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Volume 20 No. 42
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The secrets of leadership are often found at the bottom

In our experiences teaching students aspiring to serve as future managers in the sports industry, we’ve noted a growing curiosity about North America’s sports executives. Indeed, both of us frequently create leadership exercises, and one of us even designed an open-ended case assignment for an undergraduate sport management class at Syracuse that went like this:

Selecting from league commissioners Roger Goodell (NFL), David Stern (NBA), Gary Bettman (NHL) and media chiefs George Bodenheimer (ESPN) and Brian Roberts (Comcast), write a five-page analysis of where the selected individual came from (examining the trajectory of his career) and describe what early leadership traits (or experiences) best explain his approach to managing his multibillion-dollar enterprise.

What emerged was a hodgepodge of superficial descriptions detailing recent high-profile challenges the above individuals faced. Much seemed missing. Only one paper on Goodell started as far back as his sporting career in high school. Only one enterprising student dug deep enough to write about Stern working at his family’s deli during summers in law school. Only a few included the nugget that Bodenheimer started in ESPN’s mailroom. None ventured a guess on what these men learned at the beginning of their careers, how their career ambitions were nurtured or how they developed the requisite skills to successfully steward high-profile organizations.

Granted, taking students to task for writing bad “book reports” is easy, but at the core of this challenge is a reality that teaching sports leadership development (as opposed to regurgitating statements of accomplishment) is often a difficult meal to serve.

Averting a lockout (or forcing one) is certainly part of the territory that goes with running a league. As is keeping 30 or more owners satisfied with your work. Similarly, buying expensive broadcast rights or acquiring a major media property (as in the case of Comcast taking a 51 percent position with NBC-Universal) is complicated and requires enormous stamina, delegation, instinct and decisiveness.

But how should today’s students think about the nuances of leadership and the development of managerial fluidity? As a generation, they’re often seen as overly entitled and have been led by their parents to believe they are wonderful, brilliant and deserving of better than whatever they’ve been offered or given.

These baby boomer spawn arrived courtesy of history’s most successful generation. Yet, many may not attain the same levels of success in their lifetime as their parents. And that covers not only financial accomplishment but also health, longevity and happiness.

We believe strongly that a disconnect exists between parents’ excessive coddling and their children’s ability to learn valuable leadership traits. It may be a parents’ right to assist their child, but keeping a young person from starting at the bottom may alter his or her capacity to master group dynamics and truly seek out servant-leadership moments on thankless tasks. This problem manifests itself when these same children graduate from college expecting to lead departments or divisions, less than 90 days after graduating. Trust us, this is a major challenge facing higher education today, and not just in North America.

For some, it may be hard to believe but here’s a hard truth: Entitlement without hard work is a recipe for disaster. Leaders like those mentioned have faced decades of leadership development where traits like integrity, inclusion and imagination were honed during career-defining “fires.” In each case, though, these leaders must have drawn on early-career lessons that allowed them to solve problems and take on new ones.

In a recent trip to New York City, one of us had the chance to sit down with Bettman and discuss the realities facing his league. Based on an hourlong discussion on many topics, it became evident that, first, this man is very intelligent and well-versed on all things legal, sponsorship-related, consumer mass marketing, player welfare, social media and so on.

Second, it was obvious Bettman has a firm grasp of what is happening at all levels of his sport. We had deep discussions on issues ranging from youth participation in ice hockey, equipment costs for families, sponsorship evaluation, player injuries and Sochi 2014.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s worth noting the clarity of Bettman’s focus when it came to listening to his owners. In this regard, like any smart manager, it was evident that he understands that leadership is about making sure you have the right vision and the expertise required to achieve that vision. Perhaps no better proof may exist than observing that the NHL’s business model (at the moment) appears to be working for the majority of teams.

So what’s the link between uncertain expectations for our graduating students and the shrewdness of long-term leaders in sport? First, given the low turnover at the top of our industry and the few elite leadership positions in the middle, the odds of a student climbing through the ranks are daunting. However, given those odds, carefully assessing the choices of current CEOs must stand as an absolute.

As another academic year comes to an end, we can only hope our students have been learning from these leaders. That they are reading their blogs, inspecting their websites, reading their trade publications, dissecting their speeches and ultimately following and analyzing their decisions.

To that end, our generous graduation gift to them could be this simple piece of advice: Leadership looks great at the top, but the secrets start at the bottom. Be a sponge and soak up everything.

Rick Burton ( is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former commissioner of the Australian National Basketball League. Norm O’Reilly ( is an associate professor of sport business at the University of Ottawa.