Leadership Lessons

- Special to IC
Posted Nov 23, 2005


Former longtime Inside Carolina columnist Thad Williamson is now a professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership -- but his passion for Tar Heel hoops certainly hasn't faded. When he was chosen to be the keynote speaker for a Nov. 17 Leadership Studies ceremony, Carolina Basketball played a prominent role. He has given us permission to print his speech ..

November 17, 2005
Prelude Talk
by Thad Williamson

Probably a lot of you have been, and will continue to be asked, why are you in the Jepson School?

I’ve heard that question asked a few times too, and part of me usually laughs when I hear it.

Because the short answer is, “Because I want to be able to eat.”And maybe some of you have your own version of that answer, like–because I want to be able to get a job some day, or to do something interesting...maybe even the dreaded, “it will look good on my resume.”

That’s fine.

But there’s another answer to that question too that I’ll also give. That is, that I was far more excited about coming to the Jepson School and its possibilities than I would have been trying to conform to the straitjacket of a traditional political science department, or in an institutional setting where the goal is to keep academic learning and reasoning at arm’s length from the real world, or where the faculty might be ashamed to admit that they care not just about how many of their students go on to graduate school, but what they make of their lives. And I suspect and hope that most of you, too, similarly have an idealistic motivation for wanting to be engaged in something like leadership studies, along with your more instrumental, practical concerns.

Now I take it that the tradition in these Prelude talks is for the speaker to try to say something, anything, about leadership. Well, at one level that’s a task that I’m not entirely comfortable with: after all, as a political scientist and a democratic theorist, I’m trained to be suspicious of leadership, and to put faith not in the virtues of fallible individuals but in the solidity of well-designed institutions. And it’s also the case that analytically, I think a lot of our deepest problems, especially those pertaining to social justice, are institutional and structural issues that simply cannot be resolved by better individual leadership alone.

On the other hand, the essence of the democratic faith is that we are capable, in a more than superficial manner, of governing ourselves; and as Tocqueville insisted, active self-governance requires precisely that they recognize their own agency, their own capacity to make things happen, and that we all become skilled in the arts of both leading and following. I believe that too–and further, that without such skills, and the engaged civic conscience that comes with it, we have no hope of ever coming to terms with either our immediate challenges or the institutional questions which underlie them.

Now, I could go on for another 15 minutes on this theme, but to both your relief and my own, I will not. Rather than theorize about leadership or leadership studies, I want to talk tonight about a few examples of leadership I’m fortunate to know about firsthand in a part of the cultural universe which–at first glance–might seem far apart from the great social and political questions.

I’m talking, of course, about college basketball, and in particular, my lifelong association with and love for North Carolina Tar Heel basketball. Most of you don’t know the basic story, so I’ll rehearse it: I grew up in Chapel Hill, where my father taught at UNC, and became a basketball and Tar Heel fan at age 3 or 4. At age 7 I began the habit of voraciously consuming all written information pertaining to UNC basketball in the newspapers, watching all the games I could on TV, and going to a couple of games a year.

Then in 1982, the same year a freshman named Michael Jordan led UNC to the national title, I got a job as a 12 year old working at all the home games. My job was to operate a wooden manual scoreboard located at the end of the UNC bench which was used for coaches’ game film. I started that job at age 12 and didn’t give it up until leaving high school. Along the way, I was fortunate to get to know the family of Bill Guthridge, a long-time assistant coach at Carolina, and also to meet a few times Dean Smith, the legendary head coach. Carolina basketball was simply part of the lifeblood of my community growing up–the unbreakable bond within my own family, especially with my older brother, and the common point of interest for everyone in the town. As with so many other fans leaving Chapel Hill strengthened rather than weakened the attachment, as following the team from afar became the means for still feeling a part of the community. I could go through the emotional ups and downs of watching a close game on TV and think immediately of 50 other people I knew growing up who were certain to be going through the exact same experience with me.

That might have been pretty much the end of the story–if it weren’t for Al Gore, I mean if it weren’t for the Internet. The internet has had a profound impact on sports journalism–and it allowed someone like me, as a graduate student hundreds of miles away from Chapel Hill, to take up writing commentaries and analyses about the Tar Heels for an internet web site and fan magazine as an avocation. From 1995 through this past year, I covered about 60 Tar Heel games in person, up and down the East Coast and as far away as Alaska, and wrote several hundred articles about the team. I also wrote a book, “More Than a Game,” which is sort of a moral sociology of Carolina basketball, based on surveys with over 600 fans, detailed fan diaries, and of course my own extensive experience as a fan.

Now the overwhelming conclusion of that book is that the deep feelings Carolina basketball excites in its fans is not only, and for a lot of people not even mainly, to do with the fact that UNC basketball historically has been so successful on the court. Rather, it has to do with the qualities of moral leadership fans associate with the program and its key figures–the notion that here is an example of how to do things the right way. Now like other fans of others schools, sometimes Carolina fans have over-idealized their coaches and their institution, and that can lead to problems. But in this case, the positive perceptions fans and observers associated with Carolina basketball were indeed rooted in the concrete reality of the leadership provided by Dean Smith–as well as those who worked with him.

Now for those who don’t know, Dean Smith, who became an assistant coach at UNC in 1958 and then head coach in 1961, is the winningest coach in Division I men’s basketball history, winner of two national championships, a dozen regional and a dozen conference championships, and college coach of some of the greatest players in basketball history, including the aforementioned Mr. Jordan, while maintaining a graduation rate in his program of over 95%. He received the Arthur Ashe award for courage in 1998, and was named by ESPN as one of the top five coaches of the 20th century in any sport. Since his retirement in 1997, two books on Smith’s leadership methods have been published (both of which I’d commend to you), and Smith had and has a reputation for the unparalleled loyalty he commands from his former players. He is also a bona fide political icon within the state of North Carolina–among other things, he was an early activist for racial desegregation in Chapel Hill, an opponent of the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the death penalty, and a vociferous critic of the racial stereotyping of black athletes. He and his family continue to be very involved in state and national political issues.

There is a lot that could be said about Dean Smith, and I’m not ashamed to say that I count the hour I got to spend with him while working on my book as one of the greatest moments of my life. I’ll have a little bit more to say about Smith in a couple of moments. But I want to focus first on two other, less visible leaders–or more accurately, persons who were both great leaders and great followers–associated with Carolina basketball.

The first person I want to talk about is Bill Guthridge, someone I got to know through my family as a kid. Guthridge spent 30 years in Chapel Hill as an assistant coach, turning down countless offers to be a head coach, because he believed that working with Dean Smith was the best possible job for him. Like Smith, Guthridge is a native of Kansas, and has a very dry sense of humor. The defining characteristics of Guthridge’s contributions were loyalty, discretion, attention to detail and a capacity to bring out people’s best selves.

He is one of those people that you always want to straighten up a little bit around, partly because you knew in any conversation with him he was always going to both ask about you and how you were doing, and always get straight to the point. When I was 12 years old, that meant he might ask, as he did one night of me on the phone when he happened to call the house, whether I had finished my homework; much later on, as I pursued one graduate degree after another the question became “when are you going to finish with all that school?” My mother used to say, and as some of you already might appreciate, that the prospect of seeing the Guthridges was about the only thing that could compel me to put on matching socks, comb my hair, and perhaps even tie both shoes, all at once.

That may have been true, but I wouldn’t actually have cared so much about what Guthridge thought about me if I didn’t think he actually cared about my well-being. But he convinced me that he did, as he did hundreds, thousands of others who have interacted with him. How? Attention to detail is a big part of it. Guthridge, like Smith, is legendary for being able to remember people’s names. He writes hand written notes to people who’ve corresponded with him–even in one case I heard about, taking time to write a handwritten note to an old friend and Carolina fan living in Illinois whose dog had recently died. When someone called in with a complaint or suggestion about the Carolina basketball camps he oversaw each summer, he wouldn’t just respond perfunctorily but would look up the file of the kid whose parents might be complaining and send a note thanking the person for the input and asking how his son was doing this season.

In 1997, shortly after he became head coach, I covered a game in Athens, Georgia with my then-fiancee in which UNC was playing the University of Georgia. It was a nail-biting game, but Carolina escaped with a double-overtime win–which you would think would be quite a big deal for a first-year head coach, even one already 59 years old. But when I saw him a few minutes after the game outside the Tar Heel locker, before I could congratulate him on the win, he was congratulating me–on the fact that Adria and I had just gotten engaged a few weeks before. Multiply those small acts of consideration over the hundreds and then thousands of days that make up a decade, and eventually a career, and you come to understand why so many people associated with UNC basketball would be willing, as one former player put it, to run through a wall for Bill Guthridge.

The second leader-follower I want to talk about is some one even the most avid basketball fans amongst you have probably never heard of–Burgess McSwain, who served for over two decades as the basketball team’s primary academic counselor. I got to know and spend significant time with in the last year of her life as she was battling cancer. She was absolutely one of the most outrageous personalities I’ve ever known: a fiercely independent, single woman who wore gigantic hats everywhere she went, she had a memorable voice, a unique combination of western North Carolina sweet southern drawl and the kind of gravely pitch that comes from years of chain smoking.

But what was even more memorable than the tone of her voice was the words that would come out of it–she was willing to say anything to anybody, and be absolutely direct in doing so, dropping in a few expletives for emphasis when appropriate (in absolute contrast to Smith and Guthridge, who never swore). If I had met her as a 19 or 20 year old, I would have been scared to death of her. One famous Burgess story is from the mid-1980s, when Michael Jordan, already an NBA star but not yet graduated from college, was back in Chapel Hill in summer school. One fine sunny afternoon, Burgess got word that Jordan was not doing the homework he really needed to be doing, but was out playing golf. McSwain drive her car over to the university golf course, then drove on to the golf course, and found the tee where Jordan was getting ready to hit. In slightly more colorful language than I should repeat here, Burgess told Jordan–in front of two other people-- to get his butt into her car and come do what he needed to be doing. Michael Jordan, already a millionaire didn’t try to argue but got right into that car.

If half the things Burgess said were startlingly direct, the other half conveyed genuine affection and caring. That made her perfect for her job of cajoling, guiding, and teaching the basketball players who came under her gaze–and made for a remarkable bond between this white-haired, 60-year old, self-described Episcopal snob from western North Carolinian and the mostly African-American athletes, some 40 years younger, with whom she dealt. Burgess knew that most of her players weren’t going to be Rhodes Scholars, but she had a simple goal: not only that every single one of them graduate, but that every one of them actually acquire substantive learning and doing the best they could. And she was willing to do anything and everything within her power to do it–from helping make up raps to assist in memorizing the capitals of foreign nations, to late night cram sessions when players returned from away games, even teaching herself Swahili in one case when she couldn’t find another tutor. And, she kept on top of the students–no missing classes, no being late to study hall, no excuses, and no escaping a public tongue-lashing if you screwed up.

Simply put, the players loved her for it; and while a common stereotype is that modern players have overinflated egos and are too pampered, the most recent Carolina players valued Burgess precisely as the one person they could count on to tell them the truth and to love them for who they were as persons, not for how good a player they were. Burgess made it very clear that she did not work for the coach, as kind of a coach’s spy; she was there for the players and their academic advancement. Consequently, the players came to trust her and her judgment absolutely. “If I asked Rashad to go stand out on the yellow lines on the highway, he’d do it,” Burgess once told me, referring to Rashad McCants, a talented, very intelligent player who had a very difficult freshman year at UNC and was constantly labeled by the media as a brooding enigma–but had a great relationship with McSwain and would have trusted Burgess with his very life.

Burgess lost her battle with cancer in the summer of 2004. Rashad McCants put Burgess’s name on the sneakers he wore this past season when UNC went on to win the national title. At the Final Four, another player close to McSwain, Melvin Scott, wrote her name on the chalkboard in the pregame locker room to help get the team focused to play. Before the national championship game, a chair was left open for Burgess during the pregame team meeting, and at the on campus rally in Chapel Hill the day after the national title game, McCants told the crowd that they had won it for Burgess.

Obviously, I’m biased, but when I think about the classic Socratic idea that the good leader is one who acts for the sake of those being led, or the Aristotelian notion that true happiness rests on genuine virtue, I think an awful lot about Smith, Guthridge, and not least Burgess McSwain. The incredible loyalty each was able to inspire was rooted in their genuine concern about everyone who came under their care, as ends in themselves, not just as instruments for the next win. For a fledgling teacher like myself, it’s an awe-inspiring and humbling example to try to emulate.

I also think about another common thread connecting those three–that each was incredibly happy with what they were doing, a happiness that rests partly in old-fashioned virtue but also in finding a role, a part to play, that matched their aptitudes and inclinations, and allowed them to exercise their capacities to the fullest. Obviously, in the real world, it’s not always very easy to find that kind of fit, but as you approach your time in this program and thinking about what you want to do with your lives, I hope you keep the importance of that kind of fit in the back of your head. People who feel stultified or unhappy in what they are doing aren’t going to make very good leaders, usually.

I want to close by bringing things back to the discussion of Dean Smith–and believe it or not, to the really big questions of social justice. Often times we’re tempted to talk about “going out and changing the world,” as if the world were something “out there,” apart from the here and now of where we are together. But in reality, that’s not the case, and never will be.

Apart from maybe a computer game, none of us as individuals is going to have the power or capacity to simply re-make the world as a whole according our own wills, however well-intentioned, and if we tried, we’d rightly be called not leaders but megalomaniacs. At any given time, many, many things are far beyond our proximate control. But there are a lot of things within our control, within our sphere of influence as well–in our daily lives, in our work, in the life of our local communities. In Dean Smith’s case, his sphere of influence was the utterly mundane, relatively trivial matter of a college basketball team–but used it to create something that has been a moral inspiration to thousands and thousands of fans and admirers.

Put another way, all of us, in our work and civic activities, face sobering limits on just what it is we can accomplish, especially relative to say, the demands of justice. Yet at the same, when we attend to doing those things which are within our purview, and doing what we can do as well as possible, effective, genuine leadership can produce positive ripple effects that no one could have imagined in advance.

I hope you all, and all of us together, can produce some positive ripples during our time here together–and continue to do so through the rest of your lives as well.



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