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President sees links between sports, leadership

President Lois B. DeFleur spoke at a luncheon last month celebrating women’s athletics.
President Lois B. DeFleur gave a speech last month during the National Girls and Women In Sports Day luncheon. The following was adapted from her remarks.

If we consider American society broadly, we know that it is permeated with sports. Cable television offers dozens of channels devoted to sports and fitness programming. And while this interest in professional and intercollegiate sports dates back at least as far as the turn of the last century, for much of that time women were not strongly represented, even though at Binghamton and elsewhere there have been many excellent female athletes.

I played basketball when I was in high school and college. And clearly at that time there was not the encouragement that we find today.

In recent decades, there has been an explosion in interest in women’s sports, particularly since 1972, when Title IX outlawed discrimination in all areas of education on the basis of sex. Before Title IX, only about 7 percent of all high school athletes were girls. Now they comprise 42 percent.

But participation is only half the story. What is really important is that these increased opportunities are helping prepare young women for a lifetime of opportunities and leadership.

Studies demonstrate a link between women’s athletic participation and leadership qualities. In 2001, the insurance company Mass Mutual conducted a survey of female executives of Fortune 500 companies. It is titled “Game Face: From Locker Room to the Boardroom” and the results are striking. More than 80 percent of these executives played sports in high school or college, and most played on teams.

Other studies indicate that female athletes are more likely to gain advanced degrees and to have professional jobs in corporations, health care or as teachers and professors. They tend to earn more than their non-athlete peers.

What is it about athletics that enhances leadership? “Game Face” tells us that women found that participation in competitive sports increased their discipline and competitive edge, enabled them to better deal with failure and made them more productive. But most important, it gave them a better understanding of how teams work together to win.

When I talk to employers, they tell me that they want to hire people with good communication skills, who have the ability to work with others and are able to solve problems quickly and creatively. They want people who are organized, quick-thinking and don’t pull back, which is pretty much the definition of a good athlete.

I would add that athletic participation also helps develop a sense of vision: the ability to take in the big picture quickly, to understand who the players are and what their positions are, and to make decisions quickly and competently.

When I was on the basketball court, this meant knowing that the point guard will be on the wing, that the forward is there to set a screen and that the center will be there for the rebound. Of course, as president of the University, my vision has to be a little broader. But I still need to know who is playing for what team, whether they are going to pass or shoot and, of course, I still watch out for flying elbows.

Sports played an important role in broadening my opportunities, not only about what was possible in terms of my career, but also in terms of seeing the world through other people’s perspectives. I grew up in a small town outside Chicago, one that was almost entirely white and middle class. Basketball gave me a chance to not only play against, but with, a broader range of people.

To be leader in this global era, you must be able to communicate with people from other backgrounds and parts of the world.

Currently, Binghamton’s athletic teams come from a dozen different nations, so athletes have opportunities to gain these perspectives.

But perhaps the most important way that athletics enhances leadership ability is that it encourages women to be risk takers. For many years, our society did not encourage women to be risk takers. But taking risks is an important part of developing our full potential, and it is a crucial characteristic of good leadership.

Participating in athletics gave me the confidence to take risks, not only on the basketball court, but in my career. Often these opportunities came out of the blue when someone approached me with a new undertaking or proposal that forced me to rethink my current position. Such opportunities were not without risk.

For example, when I was asked to become the first female dean at Washington State University, it meant moving into a leadership area where I had no experience. In the end, that decision yielded many other opportunities and led to the President’s Office here at Binghamton.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08