Reflections On Leader Trajectories

Thanks to several recent notable deaths, combined with some biographical writing projects I’ve been working on, I’ve been thinking a lot of late about life trajectories of leaders. Some seem to burn brightly but briefly, while others become enduring great leaders. Some have their careers ended prematurely by death. Others are held back by some personal failing, a key failure, or just plain bad luck. And then there are the others that for whatever reason become big in their sphere, but not beyond. The possibilities are endless, and vary with each leader.

4 April 1983: Dereck Whittenburg (25) of North Carolina State puts up a last second shot over Alvin Franklin (20) of Houston during the Men’s Final Four Championship held in Albuquerque, NM at the University of New Mexico Pit. North Carolina State defeated Houston 54-52 for the national title. (this is the shot which was caught by Lorenzo Charles and put in at the buzzer for the win) Photo Copyright Rich Clarkson

I first started thinking about this with regard to basketball coaches, especially as we just passed the 40th anniversary of the 1983 Men’s NCAA Final Four. It is an interesting exercise to think about the Civil War leaders in relative terms too, but to keep the discussion neutral (and since it’s the start of college basketball season) I’m going to keep it to 1983.

Four coaches led teams to that Final Four in Albuquerque. All ended up in the Hall of Fame, but had contrasting careers and lives that illustrate the varied paths a life and leader can take.

Coach A led two schools to their first (and to date only) Final Four appearances. His team also upset defending national champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight that year.

Coach B won two national championships and went to 6 Final Fours. His teams (“The Doctors of Dunk”) revolutionized the game in the early 1980s. He became an elder statesman of basketball upon his retirement (under some pressure) in 2001.

Coach C went to 5 Final Fours, being national runner-up twice. He is credited with helping integrate basketball in the South, certainly in Texas. He helped popularize and revolutionize the game by getting it on national TV with the Game of the Century against UCLA and later with Phi Slama Jama. He retired under pressure in 1986.

Coach D won one national championship, capping one of the great stories in college basketball history. He became a noted speaker and commentator, but resigned as coach and athletic director under scandal and considerable pressure at his school. Unlike the others who lived to 86 or older (A is still alive), this coach died of cancer at age 47.

Coaches B, C, and D all have the courts named after them at their schools.

Which career would you prefer, and or rate highest? How do you evaluate the totality of their careers in relative terms? I invite you to give it some thought.

Coach A is Hugh Durham of Georgia. Coach B is Denny Crum of Louisville. Coach C is Guy Lewis of Houston. Coach D is Jim Valvano of NC State.

It is an interesting thought experiment to run. You can use it for any group of leaders, and it would be interesting to consider Civil War leaders in this vein. The answers may be revealing.

6 Responses to Reflections On Leader Trajectories

  1. That was the golden age of college basketball. Players rarely left early and, if they did, left after their junior year. I still remember Valvano running around the court, trying to find someone to hug after the miracle finish. It’s a tough business, though. A lot of the coaches get mired in scandal or just burn out. Even Coach K at Duke took a leave of absence one season. It’s a thought provoking study to compare them to other professions, including military leaders. Look at Sherman’s quote: “I stuck with Grant when he was drunk and he stuck with me when I was crazy” or words to that effect.

  2. Per the questions asked, I think it’s pretty obvious that Denny Crum had the better career among them. He not only won two national championships as a head coach at Louisville, but he played for John Wooden at UCLA, and was part of several of UCLA’s championships as an assistant coach there.

    Jim Valvano was unfortunately tainted by scandal, however, his courageous and often inspiring battle against the cancer that would kill him helped ‘rescue’ his legacy. Plus the story of the ’83 Wolfpack is a great one!

    Guy Lewis had a great career, but is it fair to ask if he was an underachiever? He had some great teams, and he coached two of the all-time greats in both the college and pro ranks in Elvin Hayes and Clyde Drexler.

    Hugh Durham might be the overachiever of the group. He took teams to the NCAA postseason back in the days before they had their extended playoff format, and when most if not all conferences only permitted the conference winners to be represented.

    So, all that said, as to which Civil War leaders careers parallel these coaches, I have to do more thinking on that. But it is intriguing if such parallels can be made! I will offer these: RE Lee and Hugh Durham, and William Sherman and Denny Crum. Lee did much more and often with much less than he was up against. He had some ‘superstars’ on his team along the way, but much if not most of the time, he was marching uphill!

    Sherman found success both as a subordinate and as leader of his own army.

    1. Lewis had Olajuwon also if I remember correctly. Maybe Lewis could fill the McClellan role who failed to take Richmond despite overwhelming resources.

      1. Good catch Bill. I MEANT to include Hakeem Olajuwon AND mention him and Drexler as teammates. I must have got distracted by the Penn State game! Thanks..

  3. Exploring the dynamic journey of leaders, ‘Reflections On Leader Trajectories’ delves into the intricate paths and pivotal moments that shape leadership. This insightful reflection navigates the challenges, growth, and transformative experiences that leaders encounter, offering a nuanced perspective on the evolution of leadership . It is a compelling exploration of the diverse trajectories leaders navigate in their pursuit of excellence and impact.

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