Pat Summitt, Failing a Great Leader’s Toughest Test

Be like Lou, the next diminished leader can be like you.

Pat Summitt, the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach who has won more games than any other college coach ever, men’s or women’s, received test results from the Mayo Clinic at the end of May that confirmed early-onset Alzheimer’s type dementia.  The irreversible brain disease is now at work destroying the 59-year-old Summitt’s abilities of recall and cognition, and as it is for the other estimated 5 million Americans with the disabling disease, the prognosis is grim.

Everyone in the Tennessee and sports community as well as the media and all of us who have seen loved ones suffer with the disease are rallying behind Summitt, who is one of the toughest, smartest, most determined figures in sports. But Coach Summitt has decided that her symptoms are not yet severe enough to force her into retirement, and she intends to stay at the helm of the Tennessee women’s basketball team at least three more years.

It is the wrong decision. It is a selfish and unethical decision. The question is whether anyone will have the courage to try to convince Summitt that she has a duty to the team, the school, her own legacy and basic principles of ethics to change course and do the right thing. Quit.

Summitt says she will be continue to coach  while giving her staff more responsibilities, even allowing   them to call the plays in the game, while she focuses on motivating and teaching. This tells us everything we need to know, does it not? She knows she can no longer perform the duties of a head coach, and thus should step down as head coach. She can be a coach emeritus, or a consultant, or something else, but a leader cannot delegate away core duties and still be a leader in anything but name only. In addition, her plan is profoundly unfair to the assistant coaches who will be doing large chunks of her job, not that any would dare complain. Who will be accountable for bad decisions and controversial losses? A coach suffering from an illness affecting her reasoning ability can’t be blamed for bad decisions, especially ones she personally doesn’t make. The authority, responsibility and accountability essential to the job of being a head coach will be muddled by delegation and diffusion.

It will also be muddled by sentiment. Sentiment has no part in professional pursuits and leadership, and when it is given a role, the result is almost always catastrophic. In 1985, Kansas City Royals manager Dick Howser managed his team to a World Series victory.  The next season, he found himself becoming confused during games, and was examined by doctors. They found that Howser had inoperable brain cancer. He was absent from the dugout for the rest of the season taking futile radiation treatments, but announced in 1987 that he wanted to keep managing as long as he could. The drama of a man with terminal cancer trying to manage a contending baseball team overshadowed everything else the Royals did, though the team was regarded as having a good shot at another championship. Howser didn’t make it out of spring training, abandoning the job when he became to weak, and the Royals had to adjust to a new manager just as the season was getting ready to begin. (They also had a disappointing record. Howser died that June.)

Lou Gehrig did it the right way. The New York Yankee great was in the midst of his famous “iron man” consecutive game playing streak (later surpassed by Cal Ripken, Jr.) when he found his skills and coordination suddenly and mysteriously deteriorating. Gehrig knew there was something physically wrong, but the Yankees were winning even with him being unable to contribute, and Gehrig knew he could stay in the line-up as long as he wanted to. Gehrig didn’t want to, however; not when he was unable to do his best. He took himself out of the line-up and was soon diagnosed with the incurable and fatal illness amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He never played again, and thus never put his team, its fans, or the team’s sportswriters into the position of having to argue that he was no longer qualified to be the Yankee clean-up hitter.

Gehrig’s illness also figures in a recent example of a declining leader harming his life’s work by being unable to retire gracefully. Last month the Muscular Dystrophy Association  announced that it was removing Jerry Lewis, now infirm and 85, as the  host of the annual MDA Labor Day Telethon, which raises millions for medical research to cure the various forms of muscular dystrophy, including ALS.  Jerry Lewis has served as the telethon’s host since the very first telethon, in the 50’s. In recent years, Lewis’s poor health and advanced age had rendered him an unsteady, unfunny and archaic host at best, and contributed to the decline of the program’s ratings and fundraising success.

First it was announced that Lewis would only make a brief appearance on the 2011 show, which would be his farewell. It appears that Lewis reneged on this arrangement, however, and when the comedian gave an interview denying that the 2011 telethon would be his last, he was, in essence, fired. The apparent ingratitude of a charitable organization removing the single individual most responsible for its success is proving to be a public relations disaster for the telethon, but it was Lewis’s refusal to face reality and be responsible that created the conflict, and harmed the cause that he regards as the greatest achievement of his career.

The most courageous act by any leader is to give up power when the leader knows that he or she can no longer meet the obligations of the job. This isn’t easy by any means, and when the situation occurs during what should be the leader’s prime, as with Summitt, Howser, Gehrig, and Rep. Giffords, the added bad fortune and injustice of it will naturally prompt the urge to fight, to refuse to give up. The fallacy of that course is that the fight itself takes the leader away from his or her real responsibilities. Whether it is the natural diminishment of ability and skills through the aging process, an injury, as with Giffords, or illness, as with Summitt, that fact is that the leader is not able to perform as before, and while accumulated good will and institutional loyalty may allow such a leader to stay on as if that were not the case, the leader’s appropriate and ethical act is to resign….before a single game is lost or crisis mishandled because of the disability.

Coach Summitt has given her life to the Lady Vols, and before it is too late, she needs to be persuaded that her insistence on staying coach can only harm them. Her dementia is  sure to dominate any coverage of the team; every in-game descion will lead to speculation on the progress of  the disease. The sports media will have ongoing articles and dueling columns about compassion, and how some things are more important than winning games, and how the school owes her the opportunity to decide when she can’t coach any more. Ultimately, the team will suffer.

The ethical act is for Pat  Summitt to spare everyone, and herself, that scenario. She has been a great basketball coach, perhaps the greatest. In the midst of a personal tragedy, she needs to rise to a selfless and brave decision, for the good of the team and school she loves, but also to give all of us a lesson in leadership.

Great leaders know when to leave. I am hoping that this great leader will eventually realize that for her, the time is now.

16 thoughts on “Pat Summitt, Failing a Great Leader’s Toughest Test

  1. I must disagree. Six months ago I probably would have agreed with you, but not any more. From what I gather Summitt is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, as is my father. There are some excellent new medications that help, tremendously, pushing the symptoms back. B-12 is also, if taken early enough, almost a ‘cure’. Living with this on a daily basis has taught me a tremendous amount.

    There is this irrational fear of Alzheimer’s Disease. One does not catch it from germs (unless possibly avery serious Lyme Disease connection). Only 3% of the cases are hereditary. For some strange reason, a person who has mentioned that they have the disease, and may be dealing with early onset symptoms for a decade. Looking back on my father’s condition, he was living with it for years. Because of the irrational fear, the wrong information about the disease, and this tendency to put anyone who has the disease in some sort of an institution so we won’t see them less than optional is disgusting.

    My family made the decision to let people know what is going on. If others had been up front about the disease and what to truthfully look for (and it is far, far more than a memory problem) then we would have been able to attack it at a very early onset stage. If Summitt was required to to go the Mayo Clinic for such an early diagnosis, she is probably not all that incapacitated. If she is admitting to memory problems, then it is possible with the right nutrition (which is a huge part) B-12, and the new medications, she will be able to function as a “normal” person for years.

    Not every stage of Alzheimer’s is the same. Early onset will last for up to four years. In some people there is a six months change. Summitt’s family will know when to require her to step aside. You just know. People need to understand that the early stage of the disease is not a reason to withdraw from life, your friends, and your loved ones. It may be years before anyone will actually notice there is a problem.

    To force a person to withdraw from living because they have an illness is cruel. If one can no longer function, that is another story, but to avoid the press and coverage of some idiotic college sport (I think all college sports are idiotic – but that is another story) that might not feature some drug infested Neanderthal who can bench press a field goal is absolutely lacking in humanity.

    Truth be known, I don’t see the ethics in it, but as someone who adores the game of baseball, I’ve discovered there are no ethics in sports, not any more. It is all about the almighty dollar. Once Summitt is seen as someone who can no longer generate the cash and wins, she will be thrown to the wolves.

    Summitt is more important now, more than ever. The disease needs to be covered by the press. It is far more important than some dumb basketball game. The more people who understand how to fight early onset Alzheimer’s the better off they will be. In the past week I’ve learned that there are early symptoms of Alzheimer’s that appear years before the dementia sets in. If we had known about this, we could have started my father on B-12 shots, immediately. There are reports that if you administer B-12 early on, it can halt the progress of the disease. If this is true, to rub Summitt of her career is just plain wrong.

    People are afraid to face Alzheimer’s for the stigma of being looked down upon as something to be pitied. Forcing a woman like Pat Summitt to give up her life’s work is one of those reasons. The example of Lou Gehrig is a disingenuous. He stepped down when he could not longer play the game. Evidently Summitt is not at that point, just yet. Allow her to have some dignity and be an example to show others that this disease is no longer hopeless nor a kiss of death, not at first.

    The Pink Flamingo

    • Yes, but did you read the post? If she says she will leave much of the coaching play-calling to assistants, what does that say? It says that she can’t do the job. Arguing that this will bring attention to the disease and educate the public: that’s not her job; that’s not the team’s purpose, that’s not the school’s reason for having a basketball team. What gives Summitt the right to hijack the basketball program and turn it into a PSA?

      We’re not talking about someone with the illness living a normal life. A big time basketball coach. isn’t normal; she needs better than normal decision-making ability and instant tactical analysis. Even a slight diminished in those skills can make the difference between winning and losing.

      Ethics is obviously involved: her duty is to the team, not to herself. She’s breaching it. Steve Jobs just stepped down as CEO of Apple, because he’s ill. He could have stayed. Unlike Summitt, so far at least, he gets it.

  2. Respectfully, Steve Jobs stayed for seven years before he could no longer do the job. I believe that was one of the points made by SJR above. Pat Summitt will most definitely step down when she can no longer contribute at the highest levels.

    In the meantime, she has removed herself from game calling and placed Holly Warlick in that role. She absolutely wants to put her team in the best position to win games and as a result is acting selflessly. None of us can know the full extent of her current disease and whether removing herself from game decisions is even necessary at this point.

    Further, the Tennessee Lady Vols have had a succession plan in place all along. Anybody who knows anything about that program knows that Holly Warlick has taken on more and more responsibilities over the years and has always been the unnamed replacement if Summitt left for another opportunity or retired before Warlick was picked off by another program.

    Your Steve Jobs example is spot on, Jack Marshall. The Lady Vols head coaching role is now in a transition no different from the drawn out CEO transition of Steve Jobs to the new CEO Tim Cook. The three year transition at Tennessee is merely a target date. The tragic end to an amazing career that has been anything but selfish…

    • It was spot on in this respect: he’s doing the right thing NOW, and having the guts to turn over the reins and the title of the job of his life. Unlike Summitt.
      Jobs’ disease affected his stamina and strength, but not, from anything I have been able to find, his MIND. Would Steve Jobs have been allowed to keep his CEO position if he had incipient dementia? Do you really have any doubts that he would have been forced to resign? How about the general leading US operations in Afghanistan? Would the military and the public tolerate someone with progressively diminishing faculties to hold this position? We now know that President Reagan probably had early, undetected Alzheimer’s in office: if so, and it had been detected, his duty would have been to resign, and if he refused, for the Congress to remove him.

      Your argument jumps over logic into pure sentiment and compassion, masquerading as a rationality. She cannot say that her faculties are reliable enough or will be reliable enough to perform the challenging duties of a head coach, and the team pretending that she is head coach when she is not, if that is the “plan,” only shortchanges the players, the school, the assistants and the team.
      Any time a leader’s personal situation becomes an impediment to doing his or her job to the extent that it overshadows the real goals of the job, there is an obligation to end the distraction. (Summitt, as an experienced leader, knows this, but her personal needs have cauised her to ignore it.) The Lady Vols are allowing Summitt, who is reacting emotionally (and selfishly), to make that problem worse.

      One of Murphy’s Laws, and one of the wisest, is that “An individual who has been important to an organization will eventually become a detriment to that organization if he or she stays there long enough, in direct proportion to the importance of that individual’s contributions to the organization.” I know of many example of this, but I think Summitt will end of being one of the most unfortunate.

  3. Nobody disagrees with the reality that Summitt will have to retire.

    It appears that your beef with Summitt is the timing of her departure. And while i respect your opinion that she needs to retire immediately, I disagree… And not for sentiment and compassion as you’ve suggested. Rather, I do not know the extent of Summitt’s illness and the impact it’s having on her current abilities. I will assume we are on equal footing in this regard unless you have an insight to her care that I do not.

    You’re argument of Steve Jobs is the unraveling of your own logic. He remained in the role of CEO DESPITE being away from his ongoing responsibilities in that role. Mr. Cook has been functioning at the highest levels of executive leadership without owning the title. Mr. Cook has been addressing Wall Street analysts and investors on quarterly earnings calls for quite some time now and it has been all but given that he is running the show. The reaction to his announcement has had no effect on the share price for this very reason.

    Jobs’ departure has come to a head. Seven years later. And btw, he will remain as Chairman of the Board following board approval. Summitt will depart when the time is right. She is not making this decision alone.

    If Summitt had learned of her diagnosis and withheld that information from the university, her staff, players, and new recruits that would have been unethical. Instead, she went well beyond that inner circle and notified the whole world (just curious… did you notice that announcement coincided with the earthquake near you?). She then went on to announce a target date for her departure (and I’m making a big assumption here) based upon the encouragement of her staff, the university and her physicians.

    You and I can disagree on the timing of her departure. My money is on another very strong season by the Lady Vols. You must be a Huskies fan. : )

    • I have to side with Andrea here. 3 years would be the requisite amount of time to stay to fulfill promises to last year’s recruits that she would be their coach. Staying on to be a guiding hand through a transition period is the best scenario every time.

      The Steve Jobs scenario was the absolute best because early on, reports of his illness would send the stock price tumbling. For him to up and leave immediately would have had the same effect as if he died. By staying on in whatever capacity he could, he guided Tim Cook to success and showed the world that Tim Cook had his every confidence. Conversely, if Steve Jobs had quit and thrown Tim Cook in there, Mr. Cook would have faced doubters and second guessers.

      Pat Summitt is simply living out her promises and obligations to the best of her ability while they execute their succession plan. Besides, do you know how expensive COBRA is?

      • Living out obligations in name only isn’t living out obligations….it’s going through the motions. I guarantee that every recruit would prefer to have a fully able head coach that isn’t a living legend than an iconic head coach who can’t call her own plays.

        Next up: Joe Paterno….

        • If the school’s plan is to have Holly Warlick as the Head Coach if Pat Summit left immediately, then wouldn’t an early onset dementia Pat Summit + Holly Warlick with transitional powers > Holly Warlick alone with increased responsibilities and pressures?

          • Well, in theory only. Someone with Summitt’s status and rep is automatically like an 800 pound gorilla. Co-leaders as a management arrangement almost never works, and the former honcho hanging around after a transition works even less often.

            • That’s only the case in the theory that the honcho is forced out and is bitter. In this case, Pat’s attempting to wrap up her legacy and ensure that she is fondly remembered as the person who set up the Lady Vols for success, not only during her reign, but in the years that followed. It’s one thing to be great in one’s own time, but another to be great after we’ve passed on.

              • No, that’s not true. Very few leaders are capable of sharing handing over power they have held for a long time graciously or modestly. Bitterness is not the issue. Ego and habit are. This is why ex-presidents of the US aren’t appointed to Cabinet positions. This is why ex-CEO of companies don’t move over to the board. Nobody wants their predecessor looking over their shoulder, especially when he or she is a living legend.

                • So, you posit, that if I decide I want to leave a company and ensure that a smooth transition is successful and that my successor is successful, it is likely that my ego and my habits will sabotage my goals of a smooth transition and a successful successor? Don’t leaders want to meet their own goals? Wouldn’t their ego be impugned if they failed to meet their self stated goals? Wouldn’t their ego drive them to reach their goal instead of blockade them?

                  • No, I KNOW that if they hang around after handing over the reins, half-doing so or pretending to do so, the results are almost always bad for everyone concerned, especially the organization.

                    I’m not just making this up…it’s a well established organizational phenomenon, thanks to human nature, not just of the receding legend, but of his/her followers.

    • Andrea—if her cognition were unimpaired, why in the world would she make arrangements to have assistants call her plays? You have exactly the same evidence of her impairment that I do: she can’t call plays! Would the school hire a coach who couldn’t call plays? No. Would a coach who called plays if if she were mentally impaired stay on the job? Of course not.

      Jobs was physically impaired, but not mentally impaired. An ALS victim like Stephen Hawking could still call basketball plays, but might have to retire because the physical demands of the job became impossible.

      Actually, I’m a Lady Vols fan and a Pat Summitt fan. The whole thing makes me very sad.

  4. Jack, neither of us knows if Summitt is unable to call plays today or if she’s being overly conservative by giving up those responsibilities at this point.

    In fact, I have observed over the years that Holly Warlick is the person drawing up the plays on the whiteboard in the huddles. I’ve also observed Summitt speaking with Warlick on the bench as she’s made substitutions throughout games. My hunch is that they have “mostly” been on the same page all along. But I cannot say for certain, nor can you.

    In fact, many coaches delegate game day offensive and defensive play calling to coordinators. The NFL is the easiest example to see successful delegation of play calling. Look at the success of Tony Dungy who stood far away from his offensive and defensive coordinators during games but monitored their calls by headset. Dungy is well regarded for running disciplined, efficient practices and inspiring his teams through his leadership. And while he did not call the plays during games, there was never any doubt that he was the head coach.

    Summitt will continue to run high level practices, train, mentor, counsel, inspire, coach and lead these young women (and her staff).

    You and I share the same sentiment. The whole thing makes me very sad, too.

    On to Paterno…

  5. I’m not interested in a basketball program. If I were a fan (and I never will be) I would be complaining. I complained for five years that Bobby Cox was hanging on too long with the Braves. There is a distinct difference between a sports figure (or and opera singer) staying past their prime, and dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease. I am an advocate for a baseball team switching managers, frequently. It shakes things up and helps a team. The late, very great Beverly Sills retired when she was still in her prime (much to my dismay), while others lingered, destroying their legacy.

    That is one story. Dealing with Alzheimer’s is another. They should not be mixed. Simply from what I know about sports, I don’t think anyone should remain with any program for more than a decade. A team is the better for it.

    We’re not talking about sports, though, or are we? The two need to be separated. All the poor woman to have some dignity. Don’t put her in a back shed to be fed gruel and clothed with pampers. Those days are over. The only way we can fight this horrid disease is to get in there an fight. I know of no better analogy than sports. “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.”

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