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Conceptualizations of leadership in sport

This is an excerpt from Contemporary Sport Management 7th Edition With HK Propel Access by Paul M. Pedersen & Lucie Thibault.

By Shannon Kerwin, Ming Li, Laura J. Burton

Leadership Prototypicality

As noted in the previous section, power is often perceived at the individual level and exercised by leaders holding the sources of power. Access to leadership and ability to wield power are influenced by stereotypes and biases; those stereotypes and biases are held by individuals and supported by organizational policies. In sport, as in other social domains (business, politics, religion), perceptions of leadership and who is best able to be a leader are based on identity (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation). Implicit leadership theory (ILT), also called the mental models of leadership, “represent people’s prototypical conceptualizations of ideal leadership they use as a benchmark against which to assess the leadership credentials of the people they encounter” (Swanson, Billsberry, Kent, Skinner, and Mueller, 2020, p. 640). In sport organizations, leadership has historically been dominated by White men (see Lapchick, n.d.), and prototypical ILTs may reflect this notion of leadership. Sport management researchers have noted that people’s access to leadership and how they are perceived in leadership positions in sport organizations are affected by race (Shim, Carter-Francique, and Singer, 2020; Singer and Cunningham, 2018), gender (Wells and Kerwin, 2017), and other minoritized identities such as LGBTQ individuals (Walker and Melton, 2015). Further, these identities often intersect and have a compound effect on leaders who hold multiple minoritized identities (Price, Dunlap, and Eller, 2017). For example, according to Price, Dunlap, and Eller (2017), Black women in sport leadership are often marginalized and need to be something extra while serving as leaders; “something ‘extra’ implies the need to be more effective, more efficient, and esteemed in order to be a successful black woman leader” (p. 68). Given ILT, to promote open-minded, inclusive, and diverse sport leadership contexts it is increasingly important for leaders (and followers) to reflect on their own biases and stereotypes.

Organizational Diversity
Leaders and managers of sport organizations are working with an increasingly diverse workforce. A diverse workforce is more representative of the public, can better respond to consumers’ needs, and can provide consumers with better goods and services. Diversity can also improve organizational effectiveness by, among other things, improving managerial decision making and creating an inclusive work environment. Diversity, therefore, is an important resource for organizations.

Cunningham (2015) defines diversity as “the presence of socially meaningful differences among members of a dyad or group” (p. 6). Diversity can be understood at the surface and at a deeper level. Surface-level diversity can represent variations in age, gender, race and ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and ability. Deep-level diversity includes variations in values, beliefs, experiences, and expectations. Interaction is required to discover deep-level differences. These differences include those based on knowledge and information, functional training, and tenure in an organization. Deep-level diversity is often the result of differing levels of education or different work-related experiences (Cunningham, 2015).

Managers need to value diversity by first creating awareness of, acknowledging, and accepting the benefits of diversity (Cunningham, 2015); accommodating surface-level differences; and activating (e.g., proactively and effectively managing) deep-level diversity. Managing diversity in organizations can be challenging when organizational leaders have not created a culture in which diversity is accepted as valuable and normal organizational functioning (Cunningham, 2015).

Matton and Hernandez (2004) noted that organizational culture was among the challenges associated with the successful implementation of diversity initiatives. Organizational culture was also tied to the difficulty that some organizations had in generating buy-in from current employees and middle managers. Specifically, it is increasingly important to develop a culture of diversity in order to embrace diversity in the sport workplace. Cunningham (2015) suggested that leaders can embrace a culture of diversity using several strategies. For instance, they can introduce proactive management tactics (e.g., orientation and training) to promote core departmental values on embracing the functionality of diverse values. They can then incorporate these values associated with diversity into planning and organizing tasks and evaluating personnel. Cunningham found that athletic department organizational cultures that best supported their LGBTQ athletes, coaches, and employees were the ones that valued respect, inclusion, community, and cohesion and were success oriented. Further, Cunningham and Nite (2020) outline the role that community inclusivity has in the success of LGBT diversity and inclusion initiatives within a professional sport team. Their findings highlight the multiple layers of leadership that influence a movement toward inclusion.

Supporting Inclusive Diversity Practices in Sport Organizations
To better understand best practices that organizational leaders adopt to support inclusion, it is imperative for managers and leaders to assess “the degree to which employees are free to express their individuated self and have a sense of workplace connectedness and belonging” (Cunningham, 2015, p. 275). Melton and Cunningham (2014) studied intercollegiate athletic departments that had been recognized for their inclusion of LGBTQ athletes, coaches, and administrators. They identified multilevel (micro, meso, and macro) factors that influence organizational inclusiveness. Figure 4.4 provides an overview of the factors at each level. Melton and Cunningham highlight that factors such as culture of sport (macro), organizational culture (meso), and contact with LGBTQ community (micro) influence attitudinal support for LGBTQ inclusion, which then influences behavioral support for LGBTQ inclusion. The relationship between attitude and behavioral support is outlined as being influenced by power and stress, in that higher levels of stress strengthen the relationship between attitudes and behaviors. The micro level of influence is dictated by the actions of leaders within these contexts.

In addition, at the organizational level, Cunningham (2015) argued that deinstitutionalization needs to occur for the value of diversity to be realized. Specifically, he explains that institutionalized practices are those that are unquestionably accepted as how things are done (Scott, 1987). Unfortunately, in the case of diversity in sport management, how things are done has historically been linked to a lack of diversity. Thus, the practice of devaluing diversity must be deinstitutionalized. Cunningham (2015) suggested four management strategies that play a moderating role in developing a commitment to diversity; the following list outlines them in the context of supporting diversity within NCAA athletic departments.

  • Presence of change teams. NCAA athletic directors need to proactively establish teams of staff members who have a strong appreciation for the need for diversity and are committed to creating a culture of diversity in the department. Individuals on the change team must be committed to communicating the need for diversity to other staff and volunteers within the department.
  • Education. Athletic directors and associate athletic directors need to proactively educate their staff on what diversity efforts mean to personnel. For example, memorandums, leader speeches, seminars, and training can be provided to answer questions related to how change will affect organizational functioning. Individuals may feel threatened by change and must be educated on why the change is happening, how it is happening, and the effects of shifting to a culture of diversity.
  • Top management support. Athletic directors and associate athletic directors must be good examples to their employees. According to social learning theory (Bandura, 1977), employees will learn from observing the people around them. Thus, the most influential managers within the department must accept and communicate the value of diversity in words and actions.
  • Systematic integration. Athletic directors must begin to integrate the value of diversity into their policies, program, and practices. For example, the mission, vision, and goals of the department should include an emphasis on diversity, and diversity should be evaluated in performance appraisals and acknowledged as meaningful to employee behavior.

When educating personnel, it is important for leaders to address why sport organizations need to improve their organizational diversity and support inclusive workplaces. In addition to best supporting diverse fans and participants, work in sport organizations continues to evolve and leaders must respond to changes in the workplace. Sport organizations are evolving to better support a more service-based economy (Cunningham, 2015). A service-based economy, which results in direct interaction between employees and the customers they serve, relies on high-quality relationships between customers and employees. In one study, customers who believed they were interacting with people who were different from them experienced less satisfaction in the interaction. Therefore, a workforce that reflects the many different types of customers a sport organization supports could result in more positive customer service experiences.

The ways that employees work are also changing; sport and nonsport organizations now use more team-based approaches to tackling projects and tasks. Organizations that support a diverse workforce are better positioned to help individuals working in teams develop different ideas, experiences, and perspectives.

In addition, increasing mergers and acquisitions that involve global companies are occurring within the sport industry. These events result in employees working with and for diverse individuals. Sport organizations that foster an inclusive work environment will respond best to mergers and acquisitions in that inclusive environments will be proactively managed to welcome diverse perspectives that arise from a merger. Further, at the local level, mergers between sport organizations can offer the inclusion of diverse perspectives and better serve the needs of diverse customers (Cunningham, 2015).

In the United States, civil rights legislation mandates protection against discrimination based on race, gender, age, sex, physical ability, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. These legal mandates affect diversity and how it is managed within sport organizations. Title IX is an important piece of U.S. legislation that has helped increase the number of girls and women participating in sport and has been used to protect individuals in cases of discrimination, notably sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses.

Social pressures have also contributed to an increased awareness of the need for a diverse workforce (Cunningham, 2015). Lapchick (n.d.) collected extensive data on the racial and gender representations of employees in major professional sport organizations (in the United States and internationally) and in U.S. intercollegiate sports. These reports consistently demonstrated gender and race inequity, specifically in senior leadership positions in sport organizations. External stakeholders (e.g., customers, prospective employees), who increasingly (at the very least) expect an appreciation for diversity, also highlight the importance of diverse organizations. In another study, prospective employees expressed more positive attitudes toward sport organizations they believed were more diverse and had more inclusive organizational cultures (Lee and Cunningham, 2015).

Keanah Smith

Keanah Smith started her current position at Western Michigan University (WMU) in August of 2018. Prior to her employment with WMU, she was senior associate commissioner for the Mountain West Conference (MWC) since March of 2016. Smith served as the associate athletic director and chief operations officer at Miami University before working for the MWC. She joined the RedHawks staff in 2007 as the assistant athletic director for game operations and was promoted to associate athletic director for game and internal operations in 2010. Smith has also held various other titles in her work for a number of sport organizations, including assistant director of championships at the NCAA, assistant director of championships at Conference USA, and assistant coordinator of academic services at Appalachian State University.

What was your career path?
I started working in college sports, specifically men’s basketball, when I entered college in 1990 at Miami University. This experience propelled me into my academic major, fascinating opportunities, and fulfilling career. Once I completed my master’s degree, I got a job working for Indiana Special Olympics. I missed the feel of college athletics, so I took a pay cut and accepted an internship at Conference USA. From there, I worked at several institutions and conferences, including the NCAA, over the course of the last 25 years. During my career in intercollegiate athletics, I have had innumerable responsibilities and experiences, which have given me a unique perspective and the ability to see all sides of an issue and how to work to resolve it within varying structures.

What characteristics must a person have to be successful in your job?
Adaptability is key. Things in athletics have a tendency to happen very quickly. You need to be able to change directions with wisdom and grace. Additionally, communication and empathy are prominent skills that will help you in your journey. The best way to have great events, teams, and departments is to start with great people. At times people may not come to you already great, but you can help those willing to learn through relationship building and leadership. I have applied this process through intern programs, student-athletes, and with the staff members I have supervised to much success. Further, I have spent considerable time on it through my own research as well as attendance at leadership institutes and conferences. I believe this process is key to the success of individuals and organizations.

Which websites, online tools, or resources do you frequently use or refer to?
Depending on the topic, I use D1.ticker for daily updates; NCAA, NACDA, and Women Leaders websites for general information; and Jon Gordon books on leadership and teamwork.

What do you consider to be the biggest future challenge in your job or industry?
The COVID-19 situation is unprecedented. I think the decisions that come from this pandemic will shape college athletics and athletics in general for years to come. Specifically, in college athletics, we need to take a serious look at our financial situation and make changes so that we are not living paycheck to paycheck in our industry. Some of our teams, budgets, and staffs have gotten very bloated while others live on a shoestring. We need to start looking specifically at the needs for our own institution and stop comparisons to other institutions. Additionally, I think that we have convinced ourselves that there is only one way to run an athletic department, which isn’t true. We all seem to be following the same model that may lead the majority of us into bankruptcy. Each institution needs to make its own plan for athletics that is based on what works for its own school to be successful.