Leadership lessons from the pitch

As an engineer, professor, researcher, and provost, Frank Doyle had many opportunities throughout his career to hone his leadership skills. But it wasn’t in the classroom or the lab where Doyle gleaned some of his most critical lessons in leadership — it was on the soccer field as a referee over the last 20 years.

Frank Doyle
Frank Doyle is a professor of Engineering and the 14th provost of Brown University

Frank Doyle is an individual who knows how to put his analytical mind to good use. The son of a chemical engineer, he followed in his father's footsteps and obtained three degrees in the same discipline, including a Ph.D. from Caltech. After a brief stint in industry, Doyle ventured into academia, initially taking up faculty positions at Purdue and Delaware. Later, he assumed leadership roles at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Harvard University, and most recently, at Brown University.

Throughout his career, he amassed an impressive 50 patents and conducted groundbreaking research on medical devices for diabetes, which led to his induction into the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine. These achievements alone would be considered sufficient by most people but not Doyle; he dedicated his free time to nurturing his passion for soccer refereeing, starting as a weekend volunteer for his kids and eventually becoming a fully accredited NCAA official.

Doyle’s soccer journey began when his daughters, then aged six and seven, joined teams in the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). Reflecting on his initial venture into the sport, he recalls, "We had a volunteer recreation league for youth soccer, so parents had to step in and volunteer as coaches and referees. I played in high school, so I figured I could do it." He quickly discovered that AYSO could also be interpreted as 'All Your Saturdays are Over.' However, the sacrifice of his free time was compensated with lasting moments of camaraderie and team spirit. "There's nothing more fulfilling than engaging in volunteer work that brings you genuine joy," he remarks.

Doyle discovered that soccer refereeing, much like leadership, demands concentration and devotion. His unwavering dedication to both propelled him to earn consecutive referee badges, a prerequisite for progressing to higher levels of competition. He navigated through the ranks of youth and amateur adult soccer and eventually reached the collegiate level. This path was far from easy, however. "In order to certify for the NCAA, I had to get a medical clearance, complete a fitness test (timed running events), pass a written test, and be observed and endorsed by active referees." This achievement is even more impressive when considering he accomplished it alongside his position as Dean of Engineering at Harvard.

Doyle’s enthusiasm and drive not only fueled his love for the sport, but also provided him with valuable leadership skills that extend well beyond the field. Here are some of the key lessons he learned from his experience.

Lesson one: There's no "I" in team

When soccer comes to mind, most people think about the teams, the players. But let’s not forget about the referees — they’re just as significant to the game. Although it may seem like assistant referees only enforce rules in the center referee’s blind spots, the reality is that the best referees work together, as a team. According to Doyle, it's not a hierarchy on the field, but rather a cohesive unit collectively upholding the rules of the game.

Doyle remembers a time early in his referee career when he was managing a youth game from one end of the field, when suddenly an angry player punched a competitor on the opposing team at the opposite end of the field. The assistant referee at that end of the field quickly signaled the foul, bringing the game to a halt. After discussing the incident, Doyle, who was acting as the lead referee, gave a red card — an unusual penalty for that age group. After the match, a parent approached Doyle and questioned how he could give such a penalty without even witnessing the incident. Doyle replied, "We're all one team — we make decisions together. I trust the decisions of my fellow refs”, emphasizing the collective responsibility of the group. No referee can see every angle, so they must rely on each other for support. Just like leaders cannot see every perspective on their own. It requires a team seamlessly working together to find the most optimal solutions.   

Lesson two: Sometimes you have to make tough calls

Leadership is tested during difficult times, not when everything is going smoothly. This applies even to experienced officiating teams. In sports, referees have the responsibility of enforcing the rules, but it can be challenging to do so when the pressure is high and passionate fans rage in the stands. This is especially true in NCAA games where the very reputation of schools is at stake.

Doyle shared a story about a memorable incident during a highly competitive NCAA Division 1 game late in the regular season. At a crucial moment, a player committed a hard foul in front of the opposing team's bench. While aggressive play can be expected late in the season, this violation couldn’t be ignored by the referees. Adding to the challenge for the officiating team was the fact that giving a red card would remove the star player from the game, imperiling the team as they fought for a spot in the post-season playoffs. "Although we didn't want to eject the player, it was a necessary call," Doyle noted. Sometimes, being a leader means having the courage to make tough decisions that nobody wants to make but are essential at that moment. 

Lesson three: There are supportive ways to give difficult feedback

Referees are often seen as emotionless enforcers on the field, but this perception overlooks a crucial skill referees have: providing supportive feedback. How they deliver bad news is just as important as the news itself, especially for players who are still developing. According to Doyle, when he interacts with a player who has committed a foul, he often emphasizes that they’re a talented player despite the mistake. "What this does is change the view of the foul. They leave the interaction feeling like the referee believes in their abilities and that they can improve in the future," explains Doyle, who also applies this approach in his administrative role. "Part of my job is to say 'no' to certain requests, such as additional budget or support for specific initiatives. I want people to feel comfortable asking me for these things, but they also need to understand that sometimes, as part of my role, I have to decline without damaging our relationship." Giving frequent and effective feedback is a critical leadership skill, one often overlooked.

Lesson four: Continuous learning is vital for success

Once you think you've mastered the rules of the game, it may seem like ongoing education or development is unnecessary. But that's not true at all. Doyle chuckles and explains, "When it comes to refereeing soccer, your education is never complete. The game is constantly evolving, and referees need to stay updated." To stay current with their certification, referees must complete educational modules and physical tests each year. Moreover, there are changes in the rules/laws, which can have significant implications for game management. 

Technology also keeps advancing. In college-level games, referees use headsets to communicate with each other on the field. There’s recent research from Purdue University that found inflating balls to the lower end of the pressure scale referees allow could potentially reduce head injury by up to 20%. Advancements like these make the officiating job dynamic.  

"Even now, I dedicate time on the weekend to reading blogs, watching videos, and staying updated on rule changes. It's a requirement to maintain my skills." Doyle admitted. Adapting existing skills to advancements in play isn’t something reserved for just the competitors–referees need to as well. It’s the same for leaders in any discipline. There are constant changes and new developments that have to be incorporated into practice. In short, leaders must commit to being lifelong learners and have a thirst for continuous knowledge acquisition if they hope to stay on top of their game.

When considering leadership wisdom from sports, it's natural to concentrate on the teams, and that makes sense. Elite athletes and coaches provide valuable lessons on what it takes to win at the highest levels. However, let's not forget about the referees, who also offer equally useful insights both on and off the field. Researcher and referee Frank Doyle is one of them.