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  • Arnav Jain

Leaders in Sport - Examining different leadership styles and their application in sporting contexts

This article from Mr. Arnav Jain, participant of the 3rd edition of the High Performance Leadership Program, examines and analyses servant leadership at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, and authentic leadership exhibited at the Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, observed by the author during his visits to these two locations.

The analysis is extended to leaders displaying characteristics illustrated by these leadership theories in sporting contexts ranging from college basketball to professional football and professional basketball. Suggestions based on the findings from these site visits and examples were then developed for leaders in sport and other settings to integrate into their leadership styles and methods.

Applying Servant Leadership in the Army & Authentic Leadership Leading to a Resurrection of GB Hockey

A servant leader is an individual who wants to serve first and this leads to an aspiration to lead. Such leaders differ from other leaders who may wish to lead to gain power or material possessions. These are the two extreme types of leadership, servant-first, and leader-first. (Greenleaf, 2002) The Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst exemplifies the servant-leader approach to leadership with its motto of 'Serve to Lead.'

The core values of the Academy as discussed by Jake Meyer of the Inspirational Development Group include selfless commitment, courage, discipline, integrity, loyalty, and respect for others. As all cadets at the academy are trained to attain leadership positions as Captains at the end of their Commissioning Course, these values play an essential role in their development and future actions as leaders. Mr Meyer further discussed the importance of leaders knowing their troops, empowering them and explaining ‘the what and the why' of the mission at all times.

Lieutenant Colonel Lucy Giles, the first female College Commander at the Academy, further emphasized the need for military leaders to lead by example, encourage thinking amongst followers, provide confidence and ensure that everyone strives towards team goals. She also stressed the need to relay information to the team so that each member understands and comprehends the purpose of various actions taken by the leader.

While servant leaders need to have a humble attitude of service, they also need to be resourceful, and brave and should be willing to take ownership of their actions. They should have an action-driven side that allows them to set tasks and ensure goal achievement by their teams. (Sousa & van Dierendonck, 2010) In some cases, this could also mean that servant leaders may need to question or confront their superiors. One such example was discussed at the Academy in Sandhurst.

Major Richard Westley during his time in Gorazde, as Captain of the British troops forming a part of the UN Protection Force, found himself in a situation where his superior was not in the right state of mind to lead the team with conviction. In a highly dynamic and tense environment, he had to take control of the situation by being frank with his immediate senior. Through this initiative, he was able to maintain a sense of command within the team. His actions showcase the moral courage required by a servant leader to lead a team effectively.

These beliefs and values imbibed by leaders at Sandhurst are in line with the servant leader behaviours of emotional healing, putting followers first, helping followers grow and succeed, empowering followers, and creating value for the community indicated by scholarly research on the topic. (Liden, Wayne et al., 2008), (Liden, Panaccio, et al. 2014) The outcomes of follower performance and growth, and improved organizational performance highlighted by these researchers are also achieved through the methods of leadership adopted by leaders at the academy.

The fascinating aspect of the selection process for prospective cadets and the training delivered to them is that the primary focus is on moral values, ethics, and character instead of the technical skills required by army officers. The belief within the Academy is that technical skills can be taught with relative ease while developing the temperament and disposition of trainees is considered difficult and, in some cases, not possible as trainees are selected based on their perceived moral character. It could be possible that suitable candidates get rejected as their past experiences may indicate that they do not have sufficient moral values. However, such candidates could be looking at the army as a way to bring about a positive change in their own lives while serving their country and fellow troops. The academy thus assumes in some instances that the ethics, values, and character of an individual cannot be changed beyond a certain extent.

The focus on authentic leadership as a topic of leadership research is relatively recent. (Northouse, 2016) While authentic leadership theories may be in a nascent stage, practical approaches have been developed to understand and explain authentic leadership. As per one such approach, developed by Bill George, professor of management at Harvard Business School, authentic leaders exhibit five essential characteristics. Such leaders understand their purpose, have strong values, form trusting relationships, are self-disciplined, and often act from their heart. The illustration below indicates how these are related to traits that individuals need to develop to become authentic leaders. (George, 2003)

Sally Munday, the Chief Executive of England Hockey indeed displays the characteristics mentioned by George. Her three pillars of leadership include: Making the most of every day, vision and integrity. She mentioned the need to be passionate about what one does. Even after 20 years as an administrator in national and local governing bodies, she remains excited to go to work every day. While discussing integrity, she focussed on the need for leaders to be accountable and make tough decisions for the right reasons. She talked about how she is a naturally cheerful and bubbly person, helping her form relationships with her team as well as external stakeholders.

However, this trait of hers has also been a challenge as her team has on occasion not taken her seriously enough. She is conscious of this fact and has taken steps to ensure that her exuberant attitude does not hinder her work and instead continues to be a positive attribute. Sally has always wanted to work to develop hockey in the UK showcasing consistent and disciplined behaviour throughout her career in various roles. Sally also talked about the need for a leader to understand the differences among followers and to alter their behaviour according to each follower. While this may seem inauthentic on the surface, the ability to recognise and implement this is evidence of a leader acting with compassion and heart.

Research indicates that authentic leadership manifests from the life experiences of people and the insights attached by them to these events. (Shamir and Eilam, 2005) These experiences have also been called critical life events. (Northouse, 2016) Sally grew up as the youngest of three girls in a working-class household. She vividly remembers that when she was four years old, she was so disgruntled at always being told what to do, that she made up her mind to become a leader in the future. She started to develop her leadership skills at a very young age which enabled her to become a successful leader in the future.

Servant Leadership and Authentic Leadership as leadership approaches for coaches, managers and executives

Data-driven research on servant leadership in sports coaching is quite limited, (Hammermeister, 2014) however, intuitively it would seem that successful and inspirational coaches are true servant leaders. John Calipari, the head coach of the University of Kentucky, men’s basketball team is one such coach who identifies himself as a servant leader. (Dawson, 2017) In his eight seasons at Kentucky, he has led the team to one NCAA championship and four Final Four appearances. (“John Calipari Coaching Record'', n.d.) 31 of his players have been drafted in the NBA, and he is the only college coach to have six players drafted in a single NBA draft. (“NBA players coached”, n.d)

In a video interview, Calipari talks about how he instilled a sense of servant leadership amongst his players who are all high school basketball stars. His players are usually accustomed to being the best player on their teams, however, at Kentucky, Calipari is able to make them share the basketball, sacrifice for their teammates and play fewer minutes than they ever have in their careers at the same time.

Ken Blanchard discusses how Calipari is a classic example of a servant leader as he understands the three components of servant leadership: servant, steward and shepherd. (Blanchard, 2012) When Kentucky won the NCAA championship in 2012, Calipari was quick to credit his players by saying, “This is not about me. This is about these thirteen players.” Also, Calipari understands that his job as a coach is to develop players not only for their college careers but also to enable them to succeed in the NBA. In recent years, players have gone on record saying that they chose to go to Kentucky because of Calipari’s reputation as a coach to mould high school talent into NBA talent. (Katz, 2009), (Tipton, 2011) He also considers each player to be equal as evidenced by the multiple Kentucky players selected in each NBA Draft since 2010.

Players get ample opportunities to display their talent and prove to NBA scouts that they are capable of playing at the next level of the game. By viewing himself as a servant leader and thus internalising the concepts associated with such leadership, John Calipari helps his players succeed in their careers.

On the other hand, Roberto Mancini, the first manager to lead Manchester City to a league title since 1968 (Rose, 2012) is an example of how a leader can lose his way after success by straying away from the principles of servant leadership. Mancini was dismissed one year after winning the league due to his inability to maintain relationships with players and executives. The club’s official statement explained the "need to develop a holistic approach to all aspects of football at the club" as a reason for letting him go. ("Roberto Mancini: Man City exit because of poor relationships ", 2013) Mancini’s inability to build the club from the grassroots and his lack of focus on creating meaningful relationships with players and other members of the club’s staff played a crucial role in City’s poor performance in 2013. Former players from that period have recently commented on Mancini’s leadership style while managing Manchester City.

Shay Given, the club’s reserve goalkeeper during Mancini’s tenure, wrote in his autobiography, “Mancini fell out with everyone. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. The players, the back-up staff, the physios, the kitman, the press officers, the canteen workers, the car park lads, the lot.” (Bryant, 2017) Although it is understandable for a manager to have differences with some players, Mancini’s attitude towards the club staff is surprising. It indicates a violation of servant leader behaviour of behaving ethically and creating value for the community.

These two contrasting examples demonstrate how coaches or managers in sports can benefit by adopting servant-leader attributes and applying them to their unique leadership styles. While it is not necessary for such leaders to overhaul their leadership philosophies, it will be an advantage to them and their followers if they incorporate servant-leader behaviours in their leadership.

Adam Silver: Leading the NBA through Authentic Leadership

When David Stern announced his planned retirement as NBA Commissioner in 2012, he proposed the name of Adam Silver, his deputy to take over, once he retired in 2014. Silver, who had worked for the NBA since 1992 was unanimously chosen by NBA team owners as the league’s next commissioner, the nature of the vote indicating his popularity and appeal amongst the league’s decision-makers. ("Adam Silver succeeds David Stern as NBA commissioner", 2014)

Within two months of his tenure, Silver faced a big test when Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling was recorded making racist remarks. He acted swiftly and banned Sterling for life from the NBA and proceeded to fine him $2.5 million, the largest fine possible under the NBA constitution. (Turtle, 2014) With three-quarters of the league’s players identifying themselves as black, (Lapchick and Guiao, 2015) Silver’s quick decision-making endeared him to many former and current players, and he earned praise from them for the same. (Jenkins, 2014)

While banning Sterling may seem to be an easy decision, Silver has continued to pay attention to the requirements of the NBA’s key stakeholders, especially the players. He has dramatically reduced the number of ‘back-to-back’ games and eliminated stretches where teams play four games in five nights. This was made possible by starting the season two weeks earlier to allow players greater time to recover from injuries so that they are not required to skip games during the season to stay healthy. (Nathan, 2017)

Silver has also cemented the NBA’s status as the most progressive American sports league. He has praised former players for coming out as gay, actively supported and encouraged NBA and WNBA to comment on social issues, and he has participated in the New York City Gay Parade as a part of the NBA’s float signifying the value he places in maintaining and improving the league’s diversity. (Prince, 2014), (Ketchum, 2017), (Duffy, 2017)

Silver displayed characteristics of being passionate about his work, value-based behaviour, compassion, self-discipline, and nurturing beneficial relationships indicated by Bill George’s model of authentic leadership. He was the only sports executive to be named on Fortune’s list of the world’s greatest leaders in 2015 and was also named as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. (Roberts, 2015), (Abdul-Jabbar, 2015)

Adam Silver’s leadership style stems from a genuine love for basketball and his belief in bringing positive change through the game. His words and actions as commissioner indicate that he understands the league’s audience is the most diverse of any major sporting league in North America. (Anzilotti, 2016) Leaders in other environments can benefit by studying Silver’s approach to leadership and including elements of his authentic leadership style in their own.

Recommendations for Leaders

The examples and organisational contexts discussed present several leadership insights for current as well as aspiring leaders. Ingraining the servant leadership concept of putting the followers first and at the centre of all decisions taken by the leader is perhaps of paramount importance for all leaders. When faced with a challenge, leaders are more likely to succeed if their solution is to the benefit of their followers. Leaders must also guard against complacency.

Success should not change their behaviour and attitude towards followers as was seen in the case of Roberto Mancini at Manchester City. This also underscores the need for leaders to be self-disciplined and remain consistent in their behaviour irrespective as suggested in the model of authentic leadership. Leaders should aim to create valuable relationships, work passionately towards team goals, be compassionate during the process of goal achievement, and remain true to their values as well as the values of the organisation. They must also recognise the personal goals that motivate their followers, and their actions should revolve around empowering the followers to achieve these goals in addition to organisational goals.

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