Pat Summit: A Model of Exceptional Leadership

Author’s Note: This column was written a few weeks ago. It is shared here in light of Tennessee’s loss to Baylor in the NCAA tournament.

In a recent Sports Illustrated story honoring Pat Summit and Mike Krzyzewski as Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year, a fascinating story of hope and encouragement is shared about Pat Summit.

In 2008 as the team boarded a chartered jet for a game Coach Summit took her accustomed seat in the first row. The flight attendant, settled into the seat next to her, begins to sob. “What is it?” Summit leans forward, “Tell me, what’s the matter?”

Nothing’s the matter. It’s just that, years ago, Pat Summit left the floor after coaching a game against Louisiana Tech; she spotted a girl in a wheelchair at the mouth of the tunnel. She dropped to one knee and told her, “Don’t let the way you are now define who you will be. You can overcome anything if you work at it.”

In a moment, that woman will get out of her jump seat and work this flight, serving the person who had prophesied it, and right now she’s emotionally overcome by this opportunity to thank her. “Everybody else was ‘Oh, poor you.’ You told me I could do it. And here I am.”

Jim Rohn said, “A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.”  As you embark on the year ahead, consider these three characteristics of leadership and how you can instantly add value to any organization.

Take a knee. When Summit spotted that girl in the wheelchair, she went to her, took a knee, and spoke those inspiring words into her life. While some still hold to archaic views of position and power, great leaders are servant leaders and always will be.

Great leaders see what other refuse to see, approach the ignored, and give hope not pity. Harold S. Geneen said, “Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.” What is the defining characteristic of your leadership? The path to exceptional leadership is not found in pride or arrogance but in taking a knee in humility.

Lift up. In that brief encounter filled with destiny, Pat Summit spoke words of life to that girl in the wheelchair. It’s likely that no one would have remembered much less not have faulted her if she walked past her. After all, she has a schedule to keep, a team she is responsible for, so keep on walking.

It was Thomas Morell who said, “The first great gift we can bestow on others is a good example.” And this is a time-tested trait of leadership still worth practicing. All leaders make decisions, but not all leaders touch people. Make it your practice to never miss an opportunity to encourage someone in their moment of struggle. You never know the impact or difference it can make.

Speak hope. Although not revealed, it is likely the journey out of the wheelchair for the girl had its challenging moments. By her own admission, everyone who spoke to her took the “oh poor you” approach. Summit on the other hand, gave have her hope. Summit spoke words of faith that “you can overcome anything if you work at it.” The girl took those words and made them her reality.

What is your message to your team? What words are you projecting into your organization? And based upon those words, what outcomes do you anticipate? Clearly hard work is part of any formula for success, but the words and attitude by which it is approached goes a long way in determining that success.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head-that’s assault, not leadership.” And he was right. When you learn to take a knee, lift up, and speak hope, there is no limit to where your leadership can take you.


© 2012 Doug Dickerson



About dougdickerson

I am Certified Leadership Trainer, author, columnist, and speaker. Husband to Alicia, father to Katelyn and Kara, and "Pop" to terrific grandson Tyson. I am an avid photographer, love the outdoors, and like to travel. I'm passionate about sharing my leadership insights and helping people reach their full potential.
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