Leadership Characteristics in Athletics


Leadership Characteristics
by Karlene Sugarman, M.A.

“Leadership is like gravity. You know it’s there, you know it exists,
but how do you define it?” Former San Francisco 49er Tight End, Dr.
Jamie Williams

Great leaders come in many forms. In one sense solid
leadership is a
subjective thing, in another there are certain characteristics that
are, by consensus, typical of quality leadership. Leadership is the
process of influencing team members to work hard towards, and be
committed to, team goals. Leaders can either be task-oriented or
person-oriented. Task-oriented leaders are most interested in training,
instructing behavior, performance and winning. Person-oriented leaders
are more interested in the interpersonal relationships on the team.
Great leaders in sports are both task- and people-oriented, but lean
more towards being task-oriented.

Leaders must possess the qualities they are trying to
incorporate into
their team. For example, if you want members to be confident, have
self-control, be disciplined, etc., then you must first possess all
these traits. One of the most powerful things you can do is lead by
example. You serve as an influential role model for your players and
everything you do will be watched. Vince Lombardi says, “Leaders are
made, they are not born; and they are made just like anything else has
every been made in this country – by hard work” (Dowling, 1970, p. 179).

Great leaders are often scholars in their field and are
Like all great scholars, they aren’t know-it-alls, they feel there is
always more to learn and have a willingness to admit mistakes.
Outstanding leaders make decisions based on facts, and apply common
sense and simplicity to complex tasks. You must select the right
strategy for the right situation, even when the pressure is
overwhelming. They are well organized, detail-oriented and, due to
their thorough preparation, rarely caught off guard. Their great
knowledge allows them to be great educators and motivators. They are
also smart enough to know that many times they will have to alter what
they originally planned due to changing circumstances, so flexibility
and having an open mind are crucial to leadership.

Successful leaders are not only highly driven and
motivated but also foster that same enthusiasm in their associates.
Charles Schwab says, “I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among
the men the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best
that is in a man is by appreciation and encouragement” (Carnegie, 1964,
p. 34). They have a high energy level, create task excitement and are
catalysts for positive action. One must be a good motivator and have
the gift for verbal persuasion to get athletes to “buy in” to the fact
that hard work does pay off and that the pursuit of excellence, while a
tough journey, is a worthwhile one. One cannot take motivation for
granted. Even the players who are always motivated can use some outside
motivation from coaches. They must be encouraged as people and as

Great leadership encompasses confidence, assertiveness and
respect. Great leaders take calculated risks and are innovative and
confident in their decisions to do so. They realize that being timid
will not get them where they want to go. This confidence and
assertiveness will usually trickle down to the team members. The
quality and effectiveness of a great leader will often show itself by
way of the team’s effort as a whole. A coach’s confidence in the team
can give team members added strength to do extraordinary things. One
also must have respect for the players; if athletes are not treated
with genuine respect, they will respect the coach. Sincerity is
important because players can usually tell if positive talk is phony,
and in that case they won’t take it to heart.

To get the most out of each player and make the team
experience a
positive one, one must understand the individuality of players and the
dynamics of group interaction. It is essential to know members well
enough to be able to assess their strengths and weaknesses and use them
to their fullest potential within the context of the team. Systematic
delegation–getting the right players doing the right job–is vital on
teams. For example, the selection of the right person to be team
captain can be important. This is why it is so important for a coach to
get to know each of the players as well as possible.

The great leader is a master in the art of communication. He
or she is
aware of the strong need for actions to match words. Leaders need to
possess a willingness to listen to input with an open mind. Two-way
communication, being approachable and having an “open door” policy
makes for very good team relations. This is crucial in building a
trusting and open environment. It must be an established norm that it
is okay to ask for help and that players can communicate openly without
fear of punishment. The way one communicates with and leads a team may
play a big part in their motivation to work hard.

The goal is to push the team to perform to their full
potential. The
coach, along with the players, must set obtainable yet demanding team
goals. Strong leadership becomes a moot point if the players are
uninterested in the mission and goals. Coaches must develop a strong
rapport which involves trust and confidence on both ends. “Good
leadership consists of motivating people to their highest levels by
offering them opportunities, not obligations” (Tzu, p. 135).

Murray & Mann stated that a proficient leader “has a
vision, an
intense focus on outcome and results, a realistic strategy to carry out
the vision and the ability to communicate the vision and rally support
of others” (Williams, 1993, p. 87). Leaders are there to coach, direct
and nudge players in the direction of the goals. They have a strong
ability to pass their intensity along to their others. They are always
“in the game” right along with the players.

A leader guides a team, not rules a team. He or she charts a
gives direction and develops the social and psychological environment
(Martens, 1987). The leader–either the coach or a player with
leadership qualities–provides an atmosphere where others can learn and
grow. A coach must give some responsibility to the group and have the
courage to foster independence. Otherwise the members will feel that
they are not trusted to take care of themselves and will be
irresponsible. There must be a balance where the coach accepts his or
her share of responsibility and gives some back to the team members.

This article has looked at a number of characteristics that
seem to go
hand in hand with outstanding leadership. Excellence in leadership is
acquired by people who have a strong sense of vision, have passion and
are able to get people to commit 100% and take the necessary action to
see that vision become a reality. Great leaders excel in the art of
communication and motivation, mutual respect, instilling confidence and
enthusiasm, and showing credibility and integrity on a consistent basis.