Wednesday during a teleconference with Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, someone who had called in apparently was in a room where people walked in and started joking around.
At least that’s what it sounded like. Summitt was talking about preparing for Georgia… and then we heard some yucking up … and then Summitt paused.
“Somebody having a party?” she asked.
OK, you can read that sentence and imagine it being said in various tones of voice.
But here’s the tone it was: “I’m not mad, but it sure wouldn’t take much.”
This is the “edgy” tone Summitt uses when she wants to get a point across that she thinks she shouldn’t have to get across. It should be obvious. Like saying, “Hey knucklehead, mute your phone,” without actually saying it.
You can imagine that over the years, Summitt has used that tone many times _ and woe to those who haven’t taken heed. But most have. Among the many reasons she’s gotten to 1,000 victories _ the milestone was reached against Georgia on Thursday _ is that when she talks, people listen. But also, sometimes, vice versa. She listens when they talk.
I bought the book “1776” by David McCullough near the end of last hoops season, but never got around to reading it. Not long ago, I picked it up again, and have found it captivating. Perhaps most of all because of the depiction of George Washington as a charismatic, natural-born leader who inspired great loyalty and devotion, someone who made others feel braver and more capable just by his mere presence.
Washington is described as down-to-earth, not arrogant or condescending. He was approachable, open to others’ ideas, and willing to listen to the people he trusted if they advised him to do something contrary to what he had planned.
But he was also decisive, firm and expected people to execute his orders if he committed to them. He was relentlessly hard-working and not about to put up with people making excuses for not getting things done. He believed you never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.
He also thought a leader needed to look and act the part of a leader at all times. It’s a heavy weight to bear – where you’re always the one everyone else is looking to for guidance, for direction, for strength. But it’s a weight that all true leaders learn to carry.
Now, I understand if you might say, “Oh, for crying out loud. Wait a minute. You’re really not going to compare Pat Summitt to George Washington, are you?” Because it seems a little grandiose on my part.
But it’s really not _ not when it’s in the spirit of talking about leadership. Hang with me here. As I’m reading the book, all the descriptions of the things Washington did _ the way he carried himself, the enormous responsibility he undertook, the way he was able to rally ordinary people from all walks of life to believe in a goal bigger than themselves _ these are all things I’ve seen out of Summitt.
Great leaders don’t necessarily get to choose what they lead. It depends on the time and circumstances they are born into. For all we know, the best leader in human history resided in a small village and was never known outside of it – but nonetheless performed near-miraculous acts of leadership.
Washington, though, came around at one of the most pivotal times in human history, and his eternal place on the totem pole of leadership is correspondingly high.
Summitt came at a time and place where she was needed, too. Anyone who thinks she has been “just” a coach has missed the way this country has changed in the last 35 years for women. Her success in guiding a powerful women’s athletics program that has given a university something to be immensely proud of – that’s been leadership on display in a way that we all can recognize is about a lot more than sports.