January 2019

Developing MIT Student-Athlete Leaders

by Ed Ruggero

Julie Soriero, Athletic Director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wants her athletic team captains to lead their squads. Some of these young people know that means engaging their teams in the obvious discussions: more effective practices, better conditioning, on-the-field techniques. The best captains will step up to have the more difficult conversations: accountability to one's teammates, off-the-court behavior, even relationships with coaches, administration, parents and fans. Some of those conversations can be challenging, especially for a young athlete taking on her or his first real leadership role.

Soriero, now in her twelfth year as AD, found a tool to help those leaders jump start and guide those critical discussions.

At a recent conference for athletic directors in San Diego, Soreiro attended a session I led in which participants drafted a personal leadership philosophy. In its most basic incarnation, a leadership philosophy tells people:

  • Here's what I think my role is as a leader
  • Here's what you can expect from me
  • Here's what I expect from you
  • These things will attract negative attention

These questions may look straightforward, but coming up with honest answers requires some serious thinking, even soul-searching. A few years back a participant in another workshop told me, "You think you know what you think about leadership until you have to write it down for someone else to read."

Julie Soriero was the 2018 recipient of the NCAA's Pat Summit Award, named for the legendary coach of women’s basketball at the University of Tennessee. The award recognizes an individual in the association’s membership who has demonstrated devotion to development of student-athletes and has made a positive impact on their lives.

Download Julie Soriero's
Leadership Philosophy

Most people, even those in leadership roles, haven't been given the time or had any guidance to help them articulate their basic beliefs about leadership.

Soriero's first reaction to the workshop was that she'd never seen anything like it. From her own experience as a long-time coach and leader, Soriero knew that clear expectations were a gift to any organization, and the only way to achieve that clarity was through some self-examination.

"Every presentation I have attended on leadership functioned more as a checklist of qualities or actions," Soriero said. "This workshop forced me to reflect and be very clear about my role, my expectations and how I communicate as a leader. The value is in the work and the personal reflection. I've always believed that any team will function better if everyone knows the expected behaviors."

Soriero invited me to MIT's beautiful Cambridge, Massachusetts campus in early September. The long conference room fronted the Charles River, where rowers and sailors were enjoying the late summer sun. In the morning we held a workshop for coaches and Athletic Department staff; in the afternoon the team captains filed in, many of them wearing shirts or warm-up gear that identified their sport. MIT fields some thirty teams, and I was impressed that at this famously difficult school, these young women and men found time to devote to athletics and to their teammates.

As I do in every workshop, I emphasized the benefits of writing and sharing a leadership philosophy. The first is reduced stress and less wasted effort. People don't have to guess what's required of them if they have some guidance as to how they should act. Additionally, a leader who shares his or her thinking on leadership and personal interactions signals to everyone that this stuff—how our team interacts—is important. The team adopts a continuous improvement mindset.

For example, if someone on a team comes up with a great idea about how to make an improvement, like suggesting a better conditioning drill, everyone would like to hear about it. Similarly, if a teammate has an idea about how to improve the leadership climate on a team, ideally all hands would want to hear that, too. A team captain who shares his or her thoughts about leadership is signaling to everyone that this is a topic worth discussing so that the team can improve. Conversations about team dynamics move from being potentially difficult to being the norm.

There was an additional benefit that didn't occur to me until I stood watching the student-athletes work their way through the writing exercises. I found myself thinking about the hard work they'd all put in to get to this spot along the Charles River, an academic Mount Olympus. And then I thought of all those first year students who had arrived on the campus over the last two days.

"You know better than I do," I told the audience, "the stresses freshmen here place on themselves. Right now, in one of these dorms, there's a young man or a young woman worrying whether he or she is good enough. Are the academics here going to prove too much? Will I find a friend? And if I fail, then all those people back home who congratulated me on my acceptance here will know I couldn't quite measure up."

I looked around the room. I was pretty sure many of the juniors and seniors in the audience had once had those exact concerns.

"That young person is thinking, ‘I can't believe I signed up for a sport on top of everything else I have to do to make it through the term.' That person might be thinking that the whole athletics thing is a mistake. But you, as team captains and teammates, have an opportunity to help that terrified student-athlete. You can create a team environment that is welcoming, an environment that is supportive and focused on winning, not just on the athletic field, but across all the tough challenges that person is going to find here. Your becoming that supportive team captain can begin right here."

At the end of the session, a couple of the students paused before hurrying off to their next practice, class, meeting—whatever was on their packed daily schedule. They told me, and I hope they told Athletic Director Julie Soriero, how much they appreciated the gift of a few quiet moments to think deeply about their responsibilities, about their opportunities to do something good for their fellow athletes. Then, being college students and athletes, they stuffed their pockets with whatever remained on the buffet table and headed out the door.

Ed Ruggero is the author of The Leader's Compass: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Foundation For Success and regularly leads workshops on leadership as well as experiential learning trips to Gettysburg and Normandy. In The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, Ed uses the history of the battle to help participants discover the best leader they can be. See spring and fall dates for 2019 here.