Bound™ Exclusive: The DNA of an AD (Chapter 8)

Brent Cook, CMACC, Athletics Director at Dubuque (IA) Senior High School puts it simply, "Being an AD is one of those jobs that defines servant leadership." Learn more about how humility is vital in activities leadership in Chapter 8 of the DNA of an AD.

Bound™ Exclusive: The DNA of an AD (Chapter 8)

The Humble Leader

"Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right." — Ezra Taft Benson

“Being an AD is one of those jobs that defines servant leadership.  No matter what size of school, the Activities or Athletics Director is the ‘only one’ doing that job.  Some large schools have an assistant AD, but the majority (at least in Iowa) do not.  A servant leader serves others, and oftentimes, by themselves in the AD role.

“As the ‘only one’ doing that job in a particular district, you are constantly working ‘for others’.  It can oftentimes be a lonely job, and why it’s so important to make networks of support in the state and national AD associations.

“I was an AD for 20 years, before I was an AD for my own children.  The job itself, and education work in general, is doing work for others.  As AD’s, we are often the behind-the- scenes workers, creating schedules, organizing events for others; other coaches, other students, other parents, and other community members.

“We are often overlooked (that’s okay, it’s not what many of us signed up for) and an afterthought at the end-of -year banquets.  But the work is fulfilling and worthwhile…a servant leader puts others first; not everyone is capable of being a servant leader, which means those that do become servant leaders are those that serve as Activities and Athletics Directors." Brent Cook C.M.A.A. Dubuque Senior Athletics Director

Many people think that leaders must be proud, brash and always right. In fact, the opposite is true. The best athletic leaders are humble, listen and are willing to admit when they’re wrong.

Humility is one of the keys to great leadership.

A prideful leader is in danger of blind spots. They are convinced that they are always right. They’re sure that their way is the best way. They feel like they don’t need to listen to the opinions of others.  This is a recipe for disaster.

“Talent is God given; be thankful, Fame is man given; be grateful, Conceit is self given; be careful.” - Tony Dungy

A humble leader, on the other hand, is set up for success.

What does humble leadership look like?  It looks like you!

  • Listening. Humble athletic leaders listen to the opinions and feedback of coaches, students, colleagues, and administration. They don’t assume that their ideas are always the best.
  • Asking for feedback. Humble leaders ask those around them for constructive feedback. They realize that they don’t know everything and need the valuable advice of others.
  • Admitting mistakes. Every athletic leader makes mistakes. The best, most humble leaders admit when they’ve made mistakes. This creates an environment where others feel like they too can admit their mistakes.
  • Respect. Truly humble leaders are respectful of others. They value the insights and opinions of others and do everything they can to respect what others bring to the table.

St. Augustine said, “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

Humility is fundamental to success as a leader. Leaders who are humble thrive, while leaders who are proud ultimately falter.

Why is humbleness important in leadership?

Humility as an athletic director leads to higher rates of coach engagement, more job satisfaction and lower rates of coach turnover. Humility is broadly defined as

1. self-awareness,      

2. appreciating others' strengths and contributions, and            

3. openness to new ideas and feedback regarding performance.

Humble athletic leaders are consistent and disciplined in their treatment of students, coaches, and parents. They treat everyone with respect regardless of their position, role or title. They understand their strengths and limitations. Humble athletic directors  have the confidence to recognize their own weaknesses.

"Humility leads to strength and not to weakness. It is the highest form of self-respect to admit mistakes and to make amends for them."  — John J. McCloy

Advice from the DNA AD Pool

Intentional – “People always talk about having goals but I rather talk about intentions. If you do things with the right intentions, your goals will follow.”  Jeffrey Koops C.M.A.A., Director of Athletics, International School of Ulaanbaatar


Nurturing - “To me nurturing means caring for and encouraging the growth and development of our students and peers.  A nurturing relationship is usually a healthy one that can help foster the growth between these individuals.” Nathan Boock Athletic Director, Ballard-Huxley

Authentic – “Be true to yourself, embrace who you are. Being from the Netherlands I know my strengths and my weaknesses. But I have learned that I bring a unique skillset to the AD job so I am embracing those. Being authentic will always beat acting like someone you are not.” Jeffrey Koops C.M.A.A., Director of Athletics, International School of Ulaanbaatar

Grateful - “Be Thankful. For everything. For the opportunity to do a job you love. To impact so many people on a daily basis. To get to experience everything that you do, both good and bad. Never be ashamed or hesitate to show people how grateful you are, even in the face of less than ideal circumstances. Keep in mind that without showing appreciation or thanks to those that make our jobs possible we can appear snobbish or arrogant. None of us can do this job alone.” Sean Blumette, CAA, RMSAA, CIC, Athletics Director, Brooke County Schools

"Humility is Greatness in plain clothes." - Spencer W. Kimball

Genuine - “As a young AD, I have learned the importance of staying true to who I am and what I believe in.  It's okay to say that I don't know the answer, or that I messed up when I made a bad decision.  Being genuine and honest with others will garner much more respect and understanding than the other way around”.  Adam McDonnell, Cedar Rapids Xavier Athletics Director

"Humility is royalty without a crown." — Spencer W. Kimball

Sometimes It’s Hard to Say I'm Sorry…

Sometimes in our roles as athletics administrators we unintentionally hurt people's feelings. Perhaps you said something sarcastic that was interpreted as mean-spirited.

By the time we’ve been in our roles as athletics directors for some time, most of us have done or said many things that require us to apologize. Making a heartfelt apology can help pave the way for better relations but it does require some skill and intentionality.

Do you feel you need to apologize to a parent, coach or student? Here are a few pointers from someone who has to say “I’m Sorry” too many times to mention. Before you go talk to the person, even if nothing comes to mind in the moment, utilize these steps to make your future apologies  work for you:

Realize you've done or said something hurtful. As in correcting any mistake, the first step to an apology is the recognition that you've done something that has caused hurt or emotional pain.

  • Sometimes, people let us know they're feeling injured by lashing out. Others withdraw and become quiet.
  • Asking questions is a great way to start finding out what's going on. Try inquiring if they're upset about something in particular. If you think you may know what the issue is, mention it.
  • Remember that they have a right to decline telling you. If you've asked once or twice, and they haven't engaged with you, let them know that you'd be happy to talk, if or when they become ready.
  • Then, give them some space. While they process their feelings, you can think back on your words and actions. Maybe you'll easily see your part in the situation. When you can clearly articulate your actions, then you're ready to make an apology.

Find just the right words. Next, consider how to phrase your apology. If you're sincere about feeling sorry, those words will come to you pretty easily. Ask yourself, "What do I want to say?"

  • Finding the right words has two goals.
  • The first is to convey the remorse you feel regarding your actions or words.
  • The second and often ignored goal is not to repeat the hurtful behavior or comments in the future.
  • In your apology, avoid giving a reason for your actions. Those who make excuses for their hurtful behaviors look as if they're trying to defend themselves. Your apology is about them, not about your reasons for your actions.

Skillfully communicate your apology. At this point, you're ready to verbally communicate your feelings.

  • Apologies are best done in person. Choose a comfortable setting, make eye contact and tell the person you have something important to address with them.
  • State your apology using appropriate voice tones. Avoid long, drawn out apologies. Make it short and sweet. Convey your sincerity with your tone. Joking is usually unnecessary and unwelcome.
  • Prepare for any reaction your friend might have. Of paramount importance, listen to any comments or questions from your friend about your prior remarks.
  • In the event those you are apologizing to begin to express anger toward you or further question your motives in what you said or did, listen carefully and recognize that their anger is most likely the result of hurt feelings. Simply repeat your apology with the utmost sincerity.

Making apologies takes some intentionality, practice and skill. But if you follow these easy steps above, you'll be well on your way to repairing broken bridges and you'll feel better about your role as a positive, impactful athletic leader!

“Apologizing does not always mean that you are wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.” - Unknown

About Scott Garvis

Scott Garvis has been a leader and innovator in intercollegiate and interscholastic athletics development and fundraising for more than 25 years – as an athletics director, coach, association board member, adviser and editorial contributor.

Scott has a record of excellence as Athletics Director, Director of Activities and Assistant Principal, having led the athletics departments at six high schools or school districts in three states.  He has achieved unparalleled success at all levels of high school athletics: large public school districts, a small public high school, a private school, and with state and national athletics administrator associations.