I have always thought that basketball provides an excellent context for observing leadership in action. Coaches have to act as leaders even though they can’t play and team members must often step up and lead while they play. It’s also a context that changes quickly, so the demand for leadership is almost constant.
In an attempt to be clear and transparent, I must admit that I’m not unbiased when it comes to basketball. As a native Chicagoan, I hold a special place in my Leadership Hall of Fame for people like Phil Jackson, who led the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990s (and five more for the Los Angeles Lakers after that).
But today’s blog is about the Boston Celtics, who just lost the seventh game of a semi-final series with the Miami Heat. They are out of the playoffs and will soon be out of people’s memories because second place doesn’t count for very much these days. In addition, it wasn’t even the finals, only the contest for the NBA’s Eastern Conference championship.
Nevertheless, I’d like to focus on the Celtics’ coach, Doc Rivers, another great leader. He was a player himself before becoming a coach, so he has a great sense of what players need to play well. He is also both perceptive and articulate. For instance, when he was asked how his older players could keep up with their younger competitors, he said, “Passes move faster than players do.”
The unique part of his strategy during this year’s playoffs was in choosing to not practice on the team’s off days. Thus, he took my the advice from my new book, Do Nothing!, to new heights. In his case, it was exactly the right strategy. Why? First, because this year’s schedule was compact: teams had to play an abbreviated schedule (due to a labor dispute) in a concentrated time frame; they had far fewer off-days than normal, and more days when they played back-to-back games. And second, because Rivers’ three big stars, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, were all approaching the nadir of their careers. Pierce, nicknamed ‘The Truth,’ is 34 years old and has played 14 seasons in the pros; Garnett, ‘The Big Ticket,’ is 36 and has played 17 seasons; and Allen is almost 37 and has played 16 seasons.
In his attempts to preserve his players’ health and stamina, as much as he could, Rivers had Pierce and Allen playing the fewest minutes per game of their careers, and Garnett played even less than that. More pointedly, the Celtics never held a single practice session during the playoffs. Instead, they watched and analyzed film and went over their game plans the day of each game.
As Rivers put it, “We’re just too old. We’re tired and old and banged up … if I have a choice between the legs and the brains, I’m going to take the legs every single time.” He went on to say, “We have to do whatever we need to do. Every team is individual. It’s not by choice. It’s by need.”
In the end, it was pretty amazing that the Celtics did as well as they did, because only a loyal few expected them to weather the season and go so far in the playoffs.
But the Celtics not only endured, they thrived, beating the Heat in Miami in the 5th game of their series to take a 3-2 lead and bring hope to everyone who roots for aging basketball players. After this victory, they only needed one more to go to the NBA Finals.
Sadly, this was not meant to be, and even Coach Rivers thought that they simply ran out of steam.
Other leaders have also made notable, historic decisions to Do Nothing!, not always because of need. Sometimes they were appropriately cautious because they had no experience and, as a result, no clear intuition about how to proceed.
Chris Craft, who ran Missile Control for NASA during the Apollo moon program, is one of many notable examples. He set a ‘sticky trigger’ for his operational decisions. After Apollo 13 had an oxygen tank explode two days after its launch, he decided to cancel their planned lunar landing and, throughout the process of making decisions that would get the astronauts back to earth safely, he followed a simple rule: “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.” His rationale was that if you do something wrong in space, it can be catastrophic. Thus, they only did what they absolutely needed to do: they didn’t make big, risky decisions.
Sometimes leaders should Do Nothing! because of need and sometimes because of a lack of information. Ironically, more leaders would also do better by doing nothing simply because it helps their team members be more effective. Thus, when teachers do less, their students learn more, and when coaches like Phil Jackson do less during a game, e.g., by uncharacteristically sitting down and crossing their arms and legs, their team members step up and take responsibility. In other words, there are many reasons for leaders to Do Nothing! If only more of them would.