Coach Dean Smith and Practicing Servant Leadership

An interesting and entertainment perspective on the practice of servant leadership comes from an article published online on the Championship Coaches Network soon after the death of Dean Smith, the legendary long-time basketball coach at the University of North Carolina who collaborated with Dr. Jerry Bell to write and publish a book, “The Carolina Way”, that included many of Smith’s ideas for effective coaching and leadership.  The article used quotes from the book to illustrate “10 Leadership Lessons from Coach Dean Smith” and the author observed that “Coach Smith was practicing servant leadership long before it has become the popular management principle it is today”.  In fact, the following quotes from the book are quite clear on how Smith approached his relationship with his players: “The coach's job is to be part servant in helping each player reach his goals within the team concept. (p. 147)” and “When I became head coach at North Carolina, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the players. How did they want to be treated? How could I help them reach their potential? How could I make the game fun and enjoyable and still work them hard? (p. 200)” 

Other key characteristics of servant leadership highlighted in the article using quotes from the book included the following: 

  • Genuine caring for followers: “The most important thing in good leadership is truly caring.  The best leaders in any profession care about the people they lead, and the people who are being led know when the caring is genuine and when it's faked or not there at all. (p. 4)”Smith was famous for building and maintaining long-term relationships with all of his players that extended far past the day that a player’s eligibility ended.
  • Willingness and ability to earn commitment of followers: “A leader's job is to develop committed followers. Bad leaders destroy their followers' sense of commitment. (p. 33)” Smith argued that leaders can no longer demand or expect automatic respect from their followers and must be prepared to earn commitment, respect and trust from followers, a process that requires leaders to act with integrity and credibility.
  • Confidence building:  “I'd get on the players if I needed to, but it was also important to praise them for the good things they had done, especially on the road, where they faced enough adversity without my piling on. I wasn't as critical during games as I was at practice. Players needed confidence during games more than criticism. (p. 240)” While constructive criticism is necessary for skill building and correcting errors that are undermining performance, leaders should be sensitive to how and when feedback that is likely to be perceived as negative is delivered.
  • Team building:  In the book Bell explained Smith’s approach to team building as follows: “Part of Dean Smith's greatness as a leader lies in his ability to get his players to get beyond understanding their roles to embracing them. But their commitment starts with clarity. If employees don't understand their roles, their specific areas of responsibility, it's almost impossible for the company to work well as a team. Confusion will reign. Divided responsibility ends up being nobody's responsibility. (p. 137)” The article emphasized the need for leaders to invest time and effort with every employee, not just the “stars”, to set and define their roles within the organization, explain how they are contributing to the organization, and establish a plan for them to follow in order to expand and change their roles as time goes by.

The other principles of leadership highlighted in the article, although not as directly related to servant leadership as those outlined above, were nonetheless complimentary and flowed naturally from Smith’s fundamental approach to relating to his players.  For example, “fair and consistent” punishment was mentioned as an element of team building and inconsistent punishment will almost certainly undermine a leader’s attempt to establish and maintain commitment from followers.  In addition, by caring for players from the moment they entered the program and continuously working with them to define their roles and build confidence Smith was able to develop a group of senior leaders who could mentor younger players and tell them what was expected of them and what it would take to achieve their goals.  Smith also made the process of confidence building easier and clearer by creating a daily “emphasis” and “thought”, based on Smith’s core principles and philosophies, which became the focal points of teaching and reinforcement during practices.  Finally, Smith built credibility among his players by demonstrating through his words and actions that while team performance, and winning, were very important and certainly a source of pressure for everyone involved, his priorities with respect to his players were not grounded in results on the court but on helping them to get a good education and become good citizens.

The source for this post was “10 Leadership Lessons from Coach Dean Smith”, Championship Coaches Network (blog). See also D. Smith and G. Bell, The Carolina Way: Leadership Lessons from a Life in Coaching (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004).  Please download this excerpt on practicing servant leadership from Leadership: A Library of Resources for Growth-Oriented Entrepreneurs.

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