Keeping Your Heart & Sole in the Game

By Peter Jeff
The Leadership Mints Guy

Here’s an idea to help you lead your former teammates more effectively. Reading time: 3:58.

           You’re a newly appointed vice president moving into your new office. You’re thrilled with the opportunity yet concerned that your direct reports know you first and foremost as their long-time teammate. Now you’re their boss.

         Running Shoes and Teamwork

         You question yourself.  Sure you have the authority but do you really have the power? Your self-doubt begins to overwhelm you, but then you wake up and smell the smelly shoes!

         At least that’s what one newly appointed vice president did while unpacking  a framed picture he had kept in a drawer but never showcased in his previous office. The picture of well-worn running shoes and socks always seemed so out of place in an executive setting.

       But not this time.

       This time the smelly-looking photograph emitted the more pleasant scent of teamwork –a whiff of humility and an aire of staying in touch with his former teammates as their leader more than their boss.  Now the newly appointed vice president proudly showcased the photo in his office.

     No wonder: those smelling running shoes and socks in the photograph provoked a lot of inquiry. And the newly appointed vice president gladly obliged. He turned the photo into a leadership teaching opportunity well beyond the obvious cliche of teamwork, dedication and conviction that most sports imagery evokes.

Stepping Up With More Soul Than Soles

     That photo of smelly running shoes depicted more of the owner’s soul than his soles, thanks to the leadership lesson that pro basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell once taught us  –running in his socks during a practice session.

Bill Russell won 11 NBA Championship Rings

Bill Russell won 11 NBA Championship Rings

Bill Russell earns Distinguished Medal honor from President Obama

Bill Russell earns the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011  from President Obama

        Yes, this was the same Bill Russell (11) who led the Boston Celtics to nearly twice as many NBA Championship rings as Michael Jordan (6) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6). Even more significantly from a leadership perspective, Russell won two of his 11 championship rings as the team’s player-coach, running that fine line between friend and boss with awesome success.

     But Russell’s promotion from teammate to head coach–from formerly  just one of the players to now formally  the LEADER  over ALL of them —  barely got off the ground. Russell knew of course that his former teammates would give him a good-natured ribbing –even a  hard time– when he became –The Coach or  The Head Honcho, The Man.  Compounding his leadership challenge:  Bill Russell was now the first black head coach in professional sports in the racially-tense mid 1960s.

     Sure enough, Russell’s former teammates pulled a practical joke on him during his first pre-season practice in 1966 as the team’s leader. And Russell turned that practical joke into a leadership learning opportunity for newly-promoted leaders today –nearly a half century later. Here’s what happened:

     Just before practice, one of the Celtics players hid Russell’s basketball shoes. They were the only playing/coaching shoes he had that day.Russell enlisted the help of the team’s trainer and together they scoured the locker room and hallways. Finally Russell found his shoes.   But Russell moved them to a different hiding place and told his players they will have to run all through their practice unless his shoes were returned in the next 15 minutes. Of course no one could return the shoes. His shoes were no longer in the same spot where they were initially hidden. So the team started running as Russell threatened.

    And Bill Russell–a basketball legend in his own time — began running with his team –in his socks. Russell demonstrated he considered himself part of the team. His shoe-less feet made a significant imprint on his former teammates.  He proved to his teammates that he would not take advantage of his new leadership role.  He would not let his new title go to his head or his wallet. He quite literally had his feet on the ground and his soul and his soles in the game. Now as the team’s leader he expected the same respect from his team as he had previously earned from his teammates. And together –in mutual respect–they would be successful.

      No wonder that Bill Russell won twice as many championship rings as Kobe Bryant (5) and Magic Johnson (5) and nearly three times as many rings as Shaquille O’Neil  (4) and more than three times as many as Larry Bird (3).  He always put his heart and his sole into the game. One step at a time. For his team and his teammates.

Today’s ImproveMINT

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