Montana State University

Spring 2014

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Mountains and Minds

Photo by Kelly Gorham

What is a leader? April 29, 2014 by Rob Ash • Published 04/29/14

MSU football coach Rob Ash weighs in

In the past year, Montana State University celebrated The Year of Engaged Leadership. During The Year, and other times, too, I have been asked to give my thoughts about leadership.

First of all, a lot of people may think of a leader as a general, or dictator, or CEO, or perhaps that domineering old “ball coach” who has all the power and gives all the orders and makes all the decisions and suffers no resistance because of the authority of his (or her) position.

But I don’t think leadership works that way. I think leaders are only effective if they are inspirational, trusted and thoroughly respected. Leadership, to me, is not achieved by force or by votes or by simply ascending the throne or being named the CEO or head coach.

Leadership can only be effective if the group believes in the leader. Therefore, the leader has to have certain characteristics that the group respects—and once those characteristics are established and ingrained in the fabric of the organization, then the chain of command will function smoothly and the organization will have a chance to be successful.

So, what are those qualities? To me, the two most important traits of a leader are vision and values.

Puzzle vision

The leader’s commitment to a vision must be compelling to others so they have a reason to contribute to the cause.

I often use a jigsaw puzzle analogy to speak about vision. The first step to putting the puzzle together is a vision… the picture on top of the box. When you are putting together the puzzle, you keep that picture on the top of the box visible at all times, sometimes examining it quite carefully, to guide your efforts.

Leadership is like that, too. Then, after you have your vision in clear sight, you must create a mission statement that will make the vision possible. Then, you must share it with others in your organization and keep it in clear view. Make sure everyone in your organization is reminded of it frequently, for you can’t create a mission statement and then hide it.

Values are guidelines

The second important trait of a leader is the possession of values.

To carry over the jigsaw puzzle analogy, values are to a leader what straight edges are to a jigsaw puzzle. Core values are the principles that embody the mission of the group and provide structure and guidance for every decision and action of the group.

So, what are these core values?


The first of MSU’s core values is integrity. A leader must be ethical and honest and set that standard for the group. Members of the organization will subconsciously think: “I want to be like him (or her) because he or she is ethical and honest.”

This can be difficult in football. There are so many temptations to break little rules, bend the rules, ranging from pick plays and holding penalties to making extra recruiting calls that aren’t allowed, to larger issues, such as bonus money for recruits and extravagant payments for summer jobs.

A leader knows that he or she has to toe the line and be the arbiter of values and follow all the rules.

In football, if the head coach allows rules to be tweaked and the recruit is signed, then all the coaches in the program know that the process has been tarnished. But if all the rules are followed and the recruit signs, then the head coach is validated and the assistant coaches understand that success can be achieved without breaking the rules.

Eventually, when the recruits are signed legally and games are won with sportsmanship instead of gamesmanship, the members of the group realize there is only one way to run a business—the right way—and it is only satisfying to succeed if it is done honestly. And at that point, the leader suddenly has more power and more ability to lead, because he or she has shown the commitment to values.

Integrity is intertwined with values. Members of a group want to be treated fairly in regard to such things as promotions and playing time. And, if there are indications that the group is not being run honestly, and with integrity, then there will be reduced trust in the decisions that affect individuals in the group. Dissension will result. Lines need to be drawn clearly and rationally, so that the leader is portrayed to the group as being fair to all concerned.

If a leader is fair, trusted, has integrity, does not have favorites, leadership credibility is enhanced.


Another core value is discipline. Like any other system in the world, all the vision, all the philosophy, all the theory you learn does no good at all without attention to detail and grass roots implementation.

I firmly believe that members of any organization (classroom, program, team) really, truly do desire discipline. When an organization is disciplined, it functions properly, runs smoothly, keeps its members on task and engaged, and in general avoids disruption and dysfunction.

At MSU, we have made a commitment to discipline—and that commitment bridges all areas of our mission statement—on the field, in the classroom and in the community. And it is partly self-serving, since our goals are to have our students succeed in the classroom and win on the field.

You see, I am convinced that the same guy who misses class will commit a holding penalty in a crucial game. You cannot be disciplined some of the time. Similarly, you are either organized or not. There is no such thing as a little bit of organization.


I would have to say that the core value of resiliency is the hallmark of our program. I would also say that the greatest lesson of football is to get back up after getting knocked down.

You WILL get knocked down. Adversity will strike. But, when it happens, we can always choose how to respond.

So, the phrase we use in our program to emphasize resiliency is: “choose how to respond.”

And, finally, leadership. 


MSU’s fourth core value is leadership. To me, one of the keys to great leadership is to develop leaders among the group that is being led.

Assistant coaches, interns, secretaries, support staff, players—they all have to know that they have a responsibility to do their job properly and to lead the people who report to them.

True leaders are not puppeteers pulling all the strings and controlling every action. True leaders turn their charges loose with freedom and autonomy in their area, but at the same time, they must accept responsibility for their performance and the performance of their group. As a leader, you can NEVER dissociate yourself from your group’s performance.

You must accept responsibility for the performance of your group.

Now, my business is football, so this process is very public. After a win, I make sure to praise the players. After a loss, I am sure to take the responsibility. Later, I have the responsibility to teach and correct mistakes and to demand performance and improvement during practice. This goes on behind closed doors, as we roll up our sleeves and find ways to get better. 

The servant leader

A second aspect of this very important core value of leadership is the idea of being a servant leader.

Leadership has to be accompanied with a commitment to the group that is more significant than any individual or personal agenda. There can be no ego that believes the organization should serve him. All members of the organization must put the team first and develop loyalty to the team ahead of personal or self-serving goals.

One avenue to accomplish this is to promote the idea of servant leadership.

No one is special, but everyone is special.

In fact, if you build your program on the following premises, eventually the philosophy permeates the entire organization.

  1. Treat others as you wish to be treated. This is the greatest unifying concept in history.
  2. Commit to others, and they will commit to you. The result will be loyalty, teamwork, dedication to the group—and that is the strongest motivator in the universe.
  3. Spread some cheer.
  4. Make sure that all small groups in your organization are interconnecting, so that the work is complete. Do you want to unify all of those groups? Do you want your people to work for you? Then show them you care. People want to know how much you care before they care.
  5. And then what occurs is the development of pride in the organization. Pride is the most important piece of the leadership puzzle. Without pride, the organization flounders. With pride, anything is possible. Pride creates loyalty, and loyalty to the group inspires correct, meaningful, appropriate and even passionate actions.

Pride unifies all the disparate groups within the organization because it is the common denominator—no matter what my job or function, or my group’s job or function—if we all have pride in the organization, we are all interconnected, and the puzzle is complete.

However, you have to keep working on this puzzle, for once one piece is out of place it will ruin the entire puzzle.

So, make it such a source of PRIDE that no one wants to be the person who spoils it all—ruins the beautiful puzzle that we call our TEAM. 

Leadership as a journey

I have observed that there are those who want instant leadership. However, leadership is a process—a journey—an ever-evolving skill set that ultimately can’t be learned in a textbook or quantified on a chart.

The truly effective leader must be competent, consistent, articulate and capable—able to quantify and articulate the goals, and the details, of the organization—in other words, have that proverbial “good head on your shoulders.”

But the truly effective leader also must have a heart. He or she must have compassion, sympathy, understanding and empathy with the people and situations that arise in the organization.

Every situation we face as a leader requires a different balance of these two— the head and the heart—and there is no formula, no textbook, to determine what this balance should be.

These steps to effective leadership do work: Commit to your vision. Adhere to your values. Live by your guiding principles. Know that leadership is a journey that will require you to balance your head and your heart. And, you can be an effective leader for your organization. â–