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date: 21 July 2018

Leadership Skills in Sport

Summary and Keywords

The study of leadership has a long and distinguished history. Over the past 100 years, researchers have pursued distinct lines of inquiry summarized in the trait theories, the behavioral theories, the contingency theories, the transactional/transformational theories of leadership. More recent cognitive approaches have dominated the leadership literature base with emphasis on the areas of emotional intelligence and servant leadership. Even as new leadership models emerge, it is important to note that portions of the older theories continue to inform our understandings. The voluminous research base confirms three things about leadership. Leadership is a social process, involving people and engaging their emotions, motivations, and moods. Secondly, leadership is about influence. True leaders influence the thoughts and behaviors of people and groups without the manipulation of rewards or punishments. Some writers suggest that leadership is synonymous with leadership. Finally, leaders focus, inspire, and motivate people and groups toward the accomplishment of a predetermined goal or objective. They bring clarity to a desired end and they inspire colleagues to channel their talents and energies toward its attainment. The theoretical developments of leadership, and the latest developments in particular (i.e., emotional intelligence and servant leadership), hold great promise for application in the sports domain.

Keywords: leadership, leadership research, sport


The area of leadership has garnered the attention of researchers and practitioners for well over a century. Studies set in a variety of settings, including business, government, volunteer, social service agencies, and to a lesser degree sport, have advanced our understanding and have guided effective practice. The recent works of Scott (2014), and Welty-Peachey, Damon, Zhou, and Burton (2015) have effectively catalogued the sport leadership research bases in their recent scholarly contributions. The sports domain is especially fertile ground for leadership research in a number of areas like, but not limited to emergent leadership (i.e., team captains), prescribed leadership (i.e., coaches), and executive leadership (i.e., sport managers). Future researchers should be excited about the recent developments in the emotional intelligence and servant leadership areas because they hold great promise for heightening clarity and informing leadership practice in many fields, including the sports domain. These thrusts, along with others like gender dynamics and leadership, leadership development through sport, and leadership succession planning in sport, will undoubtedly become the most popular areas of inquiry for sport leadership scholars in the next decade.

The theoretical development of leadership with specific applications to sport is presented here. Leadership has captured the attention of researchers, theorists, and practitioners like no other area in the social sciences, and a scan of the academic literature substantiates this claim. The late Warren Bennis’ (1989) perceptively stated that no topic in the behavioral science field has received so much attention with so little being known about it. Ralph Stogdill (1974) devoted a major section of his voluminous Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research to defining this seemingly elusive concept. Further evidence of the insatiable public interest in the topic of leadership can be found on the shelves of book stores, where the proliferation of books devoted to leadership and targeting current or aspiring leaders is staggering. Many of these leadership books have been penned by coaches like Phil Jackson, Urban Meyer, Alex Ferguson, Pat Riley, and Tony Dungy, who offer leadership insights that are transferrable and scalable to a number of diverse settings (Dungy & Whittaker, 2007; Jackson & Delehanty, 2013; Riley, 2013; Ferguson & Moritz, 2015). These same individuals are being invited to the podiums of high-priced leadership conferences, where audience members from all sectors seek solutions applicable to their respective settings. Members of society are interested in sports and sport leaders, and the sports area is fertile ground for leadership research and for advancing our understanding of the concept and its impact. It is important to begin by defining the term leadership, a task that is more arduous than one may expect at first glance. Leadership scholars and practicing leaders alike have struggled throughout time to define and consequently deliver effective leadership: “Like love, leadership continued to be something everyone knew existed but nobody could define” (Bennis & Nanus, 1985, p. 5).

Yukl (1989, p. 204) defined leadership as “the process of influencing major changes in attitudes and assumptions of organizational members and building commitment for the organization's mission and objectives.” Bryman (1992) defined the term as “a process of social influence whereby a leader steers members of a group towards a goal” (p. 2), and Gardiner (1995) stated that leaders impact the emotions, thoughts, and subsequent behaviors. Three elements consistently emerge from these and other definitions.

First, leadership is a social process. It involves people, their emotions, motivations, and moods. This may help to explain the success of exciting developments in the areas of trust (Brooks, 2015), credibility (Kouzes & Posner, 1993), servant leadership (Sinek, 2014), and emotional intelligence (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005; Nadler, 2010), and the centrality of these concepts to contemporary thinking in leadership. Secondly, these definitions consistently refer to the process of influence. Filley, House, and Kerr (1976) drew the parallel between the two concepts, suggesting that leadership is synonymous with influence. Finally, the concept involves focusing and motivating group members to pursue a predetermined goal or objective. Leaders ensure that members of the group understand a vision or desired end, and they inspire colleagues to channel their talents and energies toward its attainment.

While efforts to define the term may have taken an unsettled route, the path to theory development has been clear and distinct. That path has four distinct approaches, which are discussed in the following sections: trait, behavioral, situational, and cognitive.

Trait Approach to Leadership

Early studies in leadership research were characterized as the “trait” or the “Great Man” theories of leadership. Researchers in this theoretical line of inquiry (e.g., Bernard, 1926; Tead, 1935) perceived that leaders required a requisite number of personality traits and characteristics to emerge and be successful in the leadership role. These researchers focused on the personal traits and characteristics (e.g., physical appearance, intelligence, speaking ability, and other personal attributes) believed to separate leaders from nonleaders. They worked to identify and quantify these unique traits believed to be essential to effectively leading groups.

Research in the trait theory theme did uncover some universal elements that were consistently attributed to leaders (Bass, 1990). For example, Bass (1990) noted that from a physical perspective, leaders were generally taller and a bit heavier than nonleaders. From a developmental point of view, he suggested that leaders were generally more intelligent, knowledgeable, and more fluent than their counterparts. Finally, in terms of personality, Bass (1990) suggested that leaders were generally more extroverted, dominant, and self-confident than those not considered leaders. According to Mann (1959), an individual’s level of intelligence, masculine qualities like dominance and self-control, and an extroverted personality separated leaders from nonleaders. Lord, DeVader, and Alliger’s (1986) meta-analysis of leadership research prompted them to conclude that components of the trait theory may have been abandoned prematurely. Some contemporary leadership researchers believe that trait theorists of the past were too narrow in their approach in thinking that the required traits were endowed gifts. They believe that these “traits” are actually personality aspects that can be developed and enriched and that they contribute to an important part of current leadership theory. While trait theorists pursued this line of thinking, researchers from Harvard University began to question the trait theory on the premise that only a few leaders seemed to fit the stereotype suggested by the trait theory of leadership. Bird (1940) analyzed 20 independent lists of leadership traits believed to separate leaders from their contemporaries. He found a consistent menu of traits that alone could distinguish leaders from nonleaders. Other researchers found people who fit the profile that were great leaders while others with the same traits were not. The same inconsistencies were found in those who did not have the genetic profiles thought to separate leaders from nonleaders. Notably, there has been a resurgence of some components of the trait theory approach as evidenced in the more refined leadership studies of present times. Researchers have come around to the belief that a few traits, notably high self-confidence, stress tolerance, high energy, dominance, and high intelligence are inherent in leaders. Seminal sources like Bass (1990) noted that specific personal characteristics are suited to the leadership role: high energy, intelligence, assertiveness, task-oriented, and persistence. Howell and Higgins (1990) suggested that high self-confidence, focused persistence, high energy levels, and a flair for taking risks were characteristics of contemporary leaders, while Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) offered that drive, desire, honesty, integrity, self-confidence, cognitive ability, and relevant knowledge help to distinguish leaders from nonleaders. Finally, these traits may predispose someone to emerge and be successful in a leadership position; however, the area of leadership emergence and effectiveness is clearly more complex.

Behavioral Approach to Leadership

Theorists next turned their attention to the behavioral activities of leaders. Researchers began shifting their focus from the makeup of the leader to how he or she behaved. The premise behind the behavioral theories was that leaders behaved differently than nonleaders and that people could learn to be effective leaders. The early behavioral theorists focused on the training of group members in patterns of behavior reflective of successful leaders. These theorists suggested that “individuals profit from such training, becoming more active and effective leaders” (Stogdill, 1974, p. 198). The actions or behaviors of the leader remained the focal point of the leadership theorists throughout this phase.

Different leadership behaviors generally measured on “task” and/or “supportive” leadership style continuums were studied. Task leadership behavior was exhibited by leaders concerned with production, while supportive leadership behavior was reflective of a leader offering emotional support to the subordinate. Most of the leader behavior theory research originated out of the Harvard, Michigan, and Ohio State universities. Researchers, working independently, arrived at similar conclusions that leaders exhibiting both high task and high supportive leadership behaviors were the most effective leaders (Sashkin & Burke, 1988). Researchers scurried to prepare models that could be applied in organizational settings so leaders could maximize follower satisfaction and productivity.

Blake and Mouton (1988) applied Stogdill “task” and “relationship/consideration” lead behaviors in their “managerial grid” model. This model of leadership was very easy for leadership theorists to understand and apply. It plotted a leader’s “task” and “supportive” (i.e., consideration) leadership behaviors on a grid that ran from a low score of 1 to a high score of 9. The most effective leaders were thought to be those who scored high on both components (e.g., 9 and 9). This model is one example of the applied and practical nature of the behavioral approach to leadership of the 1960s. Models like this had practical and intuitive appeal to leadership scholars and practitioners alike. However, the behavior theories of leadership also fell out of favor when researchers noticed that the high task–high supportive leaders (i.e., 9 and 9) were not effective in all situations. Leader behaviors effective in one setting were sometimes ineffective in another. This shortcoming led to the demise of the behavioral approach to leadership (Bass, 1990), and researchers turned their attention to the situational contexts perceived to be important in understanding and predicting leadership emergence and effectiveness.

The perspective of time has subsequently provided leadership theorists an opportunity to re-evaluate the decision to abandon the behavioral approach so quickly. Some believe that leadership researchers need to reconsider the prerequisite traits and effective behaviors that, when properly applied, correlate with leadership effectiveness (Yukl, 1989). For example, some of the components of servant leadership include traits and behavioral dimensions like behaving in a manner that embodies honesty, transparency, and truthfulness (Kouzes & Posner, 1993; Burton & Welty Peachey, 2013; Parris & Welty Peachy, 2013; Brooks, 2015). Recent developments in the character and leadership area place a high premium on traits as well as behaviors of leaders. Tichy and Bennis (2007) noted that exercising good judgement, often reflected in their decision making, is “. . . the core, the nucleus, of leadership” (p. 5). Gardner (1990) noted that leaders needed to behave like leaders in the way they carry themselves, as well as the way they think, talk, and most of all, act.

Consider the example of the late John Wooden, the former University of California Los Angeles basketball coach, and his unparalleled success in winning National Championships. Those who played for him commented on his attention to detail and his unwavering commitment to excellence. Those who coached against him often commented on his level of preparation. His teams were ready to compete. He was a master tactician who knew how to assemble and prepare a team to win. Like Vince Lombardi, he behaved like a leader. He dressed and acted the part. He said all the right things. He behaved accordingly. Modern-day examples of successful coaches who behave like leaders include Bill Belichick, Dawn Staley, Gregg Popovich, Alex Ferguson, and Urban Meyer, to name but a few.

It is fair to state that the behavioral and trait theories of leadership should not have been summarily dismissed so quickly. Contemporary researchers are reconsidering the role that certain traits and behaviors contribute to leadership emergence and effectiveness. Some of the current thinking in the area of servant leadership (Liden, Wayne, Liao, & Meuser, 2014; Chen, Zhu, & Zhou, 2015) draws on the work of pioneers who studied the trait and behaviors theories of leadership.

Situational Approach to Leadership

Although the two previous research thrusts were helpful in furthering our understanding of leadership, they gave way to the situational leadership theories of leadership. Research theorists believed that the situation, overlooked in both the trait and behavioral leadership theories, played a large role in determining leadership emergence and effectiveness. For example, Filley, House, and Kerr (1976) noted that situational variables like history of the organization, age and experience of the leader, demands of the task, psychological climate that the group functions within, size of the group, group member personalities, and time available for decision making among other factors impacted leader effectiveness. Consider the leadership styles of General George Patton and Mahatma Gandhi. Both were effective leaders. Both moved great numbers of people to do things they would not normally have done. However, their styles were diametrically different. Patton’s authoritarian, direct style of leadership, while effective in World War II, would have been a dismal failure if mimicked by Mahatma Gandhi in his movement against the British in India (Howell, Dorfman, & Kerr, 1986). The same may be said for Vince Lombardi. His autocratic leadership style may not be effective in dealing with the modern-day athlete on a large, long-term contract worth ten times that of his coach. The dictatorial leadership style would undoubtedly not work due to a different situational context.

The situational leadership theories considered time, place, and other circumstances encompassing the leadership act and were based on the hypothesis that leadership behavior could not be static. Leaders need to alter their style of leadership to match the specifics of the situation. Leaders cannot lead all associates the same way, as suggested in the behavioral theories of leadership. Matching leadership style with the specific situation is paramount to success. Hemphill, Seigel, and Westie (1951) noted that leaders must dominate situations that require control (e.g., operating room, military settings) and be less autocratic and more participative when collegial input is expected (e.g., university or college departments, volunteer boards, politics).

There are times when leaders must exert their influence. Sir Alex Ferguson, the highly regarded former manager of the Manchester United Football Club, has talked extensively about his approach to leadership. He left no doubt that as the leader of the team, he was in charge. He did consult his players occasionally, but he knew, and more importantly, they knew, who was leading. He did not play favorites. If he felt a player was undermining is authority, he cut them loose, regardless of their talent level, popularity, or standing in the sport. Vince Lombardi’s hard-nosed, autocratic leadership style was effective in dealing with the 1960s American football player. These players were comparatively underpaid and were perceived to be pawns in the overall hierarchy. They did not challenge authority to the same degree that contemporary players do. Mike Keenan’s dictatorial coaching style may have been very effective at times. Over time, however, he appeared to alienate himself from his players and senior management, helping to explain why he has been fired by no less than eight National Hockey League Teams. A softer, more engaging leadership style would undoubtedly have led to greater job security.

The context of situation does help explain the success of some leaders and the failure of others with leadership styles that did not change with the times. For example, the cerebral leadership style employed by Marv Levy, former coach of the Buffalo Bills football team, appealed to the intellectual curiosities of his 1990s athlete. He also kept things light. Prior to a Super Bowl game, he asked his players where they would rather be that right here, right know, playing a game for the National Football League championship and with millions of people watching. Levy recognized that contemporary players want input, almost to the point of seeking colleague status with the coach. In most instances, the players hold more power than the coach. Coaches, aware of the importance of member leadership and voice, recognize that players (i.e., followers) seek intellectual stimulation as well as physical challenge (Bass, 1990; Welty Peachey et al., 2015).

Arguably the most popular of the situational leadership theories was the Situational Leadership Theory (SLT), first produced by Hersey and Blanchard (1982) and later updated to the Situational Leadership Theory II (SLTII) by Blanchard (1985). The earlier edition of the SLT model matched the leadership style or behavior with the abilities of the associates. Leadership style was considered from two perspectives on two continua. The first leadership style was labelled “task leadership behavior” and was a measure of the leader’s guidance and direction for the subordinate. The second type of leadership style was titled “consideration leadership behavior” and reflected the leader’s socioemotional support for the subordinate. The key to leadership success rests in appropriately matching the leader’s style with the “ability and willingness” of each follower. Hersey and Blanchard (1982, 1985) insisted that there is no one best way to lead subordinates. As a subordinate became proficient and committed to the organization, the theory held that the leader’s style of leadership must also change from a task-focus to an orientation scripted in heightened human relations. Subordinates who were lacking ability or experience would be led with a highly task-oriented leadership style. With increased competence and time to build a relationship with the leader, subordinates could expect a less task-oriented leadership and a more compassionate form of influence from their leader. Consequently, effective leadership behavior cannot be categorized or implemented without first quantifying the ability and willingness of subordinates. Hersey and Blanchard (1988) developed the “Manager’s Rating Form” and a “Self-Rating Form” to measure a subordinate’s ability.

The first SLT model generated wide appeal with participants of management seminars but garnered minimal support from leadership scholars who empirically tested the model and uncovered minuscule evidence for the theory (Yukl, 1989). In response to criticism of the original SLT model, Blanchard (1985) updated and redefined the scales in a new SLTII edition. Specifically, he redefined the “task behavior” from the previous model with “directive behavior.” This measure was placed along the horizontal axis of the model and ranged from “low” to “high.” A high “directive” leadership style was reflective of a leader employing close supervision, one-way communications, and explicit instructions (Blanchard, 1985). The former “consideration” leader behavior category was redefined as “supportive behavior.” This measure was plotted along the vertical axis of the model and ranged from “low” to “high.” A highly “supportive” leader would be someone extensively involved in two-way communications, praising followers, facilitation techniques, attentive listening, and providing moral support to followers. Leaders could engage in a leadership style that blended the “directive” and “supportive” classifications together to match the needs of followers in the following fashion: S1 (directing), a leader with highly directive, less supportive leadership style; S2 (coaching), a leader with highly directive, highly supportive leadership style; S3 (supporting), a leader with less directive, highly supportive leadership style; and S4 (delegating), a leader with less directive, less supportive leadership style. Blanchard (1985) also reconfigured the follower component of the model to produce a more refined measure of their needs. Specifically, he redefined the “abilities” measure to represent a dual measure of the follower’s “competency and commitment” levels. “Competency” was defined as the “knowledge and skills which can be gained from education, training and/or experience” while “commitment” was defined as “a combination of the follower’s confidence and motivation” (Blanchard, 1985, p. 4). This scale is plotted along the bottom of the model and has four levels: D1, a follower with low competency and high commitment; D2, a follower with moderate competency and low commitment; D3, a follower with high competency and variable commitment; and D4, a follower with high competency and high commitment.

Blanchard (1985) suggested that an individual confronted with a new task usually attacks the assigned task with high enthusiasm and limited knowledge about the task specifics (i.e., D1 level). The leader in this situation should employ an S1 leadership style. With time and experience, the individual develops and begins to understand the task requirements, although Blanchard noted that these individuals frequently find the execution of the task to be more or less interesting and/or difficult than initially anticipated. This often leads to some level of disillusion (i.e., D2 level) and consequently, an S2 leadership style fit the demands of the situation. As time passes, the follower’s knowledge base and competence continues to evolve; however, Blanchard (1985) noted that these individuals still experience periods of self-doubt or uncertainty (i.e., D3 level), and they would be best served by an S3 leader. With continued development and the accumulation of success, the follower becomes more competent and confident in his or her abilities and moves into the final follower stage of development (i.e., D4 level). Blanchard labelled these individuals as the “peak performers,” and following the theoretical basis of the model, they would be most effectively led using an S4 leadership style. Blanchard (1985, p. 5) suggested that “individuals move from one level of development to another, from being an enthusiastic beginner to a disillusioned learner to a reluctant contributor to a peak performer.”

Consider a chief executive officer (CEO) of a Young Men’s Christian Association (i.e., YMCA) organization. Many subordinates will report to this leader, some of whom (D3 or D4) will be highly committed and experienced and may have been with the organization a long time. With these members, the CEO should use a leadership style that is less task focused (due to the high commitment and competence level of the member) and more relationship based. Other members may be new to their roles and/or lack experience (D1 or D2). They would benefit more from a task-forced leadership style that places a higher premium on learning the role gaining valuable experience and understanding the organization.

Another example comes in the leadership style of Urban Meyer, Ohio State’s football coach (Meyer & Coffey, 2015). He knows that not all his players share the same levels of commitment, leadership, and perseverance. He thinks of his team as a large circle. In the middle is a small circle resides a nucleus, comprised of approximately 10% of the team. These are the highly committed, disciplined players that everyone loves to coach. Around the nucleus is a much larger circle consisting of 80% of the players. These are the reliable dutiful players who do their jobs well but do not have the drive or the leadership qualities of the group in the nucleus. Around that group is a third circle, comprised of 10% of the team. These members are not team players. They are selfish and at times defiant. Meyer does not pay much attention to them. He focused on the nucleus and challenges them to bring more of the 80% group into the nucleus. He felt that, by the end of his 2014 National Championship season, his nucleus had grown to nearly 30%. Importantly, he did not lead everyone the same way.

The leadership literature clearly supports the contention that there is no single best way of leading others and that successful leaders are able to adapt their leadership style to fit the requirements of the situation (Blanchard, 1985; Hersey & Blanchard, 1988). Maximum subordinate satisfaction and productivity can only be attained by matching appropriate leadership style to the current level of the subordinate readiness (Hersey & Blanchard, 1988). Hall and Donnell (1979) determined that leaders were promoted faster when they had the foresight to recognize the need for adapting their leadership style to suit the situation. These leaders had the ability to recognize the needs of the follower and the situation and to employ the appropriate leadership style to fit each situation. This requires a leader who has the ability and confidence to employ both a supportive or directive leadership style to suit the situation. Stogdill (1974) noted long ago that leaders require versatility and flexibility in their leadership style and behavior if they are to be successful in adapting to the demands of each situation.

While the trait, behavioral, and situational theories of leadership provided for some interesting reading and theoretical bantering, they did not fully explain why some people emerged as leaders to be effective and other people did not. Each theory advanced the thinking in the leadership area but did not explain the concept in totality. Something was missing in each of these theories. “Researchers were still at a loss for explaining outstanding leadership at the top—leadership characterized by vision” (Sashkin, 1986, p. 58). These theories were inadequate in explaining how leaders excite people. These theories do not align with the “ideal” leader that people have previously experienced. They do not adequately describe the leader that people long for. In short, these theories explain in part what transpires in a leadership exchange, but they do not contribute to explaining and understanding how a leader can call forth voluntary performance beyond expectations.

Leadership theorists now appreciate the cognitive aspects of leadership and realize that this important aspect was void in the earlier approaches. How leaders think, how they create visions, how they understand what inspires others, how they challenge the mental faculties of associates needs to be considered in understanding leadership. These aspects are incorporated in contemporary leadership theory that is best categorized by the cognitive title. This line of leadership inquiry is presented in the next section.

A Cognitive Approach to Leadership

Effective leaders develop trusting relationships founded on credibility and together set agendas for a better, more prosperous future. The same situational context can be extracted from the political arena. The engaging, widely consultative leadership style of a Justin Trudeau or Barack Obama appear to be better suited to the current times than the effective, but authoritative approach of Theodore (speak softly but carry a big stick style) Roosevelt that was effective in the early 1900s. However, some political pundits have been highly critical of the charismatic Barack Obama or Bill Clinton style due to their perceived lack of action (and some believe the United States needs more Theodore Roosevelt–like leadership). At some point, the “rubber must hit the road,” and some felt that Clinton needed to take firmer action once the facts have been gathered, positions have been solidified, and people are ready for action. This was not an issue for George W. Bush, who was severely criticized for his “Fire, Aim, Ready” approach to leading the United States, a paradigm that some worry that Donald Trump has brought to the White House.

The degree of understanding became clearer due to a couple of relatively recent theoretical developments. First, the advancements in the cognitive area of leadership have furthered an understanding of how someone can transform an organization and the expectations of people to higher functioning levels. These developments in how leaders think have rekindled an interest and developed new theoretical paradigms in leadership from perspectives of both researchers and practitioners. Although the new thinking in leadership borrows from the past theories, Bass (1990) surmised that much has changed in the study and understanding of leadership. Secondly, distinguishing the activities of “leading” and “managing” has helped in crystallizing our thinking about what leadership is all about and how it can be manifested in a group or organization. Managers control and report while leaders inspire and enhance. Leaders serve as cheerleaders, as enhancers, as nurturers, and as enthusiasts. Managers serve more of a devil’s advocate role, choosing to referee, pass judgement, control and arrange resources, and limit risk. True leaders get results. “Leadership isn’t a difference maker. It is the difference maker” (Meyer & Coffey, 2015, p. 22).

Following the thrusts in the situational leadership theories and a brief hiatus, a new line of thinking has emerged in leadership. Theorists believe that the once-maligned trait, behavioral, and situational theories of leadership may still have something to offer in understanding this fascinating, albeit elusive field of leadership. As such, developments incorporating some of the key aspects of the trait, behavioral, and situational theories of leadership have begun to work their way into a new type of leadership. This leadership thrust, called the sociocognitive paradigm, has blended important aspects of previous theories and added a new dimension—the cognitive component to the mix. A new thinking in leadership emerged. James McGregor Burns (1978) is credited with drawing attention to this new thinking in leadership on the basis of his research on political leaders and his conceptualization of transactional and transformational leadership (also referred to as visionary, charismatic, or inspirational leadership). This is a new type of leadership, one that will prove successful in any situation when a group of people come together to pursue a common end. However, it is a different type of leadership and approach for those who hold or aspire to such positions. In the future “. . . leaders must be willing to share their passion and expertise, to empower others to be leaders, and to effectively lead their organizations. Leaders must inspire people to tap their enormous human potential, to challenge conventional ideas, to take risks in pursuit of their goals and dreams, to create enthusiasm for excellence, and to focus on visions that both guide our organizations and nations, and embrace all humanity” (McFarland & Senn, 1993, pp. 3–4).

The most prevalent form of leadership in organizations and politics is known as transactional leadership. This type of leadership, identified and labelled by Burns (1978), is founded on a two-way, quid pro quo exchange process and this style has been proven in maintaining the status quo. Organizational leaders employing this style may outline the task, how it can be completed, and provide an overview of the rewards that complying followers may receive. Political leaders who outline their campaign promises in exchange for follower votes are employing this type of leadership (Bass, 1990).

Transactional leaders recognize that the most expedient way to get things accomplished is by using this type of leadership. Transactional leadership is not built on inspiration or charisma. These leaders can act and get things accomplished in a short period of time by clearly indicating what they want followers to do and outlining to them the rewards that they will receive for their contributions. Followers are not inspired by this type of leader, nor do they have to be for this type of leadership to be successful. Followers only need to be made aware of the task requirements and the anticipated rewards that will come their way if they comply with their leader’s wishes.

Transactional leadership is insufficient in explaining how some individuals can inspire and focus a large number of people on a common goal and inspire them to invest efforts beyond everyone’s expectations. It falls short in explaining how a leader alters the beliefs, attitudes, and basic assumptions of followers to facilitate an orientation toward higher-quality outputs, excellence, synergy, and a focus on customers or clients. The real “movers and shakers” of the world transform followers into higher-functioning individuals who are synergistically engaged with their colleagues and the work environment. Performance beyond expectations requires a different type of leadership, a leadership that inspires followers to invest their energies in higher quantities, to make contributions beyond the status quo level. This type of leadership is called “transformational leadership.”

While there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the great leaders of yesterday and today employ a transformational style, Bass (1990) is quick to illustrate that many leaders use both types of leadership at various junctions. For example, he noted that “many of the great transformational leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, did not shy away from being transactional as well as transformational. They were able to move the nation as well as play petty politics” (p. 53).

Lewis and Kuhnhert (1987) approached the transaction and transformational leadership theory from an entirely different perspective—that of evolution. They noted that leaders go through three stages as they evolve from being transactional leaders to transformational leaders. Specifically, leaders begin influencing on a “lower-order transactional” basis whereby they focus on the immediate concerns and priorities of followers. At this point in their development, leaders lack the insight and perspectives to fully appreciate the “big picture” of leadership that is critical to higher levels of transformational leadership. Their concern at this point is with the present, the microperspectives.

With time, the individual will develop into a higher-functioning leader and move into what Lewis and Kuhnhert (1987) labelled the “higher-order transactional” stage. At this stage, the leader becomes more of a reflective thinker. While still focused on the personal and immediate needs of their followers, these leaders are beginning to form agendas about where the organization is currently positioned and where it may be able to move in the future. Lewis and Kuhnhert (1987) noted that the evolution of the transformational leader is transpiring at this stage.

The “transformational leader” is the third stage in the model developed by Lewis and Kuhnhert (1987), and this stage represents the leader who is fixated on the “big” picture perspectives. These leaders have the experience and insights to add perspective to issues and provide followers with meaningful interpretations of their contributions and efforts. These leaders are confident in themselves. They understand their strengths and use them to advantage. They also understand their weaknesses and surround themselves with others to complement their style. These leaders have developed their communication skills to such an acute level that they can charismatically convey both message and meaning to followers. In short, they influence their followers on a personal and higher needs basis and call forth commitment and contributions beyond expectations. They are transformational leaders.

A number of leadership writers independently came to the conclusion that the great leaders from a variety of different settings and circumstances have shared a number of universal leadership characteristics and behaviors. These people had the ability to inspire followers to align with a vision for the organization and influence them to perform beyond expected levels. Nahavandi (1993, p. 304) noted that these leaders have “. . . been consistently associated with high performance, particularly in times of turbulence and change.” These leaders convince followers of a course of action and exude tremendous confidence in their ability to guide followers to the desired end. They show genuine concern for followers and the development of their full potential into leaders. These special people have been labelled transformational leaders. Effective executive leadership—leadership that truly transforms organizations—depends on synergism among personal, situational, and behavioral factors. In essence, effective leaders are extremely perceptive. They have the cognitive ability to create visions (and/or the conceptual skills and experience to shape visions based on the ideas of others). They understand the key situational realities that must be incorporated into their visions, and they are action oriented, ensuring that the necessary steps are in place to turn visions into reality. Some writers have referred to this phenomenon as visionary leadership (e.g., Sashkin, 1986; Bennis, 1989), charismatic leadership (House & Howell, 1992), new leadership (Bryman, 1992), or inspirational leadership (Yukl, 1989), although the concepts of vision, inspiration, and empowerment are central to each theme. These leaders are focused on the overall vision of the organization and are not consumed with the day-to-day activities of the group. These leaders inspire their members to invest their time and energy in the vision of the organization, and they attempt to satisfy the higher-order needs (i.e., personal growth, feelings of meaningful involvement, self-actualization) of followers. Transformational leaders “strive to arouse and satisfy the higher level needs of their followers” (Bass, 1990, p. 36).

Transformational leadership theory is based on a higher order of influence. While transactional theory may be based on the exchange of intangible rewards (e.g., praise) and/or tangible rewards (e.g., financial bonus), transformational leaders are able to respond to followers primarily on an intangible basis. Followers influenced by a transformational leader are motivated to be the best that they can be, which, if channeled in the proper direction, can exponentially improve the organization (Lewis & Kuhnhert, 1987). Bass (1985) purported that transformational leaders elevate the needs of subordinates, who in turn, become more self-directed and self-reinforcing individuals. These individuals subsequently often become leaders in their own right. “Transformational leadership arouses the transcendental interests in followers and/or elevates their need and aspiration levels. In doing so, transformational leadership may result ultimately in a higher level of satisfaction and effectiveness among the led” (Bass, 1985, p. 32). These leaders inspire followers to develop to their potential and to perform beyond everyone’s expectations. Followers exhibit extraordinary levels of commitment to both the organization and the leader. Transformational leaders “. . . ask followers to transcend their own self-interests for the good of the group, organization, or society, to consider their longer-term needs to develop themselves, rather than the needs of the moment, and to become more aware of what is really important” (Bass, 1990, p. 56). These leaders (a) heighten awareness of organizational members to the goals and objectives of the organization and how they may be realized; (b) inspire followers to let go of their own agendas and focus on the broader needs of the group; and (c) stimulate and satisfy the higher order needs of followers by making them feel important, valued, and successful (Bass, 1990).

Many writers (e.g., House, 1977; Bass & Avolio, 1990; Bryman, 1992) have noted that this type of leader often emerged, or found it easier to emerge in times of crisis. In these situations, followers look to others for answers and may be more accepting of alternative viewpoints, paradigm shifts, and the freshness of change offered by the transformational leader. In addition to the notion that these leaders emerge in times of crises, there is consistency among writers as to the component features of what transformational leaders are and what they do to emerge and be successful in the role. These similarities are best summarized in the following four categories: vision, empowering/enabling leadership style, personal development of followers, and other characteristics.

Sashkin (1987) pronounced that there are certain personal characteristics inherent in effective leaders: (a) a high need for power that is channeled for subordinate gain (not directly for the leader’s benefit), (b) a high need for achievement, and (c) a participative management style that incorporates both a task and supportive emphasis. Bennis and Nanus (1985) purported that these leaders are outstanding communicators who consistently display respect for themselves and for those they lead, nor are they fearful of taking calculated risks.

Bryman (1992) suggested that the “new” thinking in leadership does include some universal traits and behaviors resembling the “one best way to lead” approach. He concluded with surprise that writers in the transformational leadership vein (e.g., Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Tichy & Devanna, 1986) paid minimal attention to the situational context. These leaders may be in a better position to get their message out and received if the organization is in a state of crisis. Furthermore, if the organization was successful or there were other constraints (e.g., financial hardship, severe consequences for incorrect decisions), the impact of the transformational leader could be minimized. However, research has consistently revealed that there are some universal leadership truths (Bass & Avolio, 1990; Kouzes & Posner, 1993) and that in many cases, leaders help engineer the situational parameters that they’ll encounter through the development and preservation of their organization’s culture.

The sports world has provided us with number examples of transformational leaders. For example, consider a talented leader like the late Mark McCormack, who forecasted the growth of televised sports to international markets and created the industry known as sports marketing. He was ahead of his time. Consider also the example of Pete Rozelle, the former Commissioner of the National Football League. He transformed the league by implementing a cost sharing mechanism with television revenue that ensured competitive balance and league-wide prosperity. Stacey Allister transformed Women’s Tennis in her role as the CEO and President of the World Tennis Association. She brought parity to the tournament prize money earned by female and male players. Theo Epstein’s vision and results in building previously unsuccessful baseball teams, and Phil Knight’s leadership of Nike are further examples of how sport leaders created and/or transformed their industry.

Current Thinking in Leadership: Role of Emotional Intelligence, Servant Leadership

Contemporary scholars are uncovering some exciting developments in the leadership area under the titles of emotional intelligence and servant leadership. Goleman et al. (2002) have offered compelling case studies in which emotional intelligence was effectively deployed to raise member commitment and performance in organizational and team settings. They argue that managing the emotional states and social relationships of the group and/or followers, is the most fundamental and most important aspect of leadership. They support their conclusions with quantitative evidence drawn from MRI images of the brain. They document positive changes in brain activity when people are dealing with a leader operating from an emotional intelligence base.

Nadler (2010) also effectively applied the emotional intelligence literature to the study and practice of leadership. He characterized emotional intelligence in terms of leaders who (a) understanding themselves (e.g., self-awareness, self- management, self-confident, emotionally stable, trustworthy, conscientious) and (b) understanding others (e.g., having empathy, having a service orientation, inspirational, relationship builder, able to manage conflict, change agent).

Sport managers, coaches, and leaders of volunteers in sport must be aware of their emotions and must recognize the impact of their words and actions on others. They must be able to maintain their composure and listen empathetically to the needs, wants, and desires of their charges. They must be clear and honest in all their interactions. The best leaders understand that emotions are the backbone of leadership, and the most effective leaders bring out the very best in those around them, to the benefit of the organization, team, or unit they lead.

Leaders of organizations, teams or volunteers must take opportunities to effectively communicate clear and consistent messages. They must make goals clear and public. They must also measure their progress toward their attainment and celebrate successes along the way. This is particularly important early in a leadership term when stakeholders are anticipating change and want to be assured that things will be different (Jennings, 2009). Bennis, Goleman, and Ward Biederman (2008) noted that effective communication is fundamental to strong leadership. They suggested that leaders must provide the right information to “the right person at the right time and for the right reason” (p. 4). Leaders must communicate frequently, consistently, and honestly. Lencioni (2012) concurred with this perspective, concluding that great leaders ensured organizational clarity by overcommunicating their message. Great leaders leave nothing to chance. They make goals clear and public. They focus their members by measuring unit performance against clear, specific, and time-bound objectives. Members understand both what the organization values and how it will operate. The key rests in both the clarity and consistency of the message.

Leaders need to effectively communicate at the macro and micro levels of the organization or unit. They need to take the valuable opportunities afforded them to reinforce the vision and values of the group, to acknowledge and trumpet the success of the unit and its members, and to highlight the upcoming challenges and opportunities that will help advance the organization, team, or unit. However, these cannot be one-way exchanges. Leaders need to invite feedback and questions to truly engage their members. According to Bennis et al. (2008) for information to flow freely within an institution, “. . . followers must feel free to speak openly, and leaders must welcome such openness” (p. 4). Leaders can set the stage for this type of openness through their words and actions. They must do the same with members of their leadership teams. They must ask themselves and others how they can become a better leader and genuinely thank people for the gift of their feedback.

The best leaders are effective communicators who engage and connect with people. The recent advances in emotional intelligence may hold the key for leaders seeking to heighten their effectiveness. Authentic leaders take a genuine interest in their members. They seek and value member’s opinions and insights. They get to know their members (and their families) beyond the organization, team, or unit. In doing so, they build powerful relationships that are foundational to effective leadership. Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee (2002) assert that great leaders understand the role that emotions play in the leadership process.

This approach to leadership will appear counterintuitive to those who hold the opinion that leaders must be strong-willed, driven individuals who command and control their followers. An emotionally intelligent leader appears to let go of power, appears vulnerable at times, and focuses largely on the emotional needs of their members. However, his approach gets results (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002). It worked for head coach Pat Summit, who used to sit with her Lady Volunteer basketball players at the start of each season to collectively set team goals. It works for the emotional and spiritual leader of the Ohio State football team; coach Urban Meyer deploys a cascading style of leadership that empowers and inspires his coaches and players to lead (Meyer & Coffey, 2015). He has a leadership development expert (Tim Kight) work with his players to maximize their personal leadership and citizenship behaviors both on the football field and in life. Meyer demonstrates that he genuinely cares for his players. He appeals to them on an emotional level. Emotionally intelligent leaders ask and inspire members. They are self-confident, committed to those they lead, and sensitive to their own emotional needs as well as those of their members. They work hard to build strong, trusting relationships with members. They awaken their curiosities, heighten their levels of commitment, and channel member energies to the accomplishment of organizational, team or unit goals. Boyatzis and McKee (2005, p. 4) noted that leaders operating from this base know that “. . . emotions are powerful drivers of their people’s moods, and ultimately, performance.”

The emotional intelligence literature base is garnering greater attention from contemporary leadership scholars. The concept has direct applicability to leading sport organizations, coaching teams, or inspiring volunteers in sport organizations. Sport leaders seeking to improve their performance should study and integrate these concepts into their leadership practices.

The concept has direct utility and applicability to leading organizations, teams, and volunteers in sport. Administrative leaders, coaches and leaders of volunteer seeking to improve their impact and performance should also study and integrate the emotional intelligence concepts in their leadership practices.

Researchers are sharply focused on the topic of emotional intelligence and its centrality to leadership. They frequently draw analogies and parallels to the sport domain. Sport leaders must be aware of their emotions and recognize the impact of their words and actions on others. They must highlight the importance of leaders maintaining composure, and they must listen empathetically to the needs, wants and desires of their stakeholders, while integrating other leadership practices that draw from the emotional intelligence literature base. Current and aspiring sport managers, sport management researchers, and coaches must learn how to integrate these concepts into their leadership practices.

Today’s leadership researchers are also focused on a concept best captured under the title of “servant leadership.” Servant leaders like Urban Meyer are concerned with the development and well-being of those they lead. The needs of the followers are paramount. These leaders know that they need followers, and this style of leadership facilitates an open and trusting relationship. Members know that their leaders genuinely care about them as people and that they are committed to their development as people and professionals. Followers are heard. They feel listened too and engaged in decision making.

The concept of servant leadership is gaining attention in the leadership literature. Researchers have documented the many benefits of deploying this style of leadership in contemporary organizations and groups. For example, researchers have revealed that this type of leadership style can increase member and organizational effectiveness (Hu & Liden, 2011; Schaubroeck, Lam, & Peng, 2011; Peterson, Galvin, & Lange, 2012; Liden, et al., 2014) and can heighten satisfaction levels as well as improve citizenship behaviors of members (Mayer, Bardes, & Piccolo, 2008; Ebener & O’Connell, 2010).

Researchers have started to investigate the concept of servant leadership in the sports domain. Sport management academicians Parris and Welty Peachy (2013) conducted a systematic review of servant leadership research. They noted that servant leaders display high levels of integrity, empathy, and caring in their leadership practices, which is consistent with other the developments in character and leadership field (Kouzes & Posner, 1993; Brooks, 2015). Servant leaders have been consistently found to improve the well-being of followers. Burton and Welty Peachey (2013) made a compelling pitch for the deployment of servant leadership in intercollegiate athletics (i.e., leadership, administration, coaching, emergent leaders) as they believe that the leadership style is ideally suited to educational sport, which should place its highest premium on ethics as well as optimal learning and development. Finally, Rieke, Hammermeister, and Chase (2008) believe that servant leadership is ideal to coaching the modern-day athlete who, like the modern-day employee, seeks fulfillment and engagement and growth though their participation. The style places a heavy premium on personal development and learning. The deployment of servant leadership in the sports domain, and especially the educational sports domain, is a promising development. Some researchers have quantified this suspension. Hammermeister et al. (2008) determined that student athletes of coaches deploying a servant leadership approach were more satisfied, empowered, and confident than their peers who did not deploy a servant leadership style. Follow-up studies of high school basketball players (Rieke et al., 2008) found equally positive satisfaction and performance connections. In addition, the researchers determined that players preferred this style of leadership from their coaches relative to other leadership styles. These findings have also been confirmed in studies of Iranian basketball and volleyball players (Azadfada, Besmi, & Doroudian, 2014) and Korean golfers (Bum & Shin, 2015). Servant leadership is proving to be a promising and effective approach to coaching.

The path of leadership theory development is clear and each theoretical area has contributed to advancing our understanding. The sports domain has a great deal to offer and gain in this area. The sports arena has and will continue to provide examples of effective and ineffective leadership. Researchers can explore each case and can help advance understandings that can be applied, scaled, and extended to other industries. In addition, coaches, administrators, and prospective sport leaders have much to gain by understanding and applying the empirically based insights offered in the leadership literature.

Sport leaders need to be mindful of the fact that that things change. The needs of those they lead also change. New developments in leadership emerge on a regular basis. Leaders in sport need to stay current. They need to know about developments, and they may need to adapt their leadership style to reflect contextual changes. They have so much to gain by staying current and applying these lessons into their leadership practices. The people and teams or organizations that they lead will be the prime beneficiaries.


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