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Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Is gender a factor when it comes to leadership?

By Val Ackerman

The topic of leadership in the business world has been widely dissected, and in sports, as in other business segments, examples of both good leaders and bad leaders abound. I co-teach (with Neal Pilson, an eminently respected sports media executive) a class at Columbia University about leadership in the sports industry. In it, we address the styles and traits of good leaders, as well as the various disciplines (decision-making, communication, planning, etc.) that we believe leaders in sports would do well to master in order to be successful.

Interestingly enough, one of the dimensions of leadership that Neal and I have not explored in our class is gender. Neal likes to say that "leaders come in all shapes and sizes," and if anything, our curriculum is gender-neutral -- meaning that the traits and skills we cover can and should apply to any leader, men and women alike. For my part, I've deliberately made gender a non-issue with our students, choosing instead to focus on personal qualities (Are you an optimist? Can you hold up under pressure?), core competencies (Are you a good communicator? Do you know how to manage your time?) and substance (Do you understand profit and loss? How would you describe your target audience?) that would work for any and all.

But having worked in the sports world for more than 20 years, and having seen the relative (and continued) scarcity of women in key roles, I often think about how gender plays into leadership in sports and whether it can be said that sports are, or could ever be, truly gender-neutral on this subject.

The advancement of women through the executive ranks of the sports business is most clearly a work in progress. When I started my sports career as a staff attorney at the NBA in 1988, the number of women functioning in leadership roles in sports was very small. While that number has grown, the profession remains predominantly male at the senior level, and change seems to be coming slowly. In my experience, the women who have risen through the ranks tend to be the ones who genuinely love sports, are really good at what they do, have winning personal skills and roll with the punches when they need to. I'm pretty sure the Meryl Streep character in "The Devil Wears Prada" wouldn't last long in the sports business (too much of a diva). But neither would a woman who lacks the toughness, directness and humor needed to handle the many strong personality types you encounter -- or to keep from getting derailed (and dispirited) by the air of exclusion that sometimes seeps into the space.

I've also noticed that the most effective women leaders in sports have a tendency to collaborate on decision-making. They intuitively understand the importance of relationships: i.e., the human connections that exist between administrators and athletes, between executives and their staffs, between sports organizations and their commercial partners, between teams and fans. As more women possessing these qualities advance in sports, the business can only benefit.

I've also seen that the dynamics of gender in sports leadership can be a function of context. For example, the perception when a female executive leads in men's sports may be different from the one that emerges when a woman is leading in women's sports, or when a man is leading in women's sports. But sports organizations shouldn't shy away from any combination. The idea that only women can or should lead in women's sports is as short sighted as believing that leadership positions in men's sports should only go to men. Men and women alike have the capacity to be great leaders in either realm, and great leaders (be they men or women) should function in both.

Coaching offers an interesting case study. No one questions the ability of men to coach either other men or women, in practically any sport. In women's basketball, the sidelines are filled with male coaches at all levels of the game, and their success isn't in doubt (see: Brian Agler, Gary Blair, Geno Auriemma). In fact, women's players don't seem to see the gender of their coaches as an issue; many have told me over the years that what really matters is whether the coach knows her or his Xs and Os, is cool under fire and has the ability to personally connect with players in a way that inspires them to come together as a team and achieve.

Of course, female coaches have also been very effective as leaders in women's basketball (see: Pat Summitt, Jody Conradt and Tara VanDerveer, among others). For this reason, I sometimes wonder what it would take for more women to assume leadership roles when it comes to coaching men, especially with so many qualified women now in the profession.

Most would say that young male basketball players simply respond better when their authority figures are male (like in the Army, perhaps?), and that the "tough love" approach that's sometimes needed in men's basketball comes more naturally when the coach is a man. This may well be true. But I've known female coaches whose love is pretty tough, too, and who have -- in abundance -- the technical know-how, patience, discipline, confidence and other qualities any coach needs to produce wins and be successful. Nancy Lieberman is helping pave the way as the head coach of the Dallas team in the NBA's development league. Could more women join her in leading groups of young men into basketball battle? I for one would pay to see them try.

So is gender a factor when it comes to leadership in sports? The passage of time may tell us more. Maybe Neal and I should add this to our syllabus after all.