Cross Country Coach Soto Teaches Leadership

Cross-country coach Joe Soto and his team of runners meet at 5:45 a.m. during the summer break to train for the upcoming season. Students wear special belts that designate them as students participating in his leadership program. Photo by Nancy Lem

Joe Soto leads by example with his cross-country team of runners at South Pasadena High School.

“Leadership has always been a passion for me, literally, all my life,” said Coach Soto in an interview with The Review.

He lives and breathes leadership. When he saw an opportunity in 2008 to bring something unique to his team, he jumped at it. At the time, there were close to 100 cross-country students and only three coaches. Soto thought creating a leadership student program would be beneficial.

“I thought we should get some of the students to lead other students and I put together a two-week course that covered communication, problem solving, assuming leadership positions, relationship building, and things like that,” said Soto. “It ended being a really huge success and I’ve done it every single year since.”

Soto graduated from SPHS in 1999 and joined the Army. He served for nine years before he was hired as a cross-country coach by SPHS. He has an undergraduate degree in Psychology of Leadership.

Leaders take the team on warm-up laps around the track before heading out for the day’s workout.

As part of the program this year, Soto had the students watch the movie “Lean on Me.” The story focusses on a coach who provides leadership by pushing his students hard. Soto referred to Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” a book that discusses men in power and the common traits, motives, and struggles of various leaders from Roman emperors to modern-day presidents. Soto asked his students if they felt it was acceptable for a good leader to do bad things. They all disagreed but added that they understood the reasoning behind the decisions.

Coach Soto discovered that many of his students graduate from SPHS and use the leadership skills they learned under his tutelage. One of Soto’s students told him recently that “leadership is nothing more than solving other people’s problems.”

One former student now studying at the University of Southern California told Soto that he uses the communication skills learned in the leadership program. Soto is proud that what “I made him do as a leader on a team, he found applicable, currently, in college.”

Last year, the boys’ varsity team was the 2018 CIF Southern Section Team Academic Champion with a GPA of 3.85 – enrollment of 1,500 or higher.

“I really believe that the students that do the leadership group learn more and faster because they are having to deal with their peers on a much more mature level,” said Soto. The students learn about responsibility vs authority. He asks them if they are prepared to take responsibility for what someone else does and if they will take the initiative in the absence of order. Soto is in the process of developing an online course based on his leadership program.

“When you have a teenager being responsible for another teenager, that grows them up really quick,” said Soto.

The Leader’s Creed

By Joe Soto

No one is more professional than I, I am a leader. As a leader I realize I am a member of a team. I am proud of my team and will at all times bring credit to that team no matter what situation I find myself in. I will not use my grade or position to attain pleasure, profit or popularity.

My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind – accomplishment of my tasks and the welfare of my teammates. All teammates are entitled to outstanding leadership: I will provide that leadership. I know my teammates and I will always place their needs above my own. I will communicate consistently with my teammates and never leave them uninformed. I will be fair and impartial when recommending both rewards and punishment.

Coaches of my team will have maximum time to accomplish their duties; they will not have to accomplish mine. I will earn their respect and confidence as well as that of my teammates. I will exercise initiative by taking appropriate action in the absence of orders. I will not forget nor will I allow my comrades to forget that we are professionals, teammates….leaders!