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Career Coach: Leadership lessons from a legend

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt waits for her players during a timeout in the second half of a 2013 NCAA women’s college basketball tournament regional final against Baylor in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
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The accolades have been pouring in for Coach Pat Summitt of the University of Tennessee’s Lay Vols basketball team – all-time college basketball leader with 1,098 career wins (the most in NCAA Division I history), an .841 winning percentage (with a win percentage of .913 at home games), seven-time national coach of the year, eight national titles, co-author of several books, inducted into numerous hall of fames, winner of a presidential medal of honor, and an incredibly inspirational leader. A huge loss not only for Tennessee but also for so many more people, whether in sports or not.

I was fortunate to be on the faculty at the University of Tennessee during the time when Pat won six of her eight national titles (and the three repeat titles in 1996, 1997, 1998). It was an unbelievable time to be following women’s sports and to be a Lady Vols fan. Starting out my academic career at Tennessee and teaching leadership, there was no better person to admire and use as an example in my management classes. In addition, Pat was gracious enough to come speak at my executive classes regarding her leadership views. I have never seen a group of senior level executives so mesmerized by any speaker before or since. She had them sitting on the edge of their seats with rapt attention with her stories about hard work, dedication, passion, and motivation.

People talk about everything you can learn about basketball from Coach Summitt. And, clearly she had the expertise to be one of the most knowledgeable teachers of all times. But what I know about her and what many of us witnessed was the incredible legacy she leaves to all those touched by her. She embodied all of the critical characteristics of a transformational leader, some of which are briefly described below:

Individual consideration – We often talk about the importance of treating employees with respect as if each one of them matters as individuals. Yet, so many managers do not really show the level of care to their employees that they should. Pat lived this. She was well known for her “tough love” approach and said: “Players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” She didn’t just treat her players as players, but as individuals each having unique value. Clearly, they felt that. Any of us watching her at a game could see her concern was not just for them as current players but also for them as people, students, and for their futures. And the facts support this – with a 100 percent graduation rate of her players with eligibility and so many of them going on to be successful in their careers. In fact, she produced 34 WNBA players, 21 All-Americans and 39 all-SEC players.

Intellectual stimulation – It’s important for leaders to look for new ways to be innovative and to create an environment that encourages employees to take calculated risks and try out things. Pat pushed her players and her coaches to do just this. As a result, many say they found in themselves the confidence to practice hard, play harder, and live with courage on and off the court.

Inspirational and charismatic – There are so many examples that can be shared about the level of charisma and the inspirational messages that Pat displayed. She is well known for her “steely stare,” yet at the same time she was incredibly positive, seeing the glass as half-full. We have all been impressed by her talks with her team at half-time. They were definitely in your face to hold her players accountable for their performance, yet at the same time she gave them the belief that they could actually go out and play better and win. She empowered them to believe in themselves. And it worked. Look at any game after half-time and you will see a powerful Lady Vol force! As Pat said, “Attitude is a choice. Think positive thoughts daily. Believe in yourself.”

Commitment and dedication – Pat was known to never give up, no matter what the odds. Her passion and dedication for her craft was unparalleled. As she said in one of her books: “Quit? Quit? We keep score in life because it matters. It counts. Too many people opt out and never discover their own abilities, because they fear failure. They don’t understand commitment. When you learn to keep fighting in the face of potential failure, it gives you a larger skill set to do what you want to do in life”. I remember hearing Pat once talk about how she had her players practice rebounding over and over again. In fact, I can’t watch a game anymore without myself noting how a team is doing in rebounding. She said “offense sells tickets, defense wins games, and rebounding wins championships”. Her commitment to improving and getting all of the basics down was unmatched.

Goal-setting – Successful leaders and teams set goals for their performance. Clearly Pat had specific goals for each and every practice and game. She also pushed her players to set specific goals for themselves. As she noted: “Continue to seek new goals.”

Succession planning – Most leaders talk about how important it is to train the next generation of leaders. Pat Summitt lived it. Fact – 48 of her former players went on to become coaches. They learned from the best how to be a successful coach. She saw potential in them and encouraged and supported them. As she said, “I’m someone who will push you beyond all reasonable limits. Someone who will ask you not to just fulfill your potential but to exceed it. Someone who will expect more from you than you may believe you are capable of.” How many managers today leave their jobs with no one ready to take over or they don’t really prepare their own direct reports for the next step in their careers. Pat fully prepared others to take on more challenging roles in their own futures.

There is so much more about leadership that can be said about Coach Pat Summitt’s style. She had a tremendous impact on women, on sports, on leaders, and frankly on all of us. Like many others, I have been forever changed by her passion, her enthusiasm, her work ethic, and her total commitment. Unlike some managers who wait until the end of their lives to think about what legacy they will leave, Pat Summitt lived her legacy of leadership each and every day. And for that, all of us are forever grateful!

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 30 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She can be reached at