together in our shared vision of success. This shared vision and commitment to our purpose will enable all who come into contact with our department to view that interaction with respect and positivity and allow them to enjoy a rewarding, memorable experience. Our goal should be a continued commitment to excellence.