I live in North Carolina and follow UNC basketball. One of my favorite former Tar Heel players is Eric Montross. Eric was on the 1993 National Championship team and is now the color commentator for the radio broadcasts of Carolina games.
I was listening to Eric and Jones Angell, the play-by-play announcer, banter during the pre-game segment of one of Carolina’s ACC tournament games. Jones brought up coach Roy William’s first-half timeout during the previous game against Louisville. He—like many in the press—attributed William’s behavior during that timeout with getting the team’s performance back on track. Aaron Beard with the Associated Press described it this way:
Roy Williams was fuming. The North Carolina coach ripped off his jacket and flung it into a chair in disgust. He stomped around his players during a first-half timeout, screaming for them to play tougher or watch Louisville run away with their Atlantic Coast Conference tournament matchup.
Brice Johnson heard every word. “My manhood was definitely challenged,” he said.
Johnson responded by scoring 18 of his 22 points after halftime to help the 19th-ranked Tar Heels outlast the 14th-ranked Cardinals 70-60 on Thursday in the quarterfinals.
This is the way people often make sense of leadership situations. A leader acts, the follower responds. Thank goodness for that leader.
But then Eric Montross surprised me by challenging the conventional storyline. He basically said that Coach Williams’ actions were important, but he thought equally, or perhaps even more importantly, was Johnson’s decision about how he would respond. He pointed out that a player in that situation could have decided to respond in any number of ways, many of which would not have been helpful to his team. Johnson, a third-year player who averages about 13 points a game, decided to increase his concentration and effort, which is exactly what his team needed from him.
I turned to my husband and said, “Well, there’s another reason to like Eric!” He had clearly explained what I’m often claiming is the bigger picture when it comes to leadership: the so-called “follower” is often as influential as the assumed “leader.” It is these interactions and exchanges between people that produce leadership (that is, the direction, alignment, and commitment needed to work together effectively as a team).
Johnson didn’t just respond to his coach’s in-your-face admonishment. As Williams said in his post-game press conference, the players decided to respond. Johnson’s particular decision about what to do in the face of having his “manhood challenged” improved his personal performance on the court that afternoon, but I suspect it also increased his coach’s commitment to the team and his teammates’ beliefs in what they could accomplish together. The important point to me is that leadership in any team is an ongoing process of give and take involving everyone on the team. All of us should be mindful of how our day-to-day decisions about how to respond impacts the direction, alignment, and commitment of the teams that we are a part of.
Finally, here’s an interesting question: Why was Eric Montross compelled to offer this narrative of Johnson as a key decision maker in the scenario? I suspect it is because he is an insider when it comes to college basketball. He has experienced first-hand all the complex dynamics that influence how well team members are able to work together to reach a shared goal. He knows that it is folks like us, the fans on the sidelines, who tend to put a lot of the burden of leadership on the coach. Montross wanted us to see a bigger picture.