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The Difference Between Managing & Leading In College Athletics

7 min read
Kathryn screwed up, she just wasn’t quite sure how. Shortly after being named the first female athletics director in the history of her university, the school’s longtime basketball coach unexpectedly announced his retirement. Having served on several search committees during her career as an administrator, Kathryn was certain she could find the right individual to lead the program into a new era. She retained the services of a search firm and together they identified a charismatic young coach who seemed to be a perfect fit for a program rich with tradition. The university community and national media lauded Kathryn’s handling of the search – just a few weeks on the job and already she had proven she was worthy of her appointment.


Fast forward to last spring when Kathryn sat across from her prized first hire as he tendered his resignation after what could only be described as an abysmal tenure. How did a coach with so much promise and so many resources falter so badly? As Kathryn searched for answers, she couldn’t help but wonder whether what had transpired had much more to do with her shortcomings as an administrator than it did his failures as a coach. She could recall the many instances in which he had confided in her, only to be pushed away or ignored because she was too busy putting out some fire elsewhere in the department.  Or the times she watched him in on the sidelines of important games, frustrated by his team’s performance, and yet she always kept her distance knowing it was an opportunity for him to learn and grow as a young coach.  Had she been too hands off?


Unfortunately, Kathryn’s story isn’t an uncommon one in collegiate athletics or the business world. Administrators and coaches, both young and old, sometimes suffer from an inability to know when their employees and players need to be led and when they need to be managed. Simply put, managing means directing your subordinates’ actions to complete a certain task or accomplish a specific goal. On the other hand, leadership means guiding their behavior through various means of influence and motivation, all in an effort to have them contribute positively towards your organization’s overall success.


While the differences can be subtle, it’s important to remember that there is no such thing as “one size fits all” leadership or management – everything depends on the situation. Indeed, the Situational Leadership model proposes that we must first determine the tasks and priorities we are attempting to accomplish, and then carefully consider the ability and readiness of our followers to execute. Then and only then can we decide which style of situational leadership is appropriate for the person(s) we are overseeing, using one of four types: Directing, Coaching, Supporting, and Delegating.


The style of Directing is very much synonymous with traditional notions of management –  the individual in charge is the one that is making the decisions and informing others within their team and organization on exactly what they need to do to execute. It is most often used in situations in which the follower(s) are incapable of doing their job, whether because of incompetence or fear. Of course, if all we do is direct, then invariably we do little to strengthen the relationships we have with those we are tasked to lead, and ultimately it creates a culture based on subservient behavior.


According to Jeff Hathaway, Director of Athletics at Hofstra University, “While directive leadership may sometimes be necessary, it should be used sparingly. There will always be people within your organization – whether administers or coaches – that sometimes respond better to being told exactly what to do.  That being said, if you find yourself being forced to control every single one of their actions on a regular basis then you probably did a poor job of hiring the right people in the first place. While we may be in the business of ‘administrating’ intercollegiate athletics, it doesn’t mean we should spend our days micromanaging people either. Being flexible in the way that you direct, coach or support others is what differentiates management from leadership.”


The Coaching style, on the other hand, still requires the leader to be involved in the day-to-day activities of their subordinates, but also asks them to seek input and suggestions before a decision is executed upon. Coaching is most appropriate when employees or team members are inexperienced but have a high willingness to engage in the task at hand. More importantly, coaching allows us to build self-esteem and commitment through involvement.


“It may sound like a cliché, but the truth is that ADs often need to coach their coaches on the decisions they are making within their program, especially first time head coaches or those early in their careers,” opines Hathaway. “That’s not to say that they should be involving themselves in X’s and O’s, but rather that they need to provide guidance from time to time to make sure [the coaches] have prospective on their decisions. For instance, I once had a first-year head coach that wanted to suspend a student-athlete for a week’s worth of games because they were late for study-hall. I had to remind him that while it was important to run a disciplined program, he also had to consider what this punishment would mean if a student-athlete did something even worse. Would he suspend them for an entire month if they missed a class? These types of decisions need to be made with both a short and a long term prospective… which is why it’s ok to guide and support them in such situations,” he expounds.


On the other hand, the Supporting style of situational leadership works best when employees or team members have a low willingness but high ability to complete the task. While the leader still provides some direction, the core of the execution remains in the hands of the follower. Such an approach works best when those we are trying to lead show a lack of commitment, which means our focus should be figuring out how we can motivate those individuals and increase their confidence. Micromanaging in such situations only makes things worse, as the individual is already adept and will view directive and coaching behavior as an attack on their own competences.


Perhaps no one understands the nuances of the Supporting style better than Steve DeMeo, a thirty-year college basketball coaching veteran. Now head coach of Northwest Florida State College – the nation’s #1 junior college program – DeMeo’s job has been to take incredibly talented, but often mentally immature players, and prepare them for success at the highest levels of the collegiate game. All seventeen sophomores who have graduated during DeMeo’s tenure at NWF have gone on to play in Division I programs.


“If you’re going to be a successful leader in any context, you should be aware of not only the capabilities of your followers, but also their mental state,” explains DeMeo. “When you’re dealing with college aged student-athletes who often haven’t learned to fully control their emotions, you simply have no choice but to take the time to uncover what may be motivating (or demotivating) them in any particular moment. That’s why my staff and I have always made it a policy to sit down with every single one of our players before a game to determine their emotional state in that moment. Not only does it let me know whether I can rely on them during the game, but it also gives me the opportunity to motivate them in a no-pressure environment, free of judgement by their peers,” he elaborates.


The last pillar of situational leadership, Delegating, is best used when our employees or followers have both a high willingness and high proficiency.  While we as leaders are still involved in decision and problem solving, the choosing of the tasks and the actual execution are up to the followers. Those we are capable of delegating to usually require little emotional support while completing projects, although feedback is obviously required over the long term no matter how independent or highly capable someone might seem.


“There’s a huge distinction between creating value and counting value, and that’s never more evident than when you delegate tasks to your followers,” reveals DeMeo. “If I task my assistant with making phone calls to recruits, and then ask him to report back to me every hour on how many conversations he’s had, I’m not creating value… I’m taking it away. On the other hand, if I delegate recruiting to him while I use the time to focus on some other task important to our program then I’m creating value. If you’re truly going to delegate, then you have to lead by example and enable people to do their jobs without the fear that you’re looking over their shoulder constantly,” he adds.


In the end, it is worth remembering that successful leadership means flexible leadership. Whether you’re an athletic director, coach or business executive, you must work hard to: 1) understand the people you are managing, 2) the tasks they are trying to complete and, 3) their competency to do so. Assuming your rookie head coach can lead a program like a veteran without any feedback or guidance is suicide. So too is micromanaging competent administrators who are more than capable of completing projects without your constant feedback or interjection. If you can master the elements of situational leadership, then you can help develop your employees and move your organization towards success.