Leadership Lessons from Coach Williams’ Retirement Press Conference

I’ve been a UNC Tar Heel basketball fan ever since my family moved from Kentucky to North Carolina in 1985. My dad has always been a sports’ fan. He’s began cheering for the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team when he moved to Kentucky for Bible College. When a pastoral calling brought our family back to North Carolina when I was five, we could only watch local sports. So we watched a lot of UNC basketball. I began cheering for UNC with Coach Dean Smith and players like Rick Fox, J. R. Reid, Hubert Davis (current coach at UNC), Donald Williams, George Lynch, Eric Montross, and many others. As a kid, I pulled for UNC because I loved the color of Tar Heel Blue. But over the years, I grew to be a fan of all things Tar Heel athletics.

As UNC fan, I was saddened by Dean Smith’s retirement in 1997, but happy for Coach Gutheridge to get a chance at leading the UNC men’s basketball program. I was a fan through the Matt Doherty years which were difficult. And then with other UNC fans, I was thrilled that native son Roy Williams would be returning to coach UNC, the program where he began his coaching career as an assistant under Dean Smith.

Three national championships later and Coach Roy Williams is one of the greatest coaches in college basketball. Known for his work ethic and straight talk, he’s always been one of my favorite personalities to watch. He cares deeply about winning and has kept the same Carolina Family atmosphere that fans have grown to love. On April 1 of this year, news came out that Roy Williams was going to retire. I thought it was an April fool’s joke.

Later that day I listened to Roy William’s press conference where he detailed his decision process for stepping away from the UNC program. As a Tar Heel fan, I can admit that I had a tear or two listening to Coach Roy comment on stepping down.

You may be reading this and not care a thing about basketball or you may pull for a different team. That’s ok. This post is not an apologetic for UNC basketball. But I do want to highlight three leadership lessons that stood out at Roy William’s retirement press conference.

Leaders don’t make excuses. The last couple of years for UNC basketball have not been typically as successful as previous years. There are many reasons for these struggles: injuries, players leaving for the NBA early, the pandemic, etc. There are also extenuating circumstances like the coming “NIL: Name, Image, Likeness” issues that are about to affect college athletes, programs, and schools. When media gave Coach Williams a chance to place blame on some of these issues, he simply didn’t. Leaders are effective because they don’t make excuses.

Leaders take responsibility. Taking responsibility is a corollary to the previous lesson. Coach Williams could have blamed the environment, players, or the coming changes in college athletics. Instead he said something like this, “I’m not the right man for the job anymore. I just couldn’t get through to the players.” As a fan it was obvious that part of UNC’s problem in the last couple of years was a talent deficiency. But as a leader, Coach Williams would not blame the players. He owned the record, the struggles, and the team. Leaders take responsibility when things go poorly. They look inside first. They self-examine and refuse to blame others.

Leaders give away credit. Coach Williams credited his players, Coach Smith, his assistants, and others who supported him for the program’s success under his leadership. One of the values Coach Smith emphasized for his players was pointing to the person who gave you the assist. It is a way of sharing credit and saying “Thank you.” To be a successful leader means that there are plenty of people in your circle of influence who have helped you to be successful.

These three leadership lessons can help any leader of any organization of any size be more effective with the people they are leading. Before concluding this post, let me offer an observation and a warning.

Here’s the observation.

Coach Williams’ retirement press conference felt more like a funeral, than a recognition of a hall of fame coach retiring from a successful career. As a UNC fan, the press conference was obviously sad. But it felt sadder than it should have. Why? I think that’s partly due to Coach Williams’ approach to life and coaching. Known for his work ethic, Coach Williams obsessively values hard work and effort. He poured his life into his work as he details in his book entitled Hard Work: A Life on and off the Court.

Here’s the warning.

Leaders must be careful not to find their identity in their work or the success of their leadership. After listening to the press conference, it was not difficult to connect the challenges of the past few seasons at UNC with Williams’ self-evaluation. Rather than celebrate what had been, Williams questioned what could have been. I don’t have any insights into Coach Williams’ faith or lack thereof. But Coach Williams’ retirement press conference serves as a warning to leaders. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot find my identity in my work, my level of effort, my success, or my leadership. Jesus followers must find their identity in their relationship with Jesus Christ. Nothing else will satisfy. Leadership success will ebb and flow. Quality work will satisfy only until one is unable to work. If we identify ourselves with our labors, then, when our labors are through, we will have a hard time discovering who we are and what really matters in life.

The Bible teaches us in Romans 12:8 that the one who leads must lead with zeal or diligence. Jesus modeled servant leadership. Paul modeled leadership through a team. And I can tell you that leading a church or organization is hard work. It is part of that labor and work that God created his followers for (see Ephesians 2:10).

But we need to balance this effort and labor of leadership against the truth of the gospel. In the gospel Christ worked for our salvation. In the gospel, Christ led where we could not follow. Only Jesus could be the sacrifice and substitute for our sins. We do not labor in leadership and works in order to earn our salvation. Rather, we labor and work from the salvation we’ve received through Christ. Our identity is bound up in grace, not personal success. Our identity is found in Christ, not in our labors and leadership.

So, let’s learn these lessons well. Don’t make excuses. Take responsibility. Give credit to others. But remember that your identity is in Jesus, not the success or failure of your leadership. And Jesus cannot fail. That is good news for the follower of Christ. When our labors are done and we retire from this earthly life into heaven, we can celebrate. For our hope is not in our success, but it is found in the victory of Christ.

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