The Best Female Leader You Never Heard Of.


On June 9, 2011, Joan Cronan was named as the University of Tennessee’s interim athletics director and vice chancellor.  We’re talking about one tough, smart, polished leader who has described her lineage to both her home state of Louisiana and the University of Tennessee as a Cajun whose blood runs orange.

Of the over 300 universities with significant athletic programs, there are only two universities that have athletic directors exclusively for their women’s teams; UTs’, Texas and Tennessee.  This not a typical interim assignment.  In June 2012, she will leave her post and take on the role as a senior adviser to the school’s vice chancellor and chancellor through June 2014.  Nor is this a typical AD role with an annual operating budget in excess of $100M.

In 2003 Joan held the same position when the men’s AD, Doug Dickey retired.  The associate AD at the time Mike Hamilton and a number of other mostly white dudes over the age of forty were being given consideration.  Joan reached out; we constructed her resume, etc.  I wanted to ask her if she really thought she had a shot, but I knew she’d say yes, and I was kind of afraid of her so I just let it go.  I was as guilty of patronizing her in my own mind as those mostly white guys over the age of 60 that I would soon be criticizing for not hiring her.  The new AD was the old associate AD, the good old boy network was alive and well.

Joan certainly could have gone fetal.  She continued to support coaches and athletes.  Her job she said was to “create an environment where our coaches can provide to our athletes all that they need for success athletically, educationally, spiritually, and socially.”  The Championships continued to roll in and coaches like Pat Summit continued to be led by Joan.  Think about that; Pat Summit who has more basketball victories than anyone in NCAA history and widely regarded as an expert authority on the art of leadership taking direction from another?

So here we are in a conservative city within a conservative state, and Joan Cronan is leading an organization driven by big donor conservatives.  She is managing a largely male workforce which lives and dies by the success of a football program in South East Conference which not usually associated with tolerance and inclusion.

Cronan is the gold standard for servant leadership in the male dominated culture of college athletics.  I need to ask Joan if she ever met Clara Luper a civil rights pioneer whose lunch counter sit-ins helped end discrimination in public restaurants.  Luper accomplished this with a quiet, but unwavering conviction demonstrating the highest levels of servant leadership.  On the day Cronan was appointed, Clara Luper passed way at the age of 88 in Oklahoma City.  Is it just me or is there a resemblance in the setting of the eyes, and the “bring it on smile?”

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Posted on June 10, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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