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Sport leaders require high-quality and trusting relationships

This is an excerpt from Contemporary Leadership in Sport Organizations by David Scott.

Interpersonal Relations and Communication

Sport organization leaders interact with individuals on a daily basis. These interactions may occur internally as a part of formal work meetings, in individual consultations and employee evaluations, or in informal conversations. Also most, if not all, sport organization leaders must interact with numerous external stakeholders both in one-to-one situations and as a part of larger group events. In all instances, these interactions demand that leaders be highly cognizant of interpersonal relationship skills. In addition, to make things even more challenging, sport leaders are often communicating in the presence of news media personnel, in crisis situations, or immediately after glorious victories or agonizing defeats. In all of these cases, a leader's verbal statements as well as nonverbal communications have the potential to be read, viewed, or heard by any number of people from a small crowd to a worldwide audience. Additionally, situations can develop that have ethical, moral, or legal implications and involve the need for careful and thoughtful interpersonal communications. Consequently, knowledge, experience, and practice in developing relationships are critical for leaders in sport organizations.

Several leadership theories presented in chapter 1 can be applied to the relationship-building role of leaders. One application would be the need to focus on relationship-oriented behaviors and the transformational leadership element individual consideration, especially in situations in which followers have the skills needed to perform but lack confidence or experience. As examples, a sport management undergraduate student entering into a new event management internship, a new graduate just beginning a marketing and promotions role, or a young athlete making his first start in competition could all benefit from a leader who is supportive and communicative, who is a teacher, and who demonstrates true caring about the individual and the individual's needs. This idea is supported by Maak and Pless (2006), who argue that leaders assume the role of coaches in cases in which relationship skills are critical to facilitate development, enable learning, and support individuals and teams in achieving objectives.

Another example on a broader scale is in the area of youth and amateur sports, where participation (over performance) is often considered a source of positive individual and social growth, camaraderie, and team building. If managed carefully, this environment can provide excellent opportunities for relationship building and leadership development in participants. At the core of truly developmental and quality youth sport is the need for leaders of these programs to foster and facilitate consistent and effective relationships among participants, parents, coaches, and administrators.

One of the best (and still applicable) set of recommendations for improving interpersonal skills is in Dale Carnegie's classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). A fundamental idea in this book is that one can improve relationships with others by simply helping people feel important and appreciated. The key points of Carnegie's recommendations are:

  • don't criticize, condemn, or complain
  • become genuinely interested in other people
  • be a good listener
  • give honest, sincere appreciation
  • smile
  • talk about the other person's interests
  • make clear how your ideas benefit the other person
  • remember a person's name
  • sincerely make others feel important

Building Trust

The ability to generate and sustain trust is a critical factor in leading people (Bennis and Goldsmith, 2003). Rath and Conchie (2008), in their book Strengths-Based Leadership, noted the results of research in which more than 10,000 followers were asked about the most important things that leaders contributed to their lives. The four top answers were trust, compassion, stability, and hope. Following up on these four basic needs, Rath and Conchie suggested in a Gallup Management Journal interview (2009) that leaders must be aware of how their emotional reactions can affect followers. As Conchie stated, "Trust also speaks to behavioral predictability. It's hard to trust a volatile leader in times of change"

(p. 1).

There are numerous examples each year of individuals in sport leadership roles who through certain behaviors and actions have lost the trust of followers and stakeholders. In many cases, the trust was undermined as the result of one incident, a bad decision, or a lapse of judgment. Often the loss of trust is the result of a leader's lack of professional, moral, or ethical behavior, which is addressed in more detail in the next section. What is known is that trust takes time and effort to build but can be completely destroyed or lost in a moment. Additionally, professional careers, job positions, and respect of peers, friends, and family are at stake. This point alone should be enough to make those in leadership roles think carefully about their actions.

Bennis and Goldsmith (2003) identify four "ingredients" for creating trust:

    1. Competence: Followers must believe that leaders are capable of doing their jobs.
    2. Congruity:Associated with integrity. What a leader says is congruent with what she does.
    3. Constancy:Followers want leaders who are on their side, who will support and defend them.
Caring: A leader cares about the lives of followers and cares about the implications of actions and decisions that affect them.

Dealing With Interpersonal Conflict

Conflict is inevitable when individuals, work groups, and teams interact with one another. Everyone has likely experienced situations in which disagreements and differences in goals or expectations among group members resulted in anxiety, anger, and even blatant hostility. Because interpersonal conflict is so common in organizations, the ability to effectively address and manage it is critical for those in leadership roles. Note that this section is not intended to address the macro level of organizational conflict that exists within sport organizations, such as conflicts that lead to professional league lockouts and arbitration.

The role of leadership in addressing complex and structural organizational issues is discussed in more detail in chapter 6. The focus here is on how leaders of sport organizations can more effectively address conflict that arises between individuals or small groups so as to lead to improved relationships.

An important point for sport leaders to remember is that conflict between or among individuals does not typically go away just by avoiding it. While occasional disagreements between employees, coaches, or athletes are sometimes resolved without intervention, in many cases deeper issues such as resentment and incompatible values or personalities do not disappear. The potential negative outcomes that arise from interpersonal conflict include disruptions in the workplace, anger, fear, defensiveness, aggressiveness, and retaliation (Copobianco, Davis, and Kraus, 2004). Thus a more active approach to resolving or managing interpersonal conflict is needed.

Runde and Flanagan (2007) suggest that the "most effective leaders are extraordinarily competent at handling conflict" (p. 115). These authors proposed the concept of the "conflict competent leader," and they provide important insights that can be useful for sport organization leaders when dealing with interpersonal conflict. Runde and Flanagan explain that "conflict competence" requires careful thought and understanding, as well as the ability not to act too quickly (or too slowly) in conflict situations.

Leaders must also understand behaviors and approaches of their own that can cause conflict to continue or worsen. According to these authors, there is no simple "script" for leaders to follow when dealing with conflict, and effectiveness often comes from "an array of behaviors, techniques, analysis, timing and attitude" (p. 164). Runde and Flanagan provide suggestions and recommendations that can better enable leaders to deal constructively with interpersonal conflict in their organizations. Table 2.1 presents a summary of their approaches to conflict competent leadership.

Learn more about Contemporary Leadership in Sport Organizations.

More Excerpts From Contemporary Leadership in Sport Organizations