Inside ‘Sport, Ethics and Leadership’: Defining Leadership

October 5th, 2017 | by Donald Polden
Inside ‘Sport, Ethics and Leadership’: Defining Leadership


Sport, in any form, becomes a laboratory for experiential learning and leadership development the moment participants begin play.  Whether a board member, a player, a coach, or an administrator, all play a role in constructing and displaying leadership.   In sport, and particularly in the intercollegiate athletics space, we value leadership performed well.  As the college sports landscape continues to spin in the aftermath of the FBI’s probe into bribery and corruption in basketball, should we begin asking questions about not just leadership, but also that of ethical leadership?  

Seeking to promote the significance of ethical leadership, Sport, Ethics and Leadership was released in July 2017. Co-authors include Santa Clara University Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Operations, Jeff Mitchell; sport ethics scholar Jack Bowen; sports attorney Ron Katz; former Santa Clara University law school dean Don Polden; and sports agent Rick Walden.

CollegeAD continues to run a series of excerpts from the book.  Written by Don Polden, this week’s excerpt is taken from the book’s third chapter, “The Importance of Leadership and Leadership Development in Sport.”  


The need for effective leadership is pervasive in our society.  Leadership matters in many aspects and sectors of our communities, including political and governmental institutions, business organizations, many professions (such as law and medicine) and, significantly, individual personal development.  Leaders move our economic institutions, non-profit and philanthropic organizations, and social and community groups, and they undertake the responsibility for articulating the goals and aspirations of the varied groups and entities; they lead the groups’ participants—whether participants are coaches or players, shareholders or clients, advisory boards or employees—to achieve shared goals.

There are many theories of leadership, and many perspectives on how leadership ability emerges.  There are also many definitions of what defines an effective and capable leader.  At one time, the notion of a leader and how he or she leads a group was shaped by human observation and intuition, often influenced by the results or outcomes of the leader’s activity.  Leadership was defined by what the perceived leaders did or did not do and how they went about their work for the organization or group.

Today, however, a great deal of the knowledge of effective leadership and effective styles of leadership is shaped by empirical analysis and a well-developed body of academic literature.

Defining Leadership

Of the many definitions of leadership, perhaps the simplest, and most inclusive, definition states that it is a process advanced through a personal relationship that influences individuals and groups towards established goals or desired outcomes. Leadership is a process by which an individual or group influences others to achieve positive, ethical change between the leader and his or her followers or constituents.  The functions that leaders perform for human groups are to create meaning and goals, reinforce group identity and cohesion, provide order, and mobilize collective work.

Key concepts underlying the prevalent definitions of leadership (and the corresponding description of what leaders do include:

– Leadership involves complex behaviors; it is a process of interactions with others;

– Leadership involves change; positive and ethical change; change is an outcome or goal of action by leaders; if an organization does not need change, then it doesn’t need leadership;

– Effective leaders have many attributes that enable them to be successful in leading change, but one of the most fundamental is a having “vision”—an ability to conceive of a plan  of action for how the change to the group or organization will benefit its members and the organization;

– Leaders inspire, motivate, and activate activity by their constituencies (followers, employees, teammates, etc.) toward meeting goals while trust in the leader’s vision for change moves the group toward achievement of the goals.


You can pick up a copy of Sport, Ethics and Leadership and save 20%* plus free shipping at To apply your discount, enter FLR40 in your shopping cart.

*This offer expires November 30, 2017 and only applies to print book orders placed via

Donald Polden About Donald Polden
Donald J. Polden is Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at Santa Clara University. He received his B.B.A. from George Washington University and his J.D. from Indiana University School of Law, Indianapolis. He teaches courses in sports law and policy, and antitrust law. He is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics at the University of the Pacific and is the author of several books and articles on competition law, higher education, and employment law. He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post on issues of business and law.

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