Dean Smith and the Player Who Wouldn't Make Eye Contact

We frequently grow impatient and at times even irate when we’re not getting the results we want from our team members.

The player was struggling — and his coaches were growing impatient.

Finally, North Carolina Assistant Coaches Roy Williams and Bill Guthridge had seen enough and threw Makhtar N'Diaye out of practice.

“Mak, is everything all right? Homesick?” Tar Heels Head Coach Dean Smith later asked.

N'Diaye shrugged it off, his eyes glossing away.

“Mak, look at me when I’m talking to you,” Smith said.

“No, Coach, I’m just not…” N'Diaye said, his eyes shifting once more.

“Mak, look at me as I talk to you,” Smith firmly repeated.

“Coach, in my culture, to look an adult in the eye is a sign of disrespect,” N'Diaye said.

Guthridge wasn’t in practice the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. A week had passed when N'Diaye received a call from his mother.

“Mak, there’s this man here in Africa, says he’s your assistant coach,” she told him. “He’s been here for a week saying he’s learning our culture.”

Smith had sent Guthridge from Chapel Hill to N'Diaye’s native Senegal so the coach could gain some insight into the roots of one of the most important players on the team.

Kenny Smith recently recounted this Coach Smith story on the “All the Smoke” podcast — and it has some important reminders for us as leaders.

We frequently grow impatient and at times even irate when we’re not getting the results we want from our team members. We dismiss them as lazy or inept or not having their heads in the right place.

But when someone who is typically reliable isn’t performing at the level we’ve come to expect, something is frequently awry, and it’s our obligation as leaders to get to the root of the issue and know the larger context in which it exists.  

Many coaches in Smith’s position likely would’ve lost their patience and perhaps suspended N'Diaye. But Smith seemed to have a level of empathy and general curiosity that is all too rare in leadership — and he likely would’ve been the first to acknowledge he hadn’t put in a satisfactory effort to get to know N'Diaye off the court.

The next time we’re tempted to call out a suddenly unproductive employee and give him/her a blistering talk about living up to expectations and achieving goals, let’s make sure we’ve done everything we can to first acquire some context.

The people we’re tempted to scold and punish may really just need an arm around them.    

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