It is Pavlovian, hearing the old alma mater mentioned in the news still perks up the ears. Unfortunately, like the news that typically comes from the State of Illinois, hearing the University of Illinois mentioned tends not to be followed by positive, uplifting stories. Then add that this bit of news was broadcast during a sports segment, well one tends to “brace for impact – this will not be good”. Sadly, what was shared was not just frustrating as an alumni, it was absolutely infuriating on a professional and personal level.
Leaders, regardless of role, scope or circumstance, have a responsibility to those they lead. It is a professional and personal responsibility to help the organization and individuals meet and exceed their potential. To do what is right for others, to inspire, to provide a vision, a plan and the resources to obtain that which they collectively wish to achieve. Leadership is the core of politics, of business, of athletics, and of all things that require group effort. And effective leaders must communicate. They must speak as a leader. Sadly, the quote that came from the University of Illinois Athletic Department and it’s Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk was a case study in failure:
“Obviously, it’s not ideal but for now, I don’t think it’ll put a dagger in the heart of the program,” Kowalczyk said.
Foremost, a leader must speak with confidence. If the leader has no faith, no confidence in the decision and course of action, it is a given that no one else will. To preface your statement with “it is not ideal but…” is synonymous with “this is going to be miserable but…”. While acceptable when describing a lifeboat relative to the Titanic, it is not effective when speaking of a newly hired, or in this case contract extended, leader or coach. Kowalczyk quite literally undermined the very foundation of trust, confidence and support Coach Cubit requires to have any chance of success in leading the football program. When a leader denies their support to those they are responsible to lead, they have ensured the ultimate failure of the team. All the financial resources, material, logistics and marketing cannot offset the damage done when moral support and confidence is denied to a subordinate. Especially so in a public forum.
As if the first disclaimer was not damaging enough, to then set the bar just above “putting a dagger in the heart of the program” with the awe-inspiring caveat of “I don’t think” is worse than actually admitting defeat. A leader must have the courage of their convictions. A leader is not just there to deliver the positive message, they also must deliver the bad. And when delivering bad, clarity and ownership are of critical importance. Waffling and trying to “sugar coat” the bad news is worse than the actual bad news. Kowalczyk set the standard for acceptable performance with his statement. The only thing Coach Cubit, and by extension his players and staff, are expected to do is not “kill the program”. For the staff and the players, there is absolutely no reason to do anything more than the minimum. No one enjoys being a part of an organization who’s only goal is to do the minimum. No one enjoys “working to lose”.
Lastly, Leadership 101 – know the names of your people…and use them. It seems so trivial, so basic, so obvious, but taking the time to learn someone’s name means you care. A leader must care about those they lead. If the leader does not care, if names are not important, then it is absolutely assured the subordinates notice, and that lack of personal caring will be reciprocated. If your subordinates are simply an “it” to you, then you are nothing more than an “it” to them.
Much like the State of Illinois, the University of Illinois is going through a period of difficulty and challenge. There is a leadership void in the university, with the “interim” title either in use or having been used over the last 12 months at the President, Chancellor, Athletic Director and Head Football Coach levels. It is not a positive scenario for anyone, and is clearly a crucible in which strong leadership is required. Administration and Management are not the same as Leadership. While Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk might be a fine director, manager and administrator, he clearly could use some help on the leadership side, and especially so when it comes to speaking as a leader.
Not to be one to just throw stones, might a suggestion for Director Kowalczyk’s, or any leaders, statements take the format of stating clearly the situation, then state the vision, and lastly support those implementing the plan to attain that vision. For example:
“It has been a trying season, yet through this period Coach Cubit has been a steady hand on the tiller, earning the respect of his players and the University. We all are committed to moving forward and achieving success on the grid iron and in the classroom, and Coach Cubit is the man to lead this program and our student athletes.”
While not perfect, it is certainly better than “yea, it’s not what anyone wanted, but he will do for now…shoot, it really cannot get much worse”.
In the end, all the millions of dollars in revenue, all the alumni passions, all the administrator’s and coaches careers aside, it is about a group of students who joined a team. They deserve better.