Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bring Out the Best in the People Around You

The two men could not have been less alike. One was a short, boisterous, cigar-chomping Jew from Brooklyn. The other was a tall, moody, intensely private African-American from Louisiana and Oakland. Yet over time, these two men found their common ground and formed a bond of friendship that became legendary.

Red Auerbach was one of the greatest coaches in the history of the National Basketball Association, and Bill Russell one of the game's all-time best players. Together, they led the Boston Celtics to 11 N.B.A. championships in 13 seasons. As chronicled in Russell's wonderful new book, Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend, they became devoted to each other until Auerbach's death in 2006. Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of these two leaders was their uncanny ability to bring out the best in the people around them.

Bill Russell said of his relationship with Auerbach, "Although we came from different tribes as men, we recognized early on that as professionals we had a common agenda: to win basketball games… Our core philosophies- of how to be men, how to be professionals, how to be friends- were in tune, so we never had to talk about who we were or how to conduct ourselves. We just lived it. Over the next thirteen years, basketball set the stage for our relationship to evolve from caution, to admiration, to trust and respect, to a friendship that lasted a lifetime."

Russell joined the Celtics in 1956 and ultimately became team captain. He was especially noted for his unique ability to bring out the best in his teammates. In a review of Russell's book for the New York Times, former basketball star and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley wrote, "[Russell] had thought about the game and his role in it so much that it was only a matter of learning his teammates' strengths and weaknesses before he was capable of elevating their games. It is a rare player who thinks, 'How can I help my teammate help the team?' Russell and Auerbach understood that in a winning culture, selflessness is just common sense."

Russell's ability to influence the play of his teammates started, very importantly, from the rock solid foundation of his own formidable skills as a player. He was a five-time league M.V.P. and physically gifted with great height and leaping ability. Beyond his obvious athletic skills, he was a true innovator on the basketball court. He focused on defense as the key to a team's morale, in a way that had never been tried before. In an era when players were coached never to leave their feet while playing defense, he became the game's preeminent shot blocker, dominating opposing offenses and forcing them to adjust to his intimidating new tactics.

Russell's sheer competitiveness also intimidated opponents, and won the respect of his teammates. Bradley said, "He wanted to win every matchup, every game, every title. He waged psychological warfare, on and off the court." Because of their high regard for Russell's outstanding ability and fierce desire to win, his teammates were very open to his energetic attempts to push them to improve their own games. He consciously studied the play of every Celtic and willed his teammates to perform to their highest potential. The result was an unprecedented string of championships.

Auerbach, too, appreciated the importance of each individual in the whole grand scheme. Bradley observed, "[Auerbach's] genius was to relate to each player individually. What worked for one player didn't work for all players." Auerbach even handled Russell differently, allowing him to rest during practice once the regular season began for purposes of keeping him fresh for an entire grueling N.B.A. campaign. Russell's teammates did not resent this preferential treatment because they knew, once the game began, no one was more committed to winning than their captain.

As a peer colleague, do you ask yourself Bill Russell's very important question, "How can I help my teammate help the team?" It is the rare person who does this. It starts with one's own skills and performance. Outstanding results engender credibility and respect. From this foundation, it becomes possible to help even the worst performer on the team get better. But the selflessness, motivation, and energy must be there.

As a leader, like Red Auerbach, do you understand that each member of the team needs to be led differently? Do you take time to get to know your people as individuals and to adjust your approach accordingly? Do you work to get the best out of each person on the team, taking into account their unique skills and abilities? Such a model makes life more complicated and requires time and hard work, but outstanding results will follow.

Bill Bradley won championships with the New York Knicks and he recalled the joys of being part of a team, like the Boston Celtics, where people made a concerted effort to bring out the best in each other: "… the bond among players lasts a lifetime… You never forget your teammates' loyalty and how you returned it in full measure, and how that trust and mutual respect allowed you to be a champion."

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