How to Start Well as a Leader

Categories: Big Questions

How to Start Well as a LeaderMatt Kaminksi is the Co-Director of Columbia’s Applied Leadership program and served as Columbia’s Athletic Director until June 2018. This article first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Columbia Contact magazine.

This fall I have had the wonderful opportunity of watching my oldest son, Sullivan, start kindergarten. I have been able to observe firsthand through Sullivan what it’s like to start something new. I have watched Sullivan experience excitement and anxiety all at the same time, begin to make new friends, figure out his surroundings, and try to get his year started on the “right foot.” The truth is, these feelings don’t change much as we get older, and leaders certainly are not exempt. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first few weeks of kindergarten, like Sullivan, or you’re now leading a new team, business or organization, starting somewhere or something new is challenging and exciting all at the same time, and despite this mix of feeling it’s important to start well.

Six years ago I started serving at Columbia as Director of Athletics & Recreation, and through that process I learned a lot about starting something new; I learned a lot about starting well.

Who do you know? what do they know?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” One of the first things that I realized starting at Columbia was that I was a part of a team of great people who had been at Columbia a lot longer than I had. This team of people had been through ups and downs, had invested time and energy, and believed in the mission of the college and their role within that. I hadn’t done any of this yet. Luckily for me, athletics was just one part in a much larger body, a part with the opportunity to collaborate with student development, academics, the business office, facilities, and IT (just to name a few on campus). With that in mind, the need to get to know the folks in these departments, ask lots of questions, learn from them, and find out why they were passionate about Columbia, became imperative. As Proverbs 1:5 says, “A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel.”

If you want to start well as a leader, get to know your teammates: what they know, their vision for their team, and why they love what they do.

Understand the culture

In addition to getting to know the people of Columbia, it was also important to get to know the culture. Quite simply “culture is how organizations ‘do things’” (Katanga). The culture when I first started at Columbia was very similar to today’s: “to equip people for a life of discipleship, ministry, and leadership in service to the church and community” by being Christ-centered, Kingdom-focused, and world-impacting in all that we do as staff, faculty, and students. As a leader my job was, and continues to be, utilizing sport to carry out this culture: journeying with volleyball and basketball players and coaches as we learn to compete in a way that is Christ-centered, Kingdom-focused, and world-impacting.

If you want to start well as a leader, understand the culture that exists within your organization and how you can help bring that culture to life.

Earn some “spare change”

One of the greatest pieces of advice that I have received regarding starting well as a leader came from my father-in-law. He told me that when starting a new role as a leader it is important to not jump in and start making changes as I would have no “spare change” to spend. While I didn’t make many changes in my first year as AD, it wasn’t until much later that I understood what he meant by spare change. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the importance of earning trust, respect, and credibility. It is in earning these elements that a leader is able to ask for support, belief, and collaboration in the future.

If you want to start well as a leader, earn yourself some “spare change”; earn yourself trust, respect, and credibility.

Hold on tight, take notes, and dream big

Finally, like riding a rollercoaster, starting a new position as a leader is a wild ride full of excitement and anxiety. Hold on! It’s during this time that you will undoubtedly experience ups and downs, twists and turns, and moments when you feel that you are all turned around. Do not lose heart! Keep your eyes open on the ride. Be observant, take some good notes, and dream about what it is you want to do and where it is you want to take others in the future.

If you want to start well as a leader, hold on tight, take good notes, and dream about what you want the future to look like.


Observing Sullivan start kindergarten this fall has reminded me in a lot of ways about my start as a leader. By that I mean, both opportunities were occasions to learn and grow through the process of discovery and failure. Both were times to journey with others and ask lots of questions. And both were occasions to be a little uncomfortable and to dream big! If you are somebody who is starting something new, start well by getting to know your teammates and the culture, by earning yourself some “spare change,” and hold on tight because it is going to be a worthwhile ride! ■