Dean Smith, former head basketball coach of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) died on February 7, 2015. In his 36 year coaching career, he won 876 games which was an NCAA Division I record at the time. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he coached UNC-CH to 2 national championships and 11 Final Four appearances. Nearly 97% of his players graduated with college degrees. He fought against segregation and recruited UNC-CH’s first African American player, Charlie Scott. His legacy is one of a basketball genius but his greatest impact may have been off the court as a leadership pioneer.
Smith’s coaching and leadership philosophy was simple. He wanted his players to play hard, play smart and play together.
Smith understood that a player did not have to be the fastest, tallest or most talented athlete to play hard. He taught his players that effort was the only thing they could control in the game. He reinforced this principle in practice. If a player was not playing hard, Smith would ask the player to take a seat, as he watched his other teammates run wind sprints for the player’s lack of effort.
Smith valued the principle of playing hard so much that he asked his players to voluntarily take themselves out of the game when they needed a breather. He trusted his players that when they were fully rested after sitting on the bench, they could put themselves back into the contest.
Smith’s principle of playing/working hard is fueled by full engagement and high discretionary effort whether you are on the basketball court or in the workplace. Smith knew his responsibility as a leader was to create environments where his players would contribute extraordinary levels of energy to the task at hand and in return, experience high amounts of satisfaction for their endeavors.
Smith’s teams were always fundamentally sound, attentive to details and prepared before a contest. They understood the rules of the game and used them to their maximum advantage. Smith’s players routinely said that Coach Smith could tolerate physical errors but not mental mistakes. Smith indicated he enjoyed practices much more than the games in the role of leader/ teacher and not as a coach.
Smith encouraged his players to take reasonable risks as long as the risks produce short term mistakes that could be easily corrected and not repeated in the future. He avoided micro-managing his players particularly upper classman. He often relied on them to lead and teach incoming freshmen as they entered the program. He urged his players to continuously improve. During the offseason, he provided each player with written instructions as to what they needed to work on prior to the next season.
Smith knew that his players would play smart if they were fully engaged. They realized they were building something bigger than themselves when they played for him. Engagement consultant, Lior Arussy describes such an atmosphere as transformational. Where players/employees: (1) Want to perform and are connected to the mission: (2) Know how to perform through personal practice and (3) Are proud to perform through personal commitment.
As a servant leader, Smith recruited highly talented players and turned them into unselfish team players. He modeled the notion that personal achievement was the result of the group and not solely from the talent of the individual. One of his requirements was as a player came out of the game, everyone on the bench including players, coaches, managers and trainers stood to applaud the player’s effort.
The story is told about one practice where Smith thought a player was being selfish. He called the other 4 players to the sidelines and told the greedy player to play the rest of the practice game by himself. The player quickly understood that it was easier to play the game if your teammates are involved.
Smith would regularly tell his team that the highest scoring player in the league rarely came from a ranked team and most certainly not from a championship team. He frequently reminded his players that good teams emphasized “we” and not “me.”
Smith valued togetherness so much that he started the tradition that after a player scored; he would point to the other player who passed him the ball in order to acknowledge his contribution to a positive outcome.
Play hard, play smart and play together. That was the leadership message of Dean Smith. His assistant coaches said he never mentioned the term “winning” to his players. He knew if they played hard, played smart and played together, winning would take care of itself.