The Arbitrariness of Leadership

The euphoria of Vanderbilt beating #8-ranked North Carolina on Sunday night was short-lived. After several hours of reflecting on how far Vanderbilt basketball has come – this victory would have been unthinkable my freshman year – I stumbled upon a column that quickly snapped me back to my default state of crankiness.

ESPN.com’s Andy Katz posted this, a column titled “Disappointing Tar Heels Lack A Leader.” As you might expect, his thesis is that UNC lost because a leader hasn’t emerged yet, because no players have stepped up and assumed control of the young but talented team. Then, following #2-ranked Michigan State’s loss to unranked Connecticut, Katz penned a column that was essentially the mirror image of the UNC version. In this piece, titled “Walker Now UConn’s Unquestioned Leader,” Katz argues that a big factor in the Huskies’ upset is Walker’s maturation and his willingness to accept a leadership role that he rejected last season. Yes, it would appear that Katz has got it bad for leadership in the early going.

There are, of course, huge problems with forming a causal relationship between leadership and winning. Take Vanderbilt and UNC, for example. Did last year’s Tar Heels not have enough leadership to win? Both Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard were seniors, and I can distinctly remember hearing broadcasters tout their leadership. Since the Tar Heels finished with a 20-17 record, why was their leadership so clearly inadequate? As for Vanderbilt, the Commodores lost senior point guard and universally-recognized team leader Jermaine Beal to graduation. And yet Beal was leading the team when they were ousted in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Murray State, the second year in a row the Commodores lost to a 13-seed. So what happened there? Why wasn’t Beal’s leadership enough to get them over the hump?

Connecticut and Michigan State are open to this kind of questioning too. If leadership is so important, then why did last year’s Huskies finish with an 18-16 record, even though they started seniors Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson, and Gavin Edwards? Dyson, in particular, received consistent and effusive praise for keeping the team competitive and assuming the scoring load during such a disappointing season for the powerhouse program. Was his leadership a myth? Furthermore, why did Michigan State lose that game to UConn? After all, the Spartans are led by senior point guard Kalin Lucas, who has consistently been heralded as one of the elite leaders in the country. Aren’t we told that having a senior point guard on the court, an extension of the coach’s will and wishes, is a tremendous advantage? Why didn’t it work this time?

While Katz’s arguments are already absurd, he detracts from them even further by pooh-poohing the narratives he and his peers worked so hard to construct last season. In the UNC column, he writes:

The Tar Heels lost an unthinkable 17 games last season. Williams called the season the most frustrating he has had as a coach. Carolina had leadership — at least some outspoken types like Deon Thompson — but could never mesh.

And in the UConn article:

“It wasn’t my role,” said Walker by phone from Maui late Tuesday. “I was a sophomore. I tried to let Jerome [Dyson], Stanley [Robinson] and Gavin [Edwards] be the ones to make the big plays and lead us to victory. It wasn’t my role.”

Those three seniors clearly weren’t capable. And maybe Walker wasn’t then, either.

This is awfully frustrating to read because it’s so revisionist and arbitrary. Because those teams failed, Katz decides that their leaders “clearly weren’t capable.” So does that mean leadership only exists if the team wins? Is it not possible to have leadership on losing or struggling teams? And if the assignment of leadership is so flimsy and transient – “Thompson and Dyson were leaders last year, now they are not because their teams weren’t so good” – then why are we wasting our breath talking about leadership in the first place?

As usual, my point is that there are so many questions, inconsistencies, and logical pitfalls involved in the idea of leadership that any discussion of the quality is rarely worth the time and energy. It’s an analytical crutch, a way of looking at success or failure when you don’t have much else to say or are too lazy to do some work. North Carolina didn’t lose to Vanderbilt because they lacked a leader. They lost because they had 22 turnovers, shot 27.3% from three, and played bad defense. UConn didn’t beat Michigan State because Kemba Walker is the team’s new leader. They won because Walker scored 30 points on over 50% shooting and because they crashed the offensive glass against a typically dominant rebounding team.

That’s the truth. But if you want arbitrary, revisionist, and lazy mysticism, you can feel free to keep reading Andy Katz.

 

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One Response to The Arbitrariness of Leadership

  1. Steve "Ching" Tchiengang says:

    While I don’t agree in the concept of certain players having some kind of magical pixie dust called “leadership” grant them the ability to play better or elevate their team’s play, I can’t completely dismiss the fact that some players seem to lead while on the court. By this I mean some players have the ability to bring a calm, or even sense of confidence to their teammates while they are on the court. You can call this leadership if you want, I prefer to call it good play. Good players make fewer mistakes, they score more, they make better passes and set better picks, they hustle (I know, arbitrary/immeasurable), etc. Though I do feel that some players are leaders and others are not, I don’t feel that a team’s win-loss total is based solely on its quantity or quality of leaders. It is based on team effort, talent, and scheme, which I guess can be motivated by a strong leader; however, most good leaders lead by example.

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