Teaching as Leadership: Lessons from Pat Summitt

When it comes to teaching as a form of leadership, few offer more valuable lessons than Coach Pat Summitt.

Michael J. Higdon

Professor of Law and the Associate Dean for Faculty Development

University of Tennessee College of Law

Proudly displayed in my home office is a basketball autographed by Coach Pat Summitt.  Now, this may not sound particularly noteworthy—indeed, I imagine there are many such basketballs adorning numerous homes and offices across the country.  If you knew me, however, you would know it’s quite odd that I would even own a piece of sporting memorabilia, much less count it among my most prized possessions. The reason stems from the inspiration I have gained from Coach Summitt when it comes to teaching as a form of leadership and, more specifically, the enormous impact a leader can have simply by focusing on the needs of those she serves. But before I say more about that topic, let me provide some background on how I came to appreciate this legend in the world of sport.  

Right about now, you might be thinking that I, as a faculty member at The University of Tennessee, chose Coach Summit as the topic of this guest post in an attempt to curry favor with “VolNation,” the enthusiastic (to put it mildly) fan base of The University of Tennessee where Coach Summitt spent thirty-eight years coaching the Lady Vols to achievements too numerous to count.  Well, you’ll soon change your mind when you read what I have to say next.  Namely, when I moved to Knoxville in 2009, I had never even heard of Pat Summitt.  And, no, I was not living in a cave somewhere or calling into question the extent of her celebrity outside the state of Tennessee.  I just have never been much of a sports fan and, thus, am fairly oblivious to things related to that topic.

Nonetheless, one cannot live in East Tennessee and escape the legacy—richly earned—of Coach Summitt.  Indeed, she is everywhere here—from an actual statue of her on campus to the numerous people you cross paths with who will proudly share (often with tears in their eyes) stories of interactions they once had with the woman Sports Illustrated called “a force of nature.”  Despite my relative disinterest in sports, I am a student of leadership and am fascinated by those who lead effectively. Thus, intrigued by reverence that accompanied all things related to Coach Summitt, I decided a few years ago that I wanted to learn more about her and what had inspired so much admiration among such a broad cross-section of people.  I knew she had an impressive record of success—indeed, at the time of her retirement, she had the most career wins in the history of college basketball—but I would soon learn that there was so much more to this amazing human being.  

I ended up reading a number of books, watching several documentaries, and even talking with people who had worked closely with her.  What I found was someone had a deep appreciation for leadership (which she defined as “a form of temporary authority that others grant you”) but not as a means of winning, but instead as a means of inspiring others to achieve excellence in their own right.  That, by itself, was inspiring enough. However, given that I consider myself to be first-and-foremost a teacher, what most struck me most was the way in which she saw her role as a teacher to be merely an extension of her role as leader. To illustrate, consider the following quotes—some of my favorites—from Coach Summitt: 

  • 1. “The reward of being a teacher is to watch the widening of young eyes when they experience something new.”

One of the things I love most about Coach Summitt is that, despite her considerable celebrity, she absolutely relished her role as a teacher.  And that joy came not from standing in front of these young women and basking in their worship of her (and, let’s be honest, how could they not worship her?), but from the platform her coaching role gave her to guide these young people. She saw her players not as tools that would help her secure another NCAA championship, but as people who were looking to improve themselves and needed her assistance. And assist she certainly did. Of course, the players had to put in the work, but she was there to help guide them on their journeys. As Coach Summitt herself said, “I remember how many of them fought for a better life for themselves. I just met them halfway.”

  • 2. “I’d learned the single most important principle of teaching: they don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” 

When I started my own career as a teacher and was worried about falling flat on my face in front of a roomful of students, a wise mentor (thank you, Professor Terrill Pollman!) told me that students would forgive almost any mistake if they truly believed you cared about them and were invested in their success.  It is clear that Coach Summitt followed a similar path.  When she sadly passed in 2016, countless former players came forward to tell stories of how Coach Summitt had gone out of her way to get to know and to care for them as wholistic human beings.  She was notoriously tough on her players, but she always made sure that they knew that she saw them and that she cared.  As Coach Summitt once said, “[m]y demandingness was based in a fundamental sense that every kid had potential greatness in her—and they understood that, because I made it clear to them.”

  • 3. “When a player makes a mistake, you always want to put them back in [the game] quickly—you don’t just berate them and sit them down with no chance for redemption.” 

For Coach Summitt, winning and losing were eclipsed by the personal journeys of the people she led, and she endeavored to never lost sight of that.  This quote, which concerns the need to give players a chance to redeem themselves, illustrates perfectly that aspect of Coach Summitt’s leadership. Inherent in that philosophy is how, the knowledge we as teachers bring to our students means nothing if it isn’t ultimately being passed on those students in a way that they can wield it for themselves.  Opportunities for redemption are key to the transfer of knowledge, and so is feedback.  Coach Summitt knew that feedback was essential, having once said that, “in the absence of feedback, people will fill in the blanks with a negative.  They will assume you don’t care about them or don’t like them.”  I imagine few people have the demands on their time that Coach Summitt likely had during her career, which makes it all the more admirable that she would take the time to ensure that her team was receiving the instruction and the feedback they needed.  

  • 4. “Winning is impermanent . . . what lingers is not the cold metal trophy but the feeling of warm exultation you shared with one another.”

I close with this quote because it makes one point abundantly and beautifully clear. Underlying Coach Summitt’s entire leadership philosophy (and, indeed, all the other quotes I identified above) is the understanding that leadership isn’t about the win; it’s about the relationships and the opportunity one has as a leader to lift others up.  Coach Summitt believed that, as teachers, the most enduring legacy we can build is through those we help and inspire along the way.  As someone who lives in East Tennessee and is regularly confronted with the reverence that continues to exist for Coach Summitt, she has certainly proven herself correct on that score.

When it comes to teaching as a form of leadership, few offer more valuable lessons than Coach Pat Summitt.  Indeed, for all that Coach Summitt has taught me, and despite my relative ignorance of all things sports-related, I now consider myself a huge fan of her work and her vast legacy.  As I continue on my own journey as a teacher, I keep that autographed basketball as a source of inspiration for the responsibilities and, more importantly, the rich leadership opportunities that come with that role.

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