The athletic director at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga came to the Rotary Club of Cleveland on Tuesday, not to brag about the department’s accomplishments, but about how the university “equips young people to become winners.”
David Blackburn, who is a native of the town of Philadelphia, near Loudon, said anytime he gives a talk, he doesn’t want to just talk about UTC.
“Hopefully, at the end of this, you’ll leave with one thing that you didn’t know when you came in here that will help you personally,” Blackburn said.
He said it is important to teach not only winning, but “winning behavior.”
That comment led to his remarks about the importance of leadership and four pillars that lead to the making of a great leader.
Blackburn said people follow leaders they believe in and they follow leaders they think have a decent core value representing what is best for whatever entity is involved.
“It’s that simple,” he said. “They need to follow someone who is willing to make a tough decision.”
He said all problems are leadership problems.
“I didn’t say all problems were caused by the leader. It’s two different things,” Blackburn said.
He said a leader must have a structure in place where a problem is found and is fixed.
“If it doesn’t get fixed, then there’s a major problem,” he said. “There’s a major issue, because structure defines function. You have to have your structure in place to define the functions.”
He said moral, ethical, financial and other issues face everyone.
“But, ultimately it’s the problem of the leader,” he said. “If it’s not their problem you probably don’t have the right leader. They probably are not equipped to lead people.”
Blackburn said there is also the need to raise expectations.
“Hopefully, if you come to UTC right now in athletics, you see us raising expectations,” he said. “It takes time sometimes. They can’t flip [a program’s direction from mediocrity to winning] overnight.”
He said many times organizations do not know what “good” looks like.
“In today’s world, we’ve lost what ‘good’ looks like. Our definition has changed in many instances,” Blackburn said. “Hopefully, we’re defining what ‘good’ looks like. My children know there are certain things they do that are not good, so they have to know the destination and how to get there. It’s done daily, weekly and hourly.”
He said in the year he has been at UTC, he has seen some good things and some things that did not work.
“I think we’re still in the mode of trying to find out what our expectations are,” Blackburn said. “A lot of people aren’t prepared to do that and deal with the issues in a very respectful manner.”
Third, he discussed fundamentals.
“I do better when things are simple,” he said. “I get clutter and have trouble focusing, so when things are complex I get tied up too much in the complexity.”
He said it is important to pare things down to be as simple and efficient as they can be made.
“That sounds simple, but it’s oftentimes hard to do when communicating because the issues may be complex,” he said. “I found the more simple you can make it, they get it.”
Blackburn said the fundamentals have to be sound.
“The people who are great are those who do common things uncommonly well,” Blackburn said.
He ended with the admonition that good leaders always surround themselves with producers.
“Producers always put strain on the system. Nonproducers always hide within the system,” he said.
“If you’re running an organization and someone is always a squeaky wheel — they’re always asking questions and wanting this or that — they probably are a producer for you. They’re probably a headache, but they’re probably a producer,” he said.
He said employees he never hears from, who never push the envelope and, as he put it, “fold up their stuff at 4:30 so they can get out at 4:55” are those who just want to come in and hide in the system.
“It’s important to have producers to come in, work on the fundamentals and details and strain the system a little bit,” Blackburn said. “I always want employees who are pushing me and challenging me. Those are healthy discussions to have. Those are the people who advance your organization.”