An Attribute of a Successful Leader

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 10, 2016

Mark 3:13-19 GNT

For eleven years—from 1991 through the summer of 2002—I wrote a weekly, inspirational newspaper column that was first published in the Williamson Leader newspaper in Franklin, then the Williamson A.M. section of The Tennessean.  In 1998, one of those columns focused on the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach, Pat Summitt.  At the time, Pat had led the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team to its sixth national women’s basketball championship.  Perhaps even more noteworthy was the fact that it was the Lady Vols’ third championship win in as many years.  At the time, the Lady Vols were touted as the best women’s basketball team since women began playing collegiate basketball.

It could be argued that Pat Summitt is the best-known and most successful figure in women’s basketball—or perhaps sports in general— to date.  Indeed, Pat had become something of an icon, not only locally, but nationally as well.  One close to her referred to Pat as “an ambassador to the state.”  That Pat Summitt was, and much more.  It is not possible to list all of Pat’s achievements, but briefly she was an Olympic medal winner, was the most winning coach ever, enjoyed eight national championships, was inducted into the “Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (1999), and was recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  When we lost her from a premature death to early onset Alzheimer’s disease week before last, we lost a part of all of us.

Now, don’t infer from my comments today that I am trying to paint Pat Summitt as a saint.  Though she was a woman of deep Christian faith, Pat, no doubt, had her shortcomings and weaknesses, just like the rest of us do.  Some of those imperfections have been the subject of editorials.

But anyone who can do what Pat did over the years has to have something positive going for them.  And there have to be lessons that can be learned and wisdom to be gained from someone who has been so successful and so influential.

Following their 1997 championship win, Pat was asked what she thought contributed to their success.  And this is what she said: “You win with people.  People that are loyal and committed to what you want to do are important.”  Wel, I went on in that newspaper article to enumerate some of the keys that led to the success of the Lady Vols team as a whole.

But in actuality, several values and attributes helped make Pat the successful woman she was; values like commitment (she never missed a day of school from kindergarten through high school);  treating everyone with respect  (“She treats everyone the same whether he’s the president or the janitor,” a friend said of her); and a drive toward excellence.

But as I have been reading about Pat Summitt, her life, and her achievements since her passing, I have honed in on one attribute in particular that contributed to her success as a coach and a leader.  And that attribute was striving to bring out the best in others.  A fellow coach said of her, “Pat got everything she could out of her girls” (Rick Howard).  Among all her achievements is the fact that Pat could boast a 100 per cent graduation rate among Lady Vols players who completed their four seasons of eligibility.  And dozens of her former Lady Vols players went on to become coaches themselves.  Pat’s former player, successor, and dear friend, Holly Warlick, said, “It simply amazes me the impact Pat has made on so many people’s lives, people that Pat didn’t even know.  It’s God’s gift to her.”  Yes, one of Pat Summitt’s passions and gifts was bringing out the best in those around her.

But that is one of the key attributes of great coaches and great leaders in general—they have a way of seeing and seeking to bring out the best in others.  Great leaders tend to see the potential in those around them, potential that even their protégés may not even see themselves.  And such leaders have a gift of encouraging, pushing, drawing out, developing, nurturing, and honing the hidden potential in others.  This is true, I think, whether one be a coach, supervisor or boss, one who holds a political office, a school teacher, or minister of a church.

One such leader who long ago saw and brought out the best in those around him was none other than Jesus.  As the gospels tell it, Jesus, as a spiritual Coach, chose twelve of those who were following him, became a mentor to them, taught and nurtured them, pushed them beyond their experience and comfort zone, and sent them forth into the world to become coaches themselves who eventually altered the course of the world and changed history.  Untaught fisherman, a tax collector, and others were encouraged to teach, preach, organize churches, confront government authorities, and more as they were mentored by the One who called them and believed in them.

Well, at one time or another, most all of us find ourselves in a leadership role.  As I typed that last sentence, I remembered that some years ago I had acquired a book titled Lead Like Jesus by Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges.  These authors contend that “Anytime you seek to influence the thinking, behavior, or development of people in their personal or professional lives, you are taking on the role of a leader” (p. 5).  And so, the authors contend that a mother, friend giving advice, corporate executive, teacher, nurse, local pastor, high school coach, government official, and others often find themselves in a leadership role.  I think we could add grandparents to that list as well.

They see true leadership as being servant leadership, which includes humility and being concerned with others and their growth and development more than building up our own selfish ego.  Such an attribute—focusing more on others and bringing out the best in them rather than building up our own ego—may be in short supply these days.  It is a lesson that some of our political candidates might consider and take to heart.

The book continues by saying, “One aspect of a job well done as a servant leader is how well we have prepared others to carry on after our season of leadership influence is completed.  Our leadership legacy is not just limited to what we accomplished, but it includes what we leave behind in the hearts and minds of those with whom we had a chance to teach and work” (p. 45).  That statement holds truth for all of us, regardless of our station in life.  The book goes on to suggest that we ask ourselves a few questions: “How well am I doing in preparing others to take my place when the time comes?  Am I willing to share what I know and provide opportunities to learn and grow for those who will come after me?” (p. 46)

Oh, by the way: Back to that newspaper column that I wrote about Pat Summitt in 1998.  I mailed a copy of it to Coach Summitt, generally addressed to her at the University of Tennessee, but I didn’t have much hope that she would even receive it, much less take time to read it.  But you know what, a few weeks later I was delightfully surprised when I received a personal, handwritten note from Pat on a University of Tennessee note card thanking me for the column and mailing a copy to her.  Who was I that a winning coach and Tennessee icon would take time out of her busy schedule to sit down and write me a personal note?  But that was Pat.  It didn’t matter if you were President or a lowly pastor of a small church and small-town newspaper columnist, she treated you with respect.

We can express gratitude, I think, for people like Coach Pat Summitt who inspired us with her drive toward excellence, commitment to the task at hand, respect for all regardless of their station in life, and the way she—like Jesus before her—sought to bring out the best in those around her.  May we strive to do the same.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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