Ohio State AD Proves That Great Leadership Starts With Emotion

By Jason Belzer | Forbes.com | March 23, 2015


“What am I getting myself into?” thought Gene Smith as he gazed out the window at the ground passing by far below.

It was the spring of 2005, and Smith was on a flight from Phoenix to Columbus, where in a few hours he would be formally announced as the new director of athletics at The Ohio State University. It was a dream job – back in his home state, leading one of the most storied collegiate athletic programs in the country. Yet Smith had only just begun to realize that the Buckeyes were in dire straits, and that they had somehow managed to get by all these years not because of strong organizational culture, but despite it.

Strewn across the seats and floor in front of him were the files of over 300 individuals who were currently employed by the athletics department. As he opened each, one after the other, he was stunned to find… nothing. Less than 20% of the folders contained any sort of evaluation of the employees’ performance. There were people who had worked in the department for over a decade, and their files contained only the resume they had applied with for their original jobs!

Smith was inheriting an operation with a budget in excesses of a hundred million dollars, and yet no one had ever sat down to determine whether the people who were running the ship were actually doing their jobs. Not surprisingly, the department had become highly fragmented with people working in silos, focused more on self-preservation than moving the organization in a positive direction. A sense of entitlement permeated throughout, as people simply punched the clock at a job that they were seemingly never in danger of losing. It was a toxic situation.

Yet in the decade that has passed, the Ohio State athletics department has not imploded. In fact, the Buckeyes have prospered beyond anyone’s imagination and it is due in no short order to the leadership of Gene Smith and the group of talented administrators and coaches that he has helped develop during that time.

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While no one will question Smith’s scholarly prowess or charismatic personality, neither of these traits have played a particularly important role in what has defined his prolific 30 year career as an athletic administrator. In reality, the root of his success, and as a result the rise of the Ohio State athletics program under his leadership, is Smith’s extraordinary Emotional Intelligence.

In his seminal research on the topic, celebrated Psychologist Daniel Goleman discovered that it is emotional intelligence, not IQ or technical skills, that largely determine an individual’s ability to effectively manage others. More specifically, emotional intelligence consists of five separate components —self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill— each of which can be measured, cultivated and plays a unique role in shaping one’s own leadership abilities.

What Goleman and his colleagues also discovered was that rating highly on some or even all of the components of emotional intelligence is not necessarily a panacea for great leadership. Rather, we should look at emotional intelligence as the blueprint, and someone’s leadership style as the hammer and nails for driving people and building great organizations. In particular, the researchers discovered that there are six distinct styles of leadership that dominate the arsenal of effective executives: Democratic leaders build consensus through participation. Coaching leaders develop people for the future. Authoritative leaders mobilize people toward a vision. Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony.  Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction. And Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance.

At Ohio State, Gene Smith has been able to successfully deploy a combination of these six leadership styles to help remove the sense of entitlement that had become endemic to the department and refocus hundreds of employees and student-athletes towards moving the Buckeyes towards a unified goal of becoming the most successful collegiate athletics program in the country. Smith does not apply these styles mechanically, as the process of leadership is a fluid one that requires extreme sensitivity to those whom we are trying to influence and manage. This is even more important when one considers that two types of leadership (pacesetting and coercive) have a negative effect on organizational climate, and should be used tactically. As such, for purposes of discussion, we will focus only on the four – Democratic, Coaching, Authoritative, Affiliative – that should be part of every executive’s repertoire.

The Democratic Style – Consensus Through Participation

In the late fall of 2011, Gene Smith faced one of the most difficult decisions of his tenure at Ohio State. Months earlier, revered Buckeyes football coach Jim Tressel had resigned amid a tenuous NCAA investigation into the program. Just weeks from the start of practice for the upcoming season, and it being all but impossible to launch a thorough national search, Smith had little choice but to promote longtime assistant coach Luke Fickell to replace Tressel.

As an alumnus of the university and a member of the coaching staff for over a decade, Fickell was beloved by the Ohio State community. Under extreme circumstances, including the critical eye of the national media, Fickell had done an admirable job in leading the Buckeyes during the 2011-12 football season. As a result, there was now enormous pressure for Smith to remove Fickell’s interim tag. Yet deep inside, Smith knew that Fickell just wasn’t ready to become the program’s permanent leader.

As director of athletics, Smith has final authority in making all decisions concerning the department. He could have simply said, “We’re making a change.” The president, while disappointed, wouldn’t have made a fuss, and the other administrators would have bit their tongues and turned a cheek. But he didn’t. Instead, Smith sat down with his staff and constituents and they discussed what the best choice of action was. Through much debate, the consensus became clear: Ohio State needed a head football coach with more experience and an established pedigree.

Of course, the final outcome was no different than if Gene Smith had put his foot down from the onset. Yet leaders who properly utilize the democratic style understand that by investing even a small amount of time in hearing people’s ideas and getting buy-in helps create an organizational climate based on trust and respect. Even when a leader has a strong vision or sense of direction, as Smith did in this situation, letting employees have a say in decisions (or even think they have say) goes a long way to keep moral and commitment high.

“You can cripple an organization when you have to step up and overrule others,” explains Smith. “That is why it is so critical to create an environment where people feel included in the process, where they can be candid and the truth be heard. Sometimes, if we can’t form a consensus about a critical decision, we’ll end up having to cut up a piece of paper do an anonymous vote. Even then, on rare occasions, I’ll have to say, ‘I’m making the call on this, this is why I made my decision, and we’re moving on’. But even in those instances, I never lose the trust of my staff because they know I have made a concerted effort to value each of their opinions,” he adds.

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The Coaching Style – Develops People For The Future

When Gene Smith arrived at Ohio State, the very first thing he did was set out to completely reform the way the department held its employees accountable. Unlike other executives, who in a similar circumstance would likely “clean house” – fire individuals and replace them with familiar faces – Smith took an entirely different approach. Because he had almost no existing information on the performance of the hundreds of individuals working within the department, he knew simply replacing them would not solve the fundamental problem. Instead, Smith had to methodically develop a system for evaluating and developing the Buckeye’s human capital, both current and future.

“We had to start from a completely clean slate,” recalls Smith. “We created a performance management plan for every employee. Well, actually first I had to teach my managers how to create a performance management plan! A decade later we still use those very plans to evaluate our employees, and to determine whether someone is meeting both our expectations and their own. It isn’t a one way street; you have to insure that every single one of your employees knows that you are personally committed to helping them achieve all of their own professional goals,” he expounds.

This approach to managing individuals is an exemplary demonstration of the coaching style of leadership. Great executives like Smith focus not only on attaining the goals of the organization they were tasked to lead, but also on encouraging the individuals who make up that organization to establish their own long-term goals, and then work hand-in-hand with them on creating a plan for their actualization.

“We’ve set up a program here for associate administrators who aspire to one day run their own athletic departments. Individuals like Pat Chun [AD at Florida Atlantic University] and Heather Lyke [AD at Eastern Michigan University] are testament to our steadfast commitment to developing our greatest asset – people,” explains Smith. “The same holds true even for employees who aren’t performing at the level we want them to. We never, ever give up on a person until we’re absolutely sure we’ve given them every resource and ounce of support necessary to be successful. And in the rare instance that we let someone go, we always sit down as a department and determine what went wrong, and what we as individuals and as an organization can learn from the circumstances.”

Coaching leaders push employees with challenging projects; they give feedback and training constantly, even when it means investing a substantial amount of their own time to the personal development of others. Not only does this create increased dialogue within the organization, but it does wonders for nurturing positive culture.

The Authoritative Style – Mobilize People Towards A Vision

Ohio Stadium, fondly nicknamed “The Shoe” by Buckeye faithful, is one of the most iconic venues in all of sports. Averaging over 105,000 fans a game, the stadium has become a key driver in the more than $60,000,000 in revenues that the Ohio State football program generates for the university on a yearly basis. Even with such an immense capacity, high demand has driven average ticket prices well into the hundreds of dollars, forcing many students and fans out of the market.

To allow fans who traditionally could not afford to attend in the fall due to high prices, the university made concerted effort to keep ticket prices low for the annual spring football game. In 2006, the athletics department set the ticket price at just $5. Not surprisingly, demand skyrocketed and in 2009 the Buckeyes set an NCAA attendance record of 95,722 for a spring game. The following year, ticket prices were bumped to $8, and the game saw only a minor attendance drop. Seeing that demand remained high, in the spring of 2014 the Buckeye’s raised prices yet again, this time to $12.

The results were disastrous.

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Attendance dropped to 61,000, less than two thirds of what it was just a few years before. But the sharp decline in ticket sales was reflective of something far more problematic – many of the Buckeyes most loyal fans had felt betrayed. Only a few years previously, the university had publicly touted that it was making game attendance “more accessible”, and now they had gone back on their word in the pursuit of profits.

“We lost our way,” recalls Smith. “We started thinking too much about making a few extra dollars that in the grander scheme of things was a blip on the radar. I immediately assembled our team and explained that we couldn’t let this happen, that we weren’t about to sacrifice so much of the trust and brand equity that we had built with many of our fans and get almost nothing in return for it. And so we decided that were going to roll back the price of a ticket to $5, and figure out how to reimburse every single person that had paid more. It was our mistake and we were going to own up to it,” he elaborates.

For any organization to openly admit to such a mistake is rare occurrence. For them to go out of their way to offer reparations on such a scale is almost unheard of. But executives like Smith, who personify the authoritative style, understand that sometimes a leader’s simplest responsibility is reminding his employees of what their organization’s purpose is in the first place. In this case, Ohio State is not in the business of making a profit from a glorified practice session, rather they were given the opportunity to give tens of thousands of fans the opportunity to be immersed in the Buckeye’s culture when they otherwise may not have been able to afford it.

Authoritative leaders like Smith make clear what the larger vision of their organization is, and in the process insure that every employee understands not only why they do what they do, but how each individuals own work plays a critical role in realizing that vision.

The Affiliative Style Creates Harmony and Builds Emotional Bonds

More than 900 student-athletes participate in 36 varsity sports at Ohio State University. They come to Columbus from all over the world, each equipped with all levels of maturity and immaturity, with varying sets of values and perceptions of what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Some grew up privileged, attending private schools, receiving supplementary training and having every one of their academic and athletic needs attended to. Others come from far different socio-economic backgrounds, growing up in inner-city neighborhoods, having to work part-time jobs while in school in order to help support their families.

The expectations the university has for each one of those student-athletes is identical. The way that each of them is treated within the Buckeyes athletics program is also indistinguishable. But the approach that Gene Smith and his staff must take to achieving this impartiality is varied.

“I grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Cleveland, and when I got to Notre Dame, it didn’t take long it to become evident that my background couldn’t have been more different than my teammates,” recounts Smith. “Yet even then I learned that there are ways of treating people differently without necessarily singling anyone out or giving ‘special treatment’. While the majority of student-athletes [at Ohio State] are of solid character, we’re also keenly aware that because of their varied backgrounds, they will respond differently to the way we instruct and coach them.”

The hallmark trait of the affiliative leader is their willingness to focus on championing those individuals whom they have been tasked to lead. Instead of just focusing on the end result, they instead put emphasis on creating emotional bonds and lifting those around them. This helps promote dialogue and consequentially catalyzes innovative and (positive) risk-taking behavior because people no longer fear the repercussions of potential mistakes. This is precisely the type of approach that Gene Smith, as well has his administrative and coaching staff have taken when it comes to leading and molding Buckeye student-athletes.

“The individuals that we bring in to talk to our football team about consensual relationships are going to be inherently different than the ones we invite to come speak to our swimming team,” Smith explains. “It’s not that we are playing favorites, or that we are being selective in the information we give one set of student-athletes over another. It’s actually the opposite – we are  consciously assessing what those individuals need at that particular moment, and providing them with the tools and knowledge necessary to succeed. We take different approaches because we care enough to do it.”

Of course, Smith is cognizant that the affiliative approach isn’t just one that works well with 18-22 college students. Making a conscious effort to care about your employees and build deep, trusting relationships, will pay dividends that are simply immeasurable.

When we toil away for someone that we know cares only about our bottom line contribution to the organization, we simply view our work as just as job. But when we know our superiors are committed to helping us succeed in our personal and professional journeys, we will work for them with our blood, sweat and tears.


Research has proven again and again that executives who are able to master the four positive styles – Democratic, Coaching, Authoritative, Affiliative – have by far the best organizational culture and performance, regardless of what type of business they are applying the concepts to. Moreover, individuals like Gene Smith, who show great flexibility in switching between various styles, are the ones that are in the end recognized as truly great leaders of their industry.

Jason Belzer is Founder of GAME, Inc.  and a Professor of Organizational Behavior and Sports Law at Rutgers University. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBelzer.

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