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Pat Williams: No reluctance in his leadership

Pat Williams has been a leader for decades, but it didn't come without some reluctance. The longtime basketball executive shares his story.

5 min read


Pat Williams: No reluctance in his leadership

JC Gellidon/Unsplash

To lead or not to lead — it is a choice, sometimes.

In his newest book, “Pat Williams, The Reluctant Leader,” legendary sports executive Pat Williams shares that the first time he had leadership thrust upon him was in college. Pat, a baseball player, was asked — well, not really, more commanded — by an upperclassman to arrange the annual freshmen versus varsity basketball game.

Pat tried to beg off after he had to get ready for baseball and maintain his grade average. That was more than 60 years ago, and it set in motion a career in athletic management that continues to this day. Williams was the co-founder of the Orlando Magic. He was the first to hire Chuck Daly, and he drafted Shaquille O’Neal. Today, Pat’s in the NBA Hall of Fame.

Along the way, he helped raise 19 children (14 of them adopted from overseas), built a successful speaking business and authored more than 100 books on leadership. For Williams, leadership development is his passion. An avid student of history, Williams is a sponge for leadership wisdom, freely dispensing it.

More than 20 years ago, I wrote to Pat, out of the blue, for public-speaking insights. He didn’t know me from Adam, but he was generous with his advice, writing it out in longhand as I recall. We have stayed in touch all these years. I have interviewed him for my work, and he’s kindly asked me to endorse some of his books. (He thinks I am doing him a favor, when really it’s my privilege to celebrate his work.)

Dealing with reluctance

Pat recently joined me on my LinkedIn Live show to talk about “The Reluctant Leader.” For one so enthusiastic about leadership, it may seem odd to address the topic of reluctance. As Williams explains, “I think that’s the case in many, many situations where something happens, there’s a cause. The leader says, ‘Alright, nobody else is going to do this. So, I’m going to do it. I just feel compelled to do it.’”

When you are asked to assume a leadership role, doubt may creep in. “The immediate reaction is, ‘Oh boy, what if I fail? What if I mess it up? What if I can’t do it?’” For Williams, who learned leadership by doing, his advice is to plow ahead.  “Once you get through that [reluctance] and you get a taste of leadership opportunities and see successes, you’re a leader for life. You can’t go back once you get a taste of it.”

Acting wisely

Successful leaders hire the right people. Carefully. “You can never do enough background checks,” says Williams. “You can never have enough people involved in doing the interviewing. You can never have enough different settings where you do the interviewing.” Doing interviews over a meal, on the golf course, or with a spouse give the potential employer a broader view of the candidate.

Being a leader is not without its obstacles. For example, what if you hire the wrong person? “If you’ve got a problem person, who’s just not fitting in. Someone who is a square side, and you’re trying to jam it into a round hole in your organization, well, that square side is never going to get into the round hole. It just never will.”

Leaders act. “Nobody likes confrontation. It’s scary. It’s worrisome to you. But the best leaders don’t avoid it when they see something [negative] developing in their organization,” Williams says. “They understand we cannot delay this. We’ve got to confront it. We got to get on it right away, even though it may be unpleasant. And even though I’ve got a big knot in my stomach, we’ve got to do it.”

Learning from outside sources

Leaders, like Williams, draw wisdom from history. Williams recalls that his father, a high-school history teacher, was fond of President Harry S. Truman at the time when not many people were. As Williams explains, “Truman was faced with so many bold decisions. You get to make the first one about dropping those two bombs on Japan, then integrating the armed forces and standing behind the launch of the nation of Israel.” Truman also named George Marshall as his secretary of state, who organized support for the European recovery effort that today bears his name: the Marshall Plan.

Good leaders, too, also have mentors. Williams recalls the example of R.E. Littlejohn, the owner of the minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

“There I was with big dreams, big hopes, big ambitions. We had a wonderful run, but the real blessing to me was Mr. Littlejohn. … He was a man with great wisdom and with a heart of love,” Williams says. “He wrapped himself around me for those four years. It was all in running a baseball team, but he was pouring wisdom into me constantly… Looking back over 50 years, Mr. Littlejohn’s voice is still very clear in my head. I can still hear his wisdom principles.”

Living by leadership principles — and teaching them to others through his speaking and his authorship — is the legacy of Pat Williams. Caring, generous and wise.


John Baldoni is a globally recognized executive coach and leadership educator. ranked John a Top 50 Leadership Expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Trust Across America awarded John its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust and Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of Top 30 leadership experts. John is the author of 14 books, including GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.

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