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The Leadership Perspectives section fosters succinct and impactful leadership conversations and brief studies,
with an emphasis on those that offer a sense of immediacy for scholars and practitioners.
—The Editors
Though the implementation of Title IX, among other measures, has resulted in increased equitable
opportunities for sport participation for girls and women, the same cannot be said for leadership
opportunities in sport, such as in coaching and administration. The current research examined how
female intercollegiate athletic participants construct meaning of their perspectives as leaders. Two
hundred and ninety-five National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) female college athletes
were questioned about their leadership perspectives. The perspectives presented revealed that the
female college athletes were success-oriented, sought to be change agents in their communities,
and believed in leading by example. Further, self-reflection was an important consideration on their
leadership perspectives. In light of the findings, implications and future research are discussed.
Though the implementation of Title IX, among other
measures, has resulted in increased equitable opportunities for sport participation for girls and women,
the same cannot be said for leadership opportunities
(Burton, 2015). Men hold the majority of leadership
positions in sport organizations, such as in coaching
and administration, both domestically and internationally (Acosta & Carpenter, 2014; Burton, 2015;
Staurowsky & Smith, 2016). A burgeoning field
of study has sought to understand the leadership
perspectives and experiences of women within sport.
Researchers in the field have concluded the underrepJOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES, Volume 00, Number 00, 2018
© 2018 University of Phoenix
View this article online at • DOI:10.1002/jls.21591
resentation of women in positions of leadership within
sport can be attributed to several factors, including the
“ideological gender beliefs (that) … inhibit women
within sport organizations through internal identity
comparison” (Sartore & Cunningham, 2007, p. 259).
The aforementioned factors result in some women
exhibiting self-limiting behaviors with respect to sport
and leadership; for example, men have greater degrees
of head coaching (leadership) self-efficacy and are more
frequently the recipients of positive appraisals from
other head coach leaders (Burton, 2015; Cunningham,
Doherty, & Gregg, 2007; Sartore & Cunningham,
2007). Additional research is required to better understand how women make meaning of their perspectives
as leaders (Burton, 2015). The current article situated
itself within the void.
The current study examined a critical element to
understanding the underrepresentation of women
in sport: How female intercollegiate athletic participants construct meaning of their leadership perspectives. Women who participated in college athletics
were the focus of the research because they are the
most likely candidates to pursue professional careers
in sport (Madsen, 2010). Some studies have reported
that being vocal, selfless, and positive are values and
traits that female athletes associate with an effective
leader (Adorna, Holmes, McNeil, & Procaccimo, 2008;
Holmes, McNeil, & Adorna, 2010). The studies operationalize the concept of leadership within the context
of the sports team, such as team captain. While informative, little is known about how female athletes make
meaning of their perspectives as leaders beyond the
team domain, including their anticipated professional
careers. Such information is an important consideration
for managers and human resource professionals in both
the sport and nonsport sectors. Sport and competitive athletics are frequently valued by corporate leaders
as college athletes are perceived as important human
resources for potential employment (Chalfin, Weight,
Osborne, & Johnson, 2015). Women who achieve leadership positions frequently cite sport participation as a
critical factor to their success (Ernst & Young, 2013).
The question that guided the current research was:
How do female intercollegiate athletes construct
meaning of their perspectives as leaders?
The method for the study was qualitative research
and the design was lived experience (van Manen,
1997). The qualitative, lived experience approach was
selected as it allows for the examination of participants’ perspectives as leaders and its meaning in a natural setting (Patton, 2002). The natural setting from
which the data were derived was the NCAA National
Student-Athlete Leadership Forum. The leadership
forum is a multiday conference that is designed to
assist college athletes in examining their beliefs and
values related to leadership (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2017). During one of the sessions,
participants were asked to respond to the following
two-part question:
1. In terms of your leadership abilities, what makes
you unique to the world?
2. In the next 5 years, how do you plan to use your
leadership abilities to positively affect society?
The questions were screened by NCAA staff and were
the only questions the researchers were permitted to ask.
Responses to these questions ranged in length from a few
sentences to multiple paragraphs. The average response
was approximately four to five sentences. Though both
women and men attended the leadership forum, female
participants were the exclusive focus in the current article. In total, 295 NCAA Division I, II, and III female
intercollegiate athletes from 19 varsity sports provided
their perspectives. Table 1 provides a breakdown of the
participants by NCAA division and sport participation.
Table 1
Descriptive Summary of Participants
(n = 295)
NCAA division
Division I—102
Division II—110
Division III—83
Track & Field—28
Swimming &
Cross Country—14
Field Hockey—14
Ice Hockey—4
Water Polo—3
Sport played (n = 19)
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES • Volume 00 • Number 00 • DOI:10.1002/jls
ATLAST.ti (, a qualitative data software program, was used to analyze the data. A team
comprised of three researchers participated in the multistep process. During the inductively driven analysis,
the research team was cognizant of the extant literature
on women and sport leadership. Thirty first-level codes
were established that captured ideas to support potential themes related to the research question (Gioia,
Corley, & Hamilton, 2013; Patton, 2002). Similar
first-level codes were then aggregated into seven secondlevel categories. For example, the preliminary codes
driven and determined were combined into a motivation category. The second-level categories were then
clustered into four distinct thematic dimensions: (a)
change agents, (b) success-oriented, (c) lead by example, and (d) self-analysis.
The following sections present a selection of perspectives that typify the responses of participants. Direct
words and quotes are italicized. Table 2 provides representative quotes for each theme.
While most participants spoke generally about how
they wanted to use their leadership abilities to positively affect society (e.g., I hope to be someone who people can come to for advice), 117 (39.7%) participants
expressed specific actions they intended to take to use
their unique leadership abilities to be change agents in
the world. In doing so, the participants referenced their
current involvement in community service initiatives
and the impact such projects were having on society.
Sixty-one participants cited current involvement in
community outreach as expressions of their ability to
use leadership to positively impact society; for example,
one newly appointed captain on her team planned to
encourage her teammates to engage in a youth literacy
program, so we can be an example for positive change out
in the community. She was not alone as others shared
similar goals toward improving their surrounding communities, as well as larger society.
Beyond community service and civic engagement projects, 105 (35.6%) participants indicated intentions to
use their leadership abilities to challenge stereotypes,
prejudice, and discrimination, thereby uniting members
of their communities and larger society. Using terms
like compassion and concern for others, these participants
championed diversity and sought to celebrate the differences that make people unique. The participants shunned
caricatures and labels that divided, and instead embraced
a leadership philosophy of diversity and inclusion. The
participants believed effective leaders appreciated unique
differences, embraced other cultures, and learn(ed) from
different perspectives. Many of the participants (n = 41,
13.9%), attributed their views on leadership to having
diverse cultural perspectives. While some participants
self-identified as minorities, such as African American
or Latina, others were raised around diverse individuals
and/or spent time outside of the United States.
Eighty-four (28.5%) participants identified a successoriented attitude as a leadership ability which made
them unique. The participants aspired to be successful in each domain of their lives, whether on the field
of competition, in the classroom, or in their social
lives. The participants had the will and drive to succeed
and would accept nothing short of excellence. Beyond
merely having determination and motivation, The
female college athletes believed their response to challenges and adversity made them unique leaders. Rather
than shirking from challenges, the participants indicated they invited such trials as the trials were viewed
as an opportunity for leadership growth.
Some participants (n = 54, 18.3%) spoke about the
importance of having a positive attitude with respect to
their leadership abilities. According to the participants,
the ability to remain positive, even when surrounded
by contexts teeming with negativity, made an effective
leader. Through their positivity and optimism, the participants believed they could impact those around them.
Sixty-six (22.3%) participants spoke about how their
willingness to lead by example made them unique
leaders. The participants believed the hallmark of an
effective leader was that she be willing to do what she
asked of others. The participants were willing to swim
the extra lap, shoot the extra free throws, or serve in
their communities to provide an example for their
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES • Volume 00 • Number 00 • DOI:10.1002/jls
Table 2
Select Quotes from Participants Corresponding to the Four Themes
Change agents (n = 117)
“I think that if I am positive with myself and everyone I’m around I can change society. To me small things make a difference. The
things you do every day with the people around you matter the most.”—DII, Track and Field
“…I will work to better my community and society as a Social Work Practitioner. I will make a positive change in education and lives
of children and young adults.”—DI, Water Polo
Success-oriented (n = 84)
“…I give my heart into everything I am involved with. I strive for perfection within myself and help others along the way. I came
from a humble background that has motivated me to be a better person and progress through many challenges.”—DI, Basketball
“I welcome all challenges and this type of determination is what helped me become the person I am today.”—DIII Basketball
Lead by example (n = 66)
“I provide a great example of diligence, respect, and character to a generation who seems to be losing these important values.” –
DI, Soccer
“A leader is more than a label; it’s a way an individual impacts and influences the lives of others for the better. I feel it’s important to
be a good role model and to lead by example.”—DII, Basketball
Self-analysis (n = 62)
“…My life experiences, cultural background, aspirations, as well as my motivation to excel in all aspects of life, for myself and for
those around me. I believe my generation will face serious complexities and drastic changes…I’ll have a positive influence because
of my background in sport, international cultures and policy and environmental science-skills that will be of insurmountable
importance in the future.”—DI, Track and Field
“I honestly must say that being adopted from the Dominican Republic and being raised by a white family makes me very unique
to this world. I have had to overcome obstacles with comments about skin color and not knowing and understanding my own
culture.”—DIII, Soccer
teammates and those around them. Participants also
believed that an effective leader does not just lead by
her actions, but also with her attitude. Accordingly,
participants were committed to upholding core values
such as honor, responsibility, and cooperation. Through
their examples, their participants believed they could be
role models and mentors for others, which could possibly result in their having a multigenerational impact.
Further reflecting on the importance of leading by
example, some participants described their approach as
serving or being servants. The servant leadership was seen
as humbling as it required participants to put others
before themselves. By taking such an approach, participants believed they possessed a unique leadership
approach and style.
S E L F - A N A LY S I S
Sixty-two (21%) participants also believed self-reflection
was an attribute they possessed that made them
uniquely capable of being leaders in the world. Based
on the data, self-analysis is defined as understanding
one’s values, beliefs, strengths, and opportunities for
growth. The participants were passionate about being
leaders in both the classroom and sport and wanted
to be known as having successfully balanced these two
pursuits; for example, one participant cited how academics were valued in her culture, while athletics are
often viewed as a waste of time. Though she recalled
receiving scorn for her passion for her sport, her analysis
of what was important to her drove her to pursue excellence in both academics and athletics. The participant
purposed to impact society by encouraging others to
pursue academic excellence as well. The ability for the
participant, as well as others, to realize what was important, often times despite the negative feedback received
from detractors, was a unique leadership ability.
Participants also believed that understanding how
their background influenced their perceptions, as well
as their current situations and future aspirations, was
a unique leadership quality. Many participants were
from diverse racial, ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic backgrounds; for example, one participant,
self-described as mixed race, had multiple racial and
ethnic communities. Based on her background, the par-
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES • Volume 00 • Number 00 • DOI:10.1002/jls
ticipant believed she could help impact the lives of people from both community groups. Another participant
stated she had a diverse background from attending four
different schools. Having learned a lot about herself and
others, she wanted to revamp the image of athletes so that
athletes will be depicted more accurately and positively.
The purpose of the current research was to understand
how women who participate in intercollegiate athletics
construct meaning of their perspectives as leaders. In
general, when asked about their leadership abilities,
participants believed they were unique for several reasons including a commitment to success, the capacity
to lead by example, and the ability to self-reflect. Participants expressed they could be change agents within
society. Examples of the positive change the participants engaged in included engaging in community
service projects, creating nonprofit organizations, and
teaching younger generations how to have respect for
others. The results of the current research parallel findings from prior research on the traits female college
athletes associate with effective leaders. Such research
found the ability to lead by example and the ability
to be positive and selfless were perceived as effective
leadership traits (Adorna et al., 2008; Holmes et al.,
The above findings were significant because the findings challenged common beliefs related to the intersection of women, leadership, and sport. Participants did
not appear to exhibit the self-limiting behaviors, such
as lower self-efficacy, frequently attributed to women
in sport leadership (e.g., Burton, 2015; Sartore &
Cunningham, 2007). An explanation for the finding
might be that participants’ prior leadership successes
served as a buffer or moderator against self-limiting
behaviors. The finding was an important contribution
of the current research as a counter-narrative to the perspectives of women in sport leadership was provided.
The findings of the current research have implications
for women in the industry, particularly since women
in positions of leadership often cite sport involvement
as a prominent factor to their success (Ernst & Young,
2013). Based on the findings, there are several practical implications for managers and human resource
professionals. Participants reported embodying a collaborative leading style (e.g., lead by example, servant
leadership). Such styles of leading have been found to
have positive impact on organizational climate and
performance (Goleman, 2000). The findings also highlight the importance of developing cross-cultural competencies in leaders, particularly as such aptitudes are
related to higher levels of leadership capacity and efficacy (Dugan, Fath, Howes, Lavelle, & Polanin, 2013).
Mirroring the perspectives in the current study, Gerzema and D’Antonio (2017) reported young people
entering the workforce desire to work in organizations
where the leaders are committed to doing some good
beyond generating profits. Industry managers and
leaders must be cognizant of the perspectives of the
workforce when casting vision and setting goals for
their respective organizations.
L I M I TAT I O N S , F U T U R E R E S E A RC H , A N D
There are potentially limitations to the findings in the
current study. The data used in the study only include
women who attended the Leadership Forum. The leadership-oriented nature of the forum could have biased
the responses have resulted in selection bias. Future
research should address such potential bias by surveying
athletes outside of a leadership-centric context. The
current study also presented female college athletes as a
monolith. Researchers should address how factors such
as race, ethnicity, and age intersect with gender, leadership, and sport. Researchers can also examine how
the leadership perspectives of female college athletes
evolve once in the professional arena. Such research
is important given the relationship between women
in positions of leadership and past sport participation
(Ernst & Young, 2013).
Acosta, R. V., & Carpenter, L. J. (2014). Women in intercollegiate
sport: A longitudinal, national study. Thirty-seven year update, 1977–
2014. Retrieved from
Adorna, P., Holmes, R. M., McNeil, M., & Procaccimo, J. K.
(2008). Collegiate student athletes’ preferences and perceptions
regarding peer relationships. Journal of Sport Behavior, 31, 338–
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351. Retrieved from
Burton, L. J. (2015). Underrepresentation of women in sport leadership: A review of research. Sport Management Review, 18(2),
Chalfin, P., Weight, E., Osborne, B., & Johnson, S. (2015). The
value of intercollegiate athletics participation from the perspective
of employers who target athletes. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate
Athletics, 2015, 1–27. Retrieved from
Cunningham, G. B., Doherty, A. J., & Gregg, M. J. (2007). Using
social cognitive career theory to understand head coaching intentions among assistant coaches of women’s teams. Sex Roles, 56,
Dugan, J. P., Fath, K. Q., Howes, S. D., Lavelle, K. R., & Polanin,
J. R. (2013). Developing the leadership capacity and leader efficacy
of college women in science, technology, engineering, and math
fields. Journal of Leadership Studies, 7(3), 6–23.
Ernst & Young. (2013, May). Women athletes business network.
Retrieved from
Gerzema, J., & D’Antonio, M. (2017). The Athena doctrine: Millennials seek feminine values in leadership. Journal of Leadership
Studies, 10(4), 63–65.
Gioia, D. A., Corley, K. G., & Hamilton, A. L. (2013). Seeking
qualitative rigor in inductive research: Notes on the Gioia methodology. Organizational Research Methods, 16(1), 15–31. https://doi.
Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business
Review, 78(2), 4–17.
Holmes, R. M., McNeil, M., & Adorna, P. (2010). Student athletes’
perceptions of formal and informal team leaders. Journal of Sport
Behavior, 33, 442–465. Retrieved from http://www.southalabama.
Madsen, R. M. (2010). Female student-athletes’ intentions to pursue
careers in college athletic leadership: The impact of gender socialization
(Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://opencommons.
National Collegiate Athletic Association. (2017). Student-athlete
leadership forum. Retrieved from
Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods
(3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Sartore, M. L., & Cunningham, G. B. (2007). Explaining the
under-representation of women in leadership positions of sport
organizations: A symbolic interactionist perspective. Quest, 59(2),
Staurowsky, E., & Smith, M. (2016). Female leaders in corporate
sport. In E. Staurowsky (Ed.), Women and sport (pp. 195–210).
Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
van Manen, M. (1997). Researching lived experience: Human science
for an action sensitive pedagogy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Dr. Rhema Fuller is an Assistant Professor of Sport and
Leisure Management in the Kemmons Wilson School
of Hospitality and Resort Management at the University of Memphis. Dr. Fuller earned a Ph.D. in Sport
Management from the University of Connecticut in 2011.
Dr. Fuller’s research interest includes the intersection of
diversity, higher education, and college athletics. Communications can be directed to [email protected].
Dr. C. Keith Harrison is Associate Professor and Associate
Chair for Faculty, Research, and Academic Affairs for the
DeVos Sport Business Management Program at University
of Central Florida in the College of Business Administration.
Harrison earned his degrees in Sport and Exercise Science
(Physical Education/Kinesiology) from West Texas A&M
University (1990), Cal State University, Dominguez Hills
(1992), Physical Education, and University of Southern
California (Los Angeles, 1995) in Higher and Post-Secondary
Education. His research interests include identity development
in athletes and inclusion issues related to gender and race relations in education, business, sport, and entertainment.
Dr. Darrell Johnson is Assistant Dean of Undergraduate
Studies and an Adjunct Faculty for the College of Business
Administration at the University of Central Florida.
Dr. Johnson earned both a Masters and Doctorate degree
from Western Michigan University in Counseling, Student
Development, and Higher Education Administration, a
Masters of Education degree in Leadership from Grand
Valley State University, and a Bachelors of Science degree
in Psychology from Michigan State University. His principal areas of research include; effective leadership models
for underrepresented groups seeking access to the executive
level of organizations; examining the role and impact of
organizational behavior methodologies on human capital
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES • Volume 00 • Number 00 • DOI:10.1002/jls
efficacy; and help seeking behaviors of undergraduate students attending higher education institutions with highly
diverse student populations.
Dr. Suzanne M. Lawrence is a graduate of the University of
Tennessee’s applied sport psychology Ph.D. (2001) program.
She also earned her BA in Psychology (1993) from University of Hawaii and her MA (1997) from San Diego State
University in Exercise and Nutritional Sciences. Currently,
Dr. Lawrence is a part time instructor in the Kinesiology
Department at California State University in Fullerton, CA,
and serves as an adjunct for the Sports Leadership program
at Concordia University of Chicago. Her research interests
include leadership in college athletics, stereotypes surrounding athleticism, and the career transition of college athletes.
Dr. Jeffery Eyanson is a graduate of the Azusa Pacific
University Master’s of Science in Physical Education pro-
gram. He also earned a Ph.D. from Capella University
(2018). Currently, Dr. Eyanson is an Adjunct Professor
at California State University in Fullerton, CA, and San
Diego Christian College in Santee, CA. Eyanson’s research
interests include football coaches’ experiences in the pregame ritual, football player’s experiences of concussions,
and burnout of female volleyball players. Dr. Eyanson
has over 40 years coaching experience. He has coached
volleyball at the club and high school level where he was
awarded California State Coach of the Year honors after
willing the Division I California Interscholastic Federation championship in 2000.
Danielle McArdle is a Ph.D. student in Management at
the University of Central Florida. Her research interests
include pay equity across gender divisions in professional
sport and athlete transition to post-competitive professional
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES • Volume 00 • Number 00 • DOI:10.1002/jls