With the University of Kentucky Wildcat basketball team being nearly eviscerated by early defections to the NBA and graduation, the 2010-2011 'Cats, while certainly lining up to be a talented bunch, seem to have a gaping leadership vacuum. With only one senior on the roster, little-used Josh Harrellson, and juniors DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Darnell Dodson, to go along with a plethora of freshmen, a major question mark for John Calipari and staff is who will lead this talented but very young squad?
But, perhaps a more appropriate question is; what qualities must one possess in order to be a leader? What made Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, and John Pelphrey great leaders? Why were they followed, and not led?
To help answer those questions, I asked a number of athletes and coaches their thoughts on what it takes to make a great leader. The panel includes UK All-America and former head coach of UNC-Charlotte, Mike Pratt, former UK football player, and current Denver Bronco wide receiver, Dicky Lyons Jr., long-time UK baseball head coach Keith Madison, UK All-America and former Morehead State basketball coach Kyle Macy, the ultra-successful coach of the Elizabethtown High School girls basketball team, Tim Mudd, former UK great Jeff Sheppard, and the great cross country coach, now retired, from Central Hardin and John Hardin High Schools, Bruce Seymour.
All are uniquely qualified to offer opinions with merit. Let's begin with Mike Pratt:
"Some thoughts on being a leader: 1. Be goal oriented. 2. Have good people skills. 3. Don't let the highs along the way to the goal be too high, or the lows too low. 4. Discipline. 5. Organization. 6. Be a competitor."
Pretty straightforward stuff from Mr. Pratt, and I think an excellent beginning in our search for a rudder for the current crop of 'Cats. But, I think the most thought-provoking idea coach Pratt puts forward is not allowing oneself to get too high or too low. In college athletics, where so many of the performers are teenagers, this leadership tenet is possibly the most difficult to fulfill, and also promotes the idea that a great leader needs experience. Although, as we've seen with John Wall and Patrick Patterson, college athletic experience isn't always a prerequisite for strong leadership.
Next in line is Dicky Lyons Jr.:
"A leader cannot be defined, only followed. A great leader makes those around him want to do their best. His character makes others want to find the natural leader within themselves."
"We are all born with greatness, and the ones who can get that out of others has a special gift that makes them great leaders."
I think Lyons' notion that a leader makes those around him want to do their best, rings very accurate. Followers never want to let the leader down. Whether it be in sports or business, when one is working for a respected leader, letting him/her down is always cause for regret.
"Comeback 'Cat" Jeff Sheppard has some excellent thoughts:
"I think a great leader shuts his mouth and leads with his life. A great leader outworks everyone he leads until he receives the respect of his team, then he can open is mouth and lead with his mouth AND his life. Then, if the team wins, he is remembered as a leader. A great leader does this over and over."
I like the lead by example portion of Shep's thoughts, and the fact that he points out that outworking ones teammates is vital to leadership. Leaders work, and then work some more, ala Patrick Patterson working all last summer on improving his three-point shot. Players respect those who work above and beyond what is expected, because they know how difficult putting in extra work can be.
Next, the great Kyle Macy chimes in with some very cogent ideas :
"Great leaders come in all sizes and shapes, and can go about it (leading) in different ways. However, some qualities of great leaders are: High self-confidence; excellent communication skills; the ability to think independently yet work well in a team structure; a willingness to put others ahead of oneself; and it is an added bonus if they possess a great skill level, too."
This is the first we've seen "high self-confidence" listed, which, as Macy points out, is a key quality to have in a leader. If one doesn't believe in oneself, how can he get others to believe and follow? Macy also says the ability (yes, ability) to sacrifice is a key component of a strong leader. Followers, whether they be athletes or co-workers, can smell insincerity like a week old dead rat. And the definition of insincerity within the realm of athletics can be found in the selfish. Succinctly put, proof one is worthy of following is never more profound than when someone sacrifices their own self-interest, for the good of the team.
For 20 years Bruce Seymour led the track and cross country programs at Central Hardin and John Hardin High Schools. Seymour's strong character and solid value system has made him one of the great leaders of young people in Hardin County. His exceptional thoughts on leadership are as follows:
"During my coaching experience I met many leaders whom I depended. Three of my runners who went on to participate in varsity athletics at the collegiate level were Andrea Doogs, Ryan Snellen, and Caleb Swartz. During my tenure as a coach, these leaders all had similar qualities: They were high achievers -- I'm not saying they were all brilliant, but they achieved at a high level: They worked hard in practice and in life, setting an example for others to follow: They didn't want to let someone else down, like the coach or others on the team: They were all very honest in their assessment of their own ability, and the ability of others: They lived life in the present, not in the past -- What is done is done, and we have to move on to the best of our ability."
"They were also not reckless with their life choices; they knew right from wrong, and what the good choices are. The choices they made were not just in what they did every day, but they listened and learned what was good to eat, say, and how to act. There were no complaints about life and what they had to do each day. They were all good at encouraging others, both coaches and athletes alike. And they all remembered what they were trying to accomplish."
Leaders being focused on the task at hand, having self-awareness, and leaving the past, good or bad, in the rear-view mirror, are I think, the three most important points coach Seymour makes: A leader without focus simply isn't a leader at all ... A leader without self-awareness, and self-honesty, can be disruptive within the team concept ... And a leader who can't leave the past where it belongs, is destined to never fulfill his full leadership potential because he isn't looking toward the most important part of his life, the future.
Keith Madison, who coached the UK baseball team for 25 years (1978-2003), compiled 737 wins (ranking third in SEC history), and had 85 players either drafted or sign professional contracts, is still one of the most well-respected men in the college baseball. Madison is a past president of the American Baseball Coach's Association, and was the pitching coach for USA Baseball in 1999. Some of Madison's more well-known charges are former/current major leaguers Jeff Parrett, Paul Kilgus, Jack Savage, Scott Downs, Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb, William Vanlandingham, Mark Thompson, Joe Blanton, Andy Green, Terry Shumpert, and Larry Luebbers.
The Brownsville, Kentucky native led the UK baseball program at a time when the recruiting budget can best be described as meager, and lagging far behind their SEC competition. But through his hard work, leadership, and ability to relate to players and their families, Madison was able to build the Big Blue baseball program into a respected member of the SEC.
Hired at age 26 to lead the Bat Cats, Madison earned his pristine reputation through his integrity, honesty, and high moral code. Here are his thoughts on leadership:
1. "Many times coaches try to select or 'promote' leaders; this usually does not work."
2. "A coach should observe his team closely and notice who players look to when something profound, funny, or important is said in a team meeting, on the bus, or in the locker room. The one or two players most of the team turns to see a reaction, are usually the true leaders on a team, because they are the ones with INFLUENCE. A person can't lead unless he has influence. A coach should get as close as possible to the players on the team who possesses influence, and then work very hard to develop those guys into positive leaders."
3. "Positive leaders are those who have earned respect. Character and work ethic help earn that respect."
4. "Not just because I coached for 28 years of my life, but I truly believe that in athletics, the coach is the ultimate leader. I hear coaches complain about having no leadership as a reason for little success, and I think it is a flimsy excuse. If the coach is to be the ultimate leader, then he/she should strive to be men and women of character and great work ethic themselves."
5. "It's the coach's job to find the influential athletes on the team, and then develop them into leaders. The players will usually gravitate to the natural leaders. It's in the coaches best interest to develop a great relationship with the natural leaders, and challenge them to have a great work ethic, class attendance, and punctuality, etc."
"The coach is the ultimate leader:" How very true. For the coach is who everyone looks to as an example of how to conduct oneself, both on and off the court or field. We've all heard the adage; The team mirrors its coach ... which is never more true when it comes to how the players react to stress, bad calls, losses, and even victories.
Although, ideally, a team will have at least one player capable and willing to lead his teammates, with the head coach lies the ultimate mantel of leadership.
Expounding on the coach-as-leader philosophy of Keith Madison, we have Elizabethtown High School girl's basketball coach Tim Mudd. Mudd, who took over a struggling E-town girl's program in the mid-'90's, has become, if not the best high school coach in Kentucky (either boys or girls), then he's certainly on the short list of the most accomplished.
Since 1997, Mudd's teams have averaged 23 wins per year, and in the last five years the Panthers have won an average of 28 games per season. Coach Mudd has led his team to five Kentucky Girl's State High School Tournaments, won one state championship, and played in the championship game three times. And he's done this in the 5th Region, one of the toughest regions in the state for girl's basketball. Furthermore, Mudd has excelled at a small, public school.
Coach Mudd was kind enough to offer his thoughts on what makes a coach a strong leader:
"I firmly believe first and foremost, you have to develop relationships with your players to be an effective leader. They have to know that you care about them, on and off the court. Next, you have to be patient and positive at all times. Today's kids have a hard time with anything less than that. Lastly, you must be consistent with everything you do at all times."
Build relationships, have patience, be positive, and consistent.
Players look at coaches and want to see stability, someone who cares about them as people, and isn't willing to throw them under the bus when they perform less than admirably. But, being consistent in all areas lets the players know a coach is fair. And that might just be the most important aspect of earning a players respect. No one wants to play hard for someone they think isn't fair to each and every player ... from the star, to the bench warmer.
For the bench warmer has sacrificed and practiced just as hard as the leading scorer, and when teammates see everyone treated consistently, it encourages a "team first" attitude among the members of the squad. And having such an attitude fosters hard work, focus, and a willingness to sacrifice for the good, and the goal of the team.
So who will lead the 2010-2011 Kentucky Wildcats? That answer, I don't have, but it will be the player who displays a combination of sacrifice, unselfishness, a strong work ethic, high character, discipline, natural leadership skills, focus, and confidence in their own ability. Or perhaps, coach Calipari will be the person the youthful team looks to for guidance, at least early on in the year. For surely, a player will rise to the challenge and earn the right to lead a team with "Kentucky" across the chest, filling the vacuum, and enabling the 'Cats to exceed all expectations.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!