Core Values and Leadership Are Equally Essential

A true test of one’s philosophy and leadership skills comes when the fire is hot. It’s easy to be a leader during smooth sailing times. However, in times of stress, one needs to implement actions reflective of sound core values. Coaches, by default, are placed in a position where their values and leadership are tested daily. Without question, reflecting on one’s core values and honing leadership skills is time well spent.

The current protests on college campuses across the country present challenges for collegiate administrators. It amazes me how decision-makers become invisible, creating a leadership vacuum when the heat is turned up. How administrators deal (or not deal) with ongoing protests begs the question of who is in charge and what moral compass is being followed. University administrators are undoubtedly intellectually gifted and have a history of leadership capabilities. However gifted or knowledgeable, an administrator (or coach) must have a clear compass to guide decision-making in difficult times. Current events underscore the importance of clarity of mission and the leadership talent to communicate your mission in a frank and direct manner. 

Ben Sasse, President, University of Florida

One example of leadership and clarity came from the University of Florida President Ben Sasse, who quickly disbanded campus protests with the statement, “This is not complicated: The University of Florida is not a daycare, and we do not treat protesters like children—they knew the rules, they broke the rules, and they’ll face the consequences.” 

Another example of leadership was Northwestern University, which gave the protestors a litany of goodies in a desperate attempt to squelch campus unrest. 

  • The University will support visiting Palestinian faculty and students at risk (funding two faculty members per year for two years and providing the total cost of attendance for five Palestinian undergraduates to attend Northwestern for the duration of their undergraduate careers). 
  • The University commits to fundraise to sustain this program beyond this current commitment. 
  • The University will provide immediate temporary space for MENA/Muslim students.  
  • The University will provide and renovate a house for MENA/Muslim students that is conducive to community building as soon as practicably possible upon completion of the Jacobs renovation (Expected 2026). 
  • The University will engage students in a process dedicated to ensuring additional support for Jewish and Muslim students within Student Affairs/Religious & Spiritual Life. 
  • The University will include students in a process dedicated to implementing broad input on University dining services, including residential and retail vendors on campus. 

Administrators at both institutions provided leadership. One can agree or disagree with the decisions made. I’d like to know if Northwestern’s leadership decisions reflected its core values or if it was a desperate attempt to make protestors disappear (until the next time). 

Coaches can learn from the events taking place on collegiate campuses. As tumultuous as college campuses have been recently, collegiate athletics is undergoing similar turbulence. Although there aren’t protestors on the campus quad, the transfer portal and NIL policies have placed collegiate administrators, coaches, and players in uncharted waters. Coaches must deal with situations related to recruiting and maintaining their rosters, which I never had to face in my collegiate career. Equally, players are also making choices, financial or otherwise, that their predecessors did not face. Both parties would be advised to examine their core philosophies to deal with the current environment. 

More than ever, the ability to articulate a sound philosophy and demonstrate leadership abilities are must-haves for coaching success. Having one without the other will be non-productive in a charged atmosphere. As we see on college campuses, leadership only exists when values exist. Leadership decisions are based on the values that you represent.

I recently reflected on the traits of the outstanding coaches and teachers I’ve been fortunate to play for or have been in their classrooms. I developed a brief list of traits possessed by these outstanding professionals who positively impacted me.

  • They inspired me to achieve at a high level. Students tend to place a self-imposed ceiling on what they think they can accomplish. Great teachers and coaches can break down those barriers, allowing students to surpass their expectations. 
  • They demanded excellence. Sub-par effort or performance was unacceptable. They were honest in their evaluation of your performance. They provided a high-energy and positive atmosphere that was conducive to learning and high achievement.
  • They established a positive relationship with their students/players. I looked forward to coming to their sessions even though I knew there were challenges ahead. The class or team didn’t want to disappoint them with a sub-par performance or effort. 
  • They didn’t concern themselves about what others thought of their teaching. Too often, teachers and coaches lower standards to avoid possible conflict. These teachers/coaches established the expectations without concern if some in their charge didn’t like them.
  • They were always prepared, and every instructional session was highly organized. Students and players were in an atmosphere conducive to accomplishing items of importance.
  • They knew what was going on in the lives of those in their classroom or gym. Their relationship with their students went beyond the subject matter of the class or gym.

I reflected on their teaching and leadership styles. Three equally essential components of their leadership skills were present in my mind.

First, they led from the front. They established the definitive goals for their class or program. Each moment of their practices or classes was reflective of the established goals. If more work was required to reach those goals, more work was implemented (homework, extra practice, Saturday tutoring).

Second, they led from the middle. They wanted to know what was happening in the lives of their students and players. Even if it was for a brief time, they took the time to interact with all their students with a desire to know how things were going, on or off the court or classroom. 

Lastly, they led from behind. There will always be stragglers. However, these teachers/coaches incorporated the atmosphere that nobody gets left behind. These great teachers spent significant time with those having the most challenges.

I wasn’t always good at some of the above. As I reflect on my coaching career, there are many aspects that I wish I had performed better in. I would probably be a better coach now than I was then.

It is not just the college coach who needs to exhibit leadership and core values. A club coach for the 15-3’s team must also have values that will enable them to deal successfully with second-guessers. The takeaway is that those with leadership duties are required to be decision-makers. Avoiding difficult decisions or making difficult decisions based on criticism from the bleachers is unacceptable. Coaches (and university presidents) should “lean in” to difficult times and use their core value system to make sound leadership decisions.