Why the Celtics Won—Lessons from Auerbach to “Ubuntu”
via HarvardBusiness.org by Bill Taylor on 6/21/08
Boston is bathed in green now that the Celtics have secured their 17th World Championship banner after a 22-year drought. I had the great fortune to attend Game 6 and cheer on this likeable team, as three spectacular performers (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen) coalesced to do together what none of them had ever been able to do on their own—win an NBA title. It was a memorable night, filled with respect for the players and their coach, with nostalgia for the great teams and players in Celtics history, and with anticipation that this banner might be the first of several to be hoisted in Boston in the next few years.
It’s always fun to try to apply lessons from sports to the world of business—even though usually, as I’ve written in a previous post, the lessons are pretty limited. In this case, though, the re-emergence of the NBA’s most storied franchise can teach important lessons about leadership and teamwork—and teach us why, even as so much of the competitive environment changes all around us, the rules of success remain largely the same.
Indeed, what struck me most about Game 6 was how the success of the 2007-2008 Celtics blended leadership wisdom from the past with a cultural sensibility rooted in the present. Or, to put it more simply, how the unlikely combination of Red Auerbach and Archbishop Desmond Tutu inspired the team on its championship run.
The influence of Red Auerbach is obvious. I was choked up and literally choking towards the end of Game 6, as fans around me lit up cigars in tribute to the legendary coach, general manager, and president of the Boston Celtics—the man most responsible for those first 16 championship banners.
The best way to understand the genius of Red Auerbach, and to appreciate how relevant his ideas were to the current Celtics, is to re-read an interview he did with HBR back in 1987, shortly after the Celtics won their 16th title. My friend and Fast Company co-founder Alan Webber conducted the interview, and it is filled with insights about how to create teamwork in an organization, how to evaluate performance in ways that go beyond statistics, and how one bozo at the top (in this case, John Y. Brown, who co-owned the Celtics briefly) could jeopardize in a year what it had took decades to build.
“How do you motivate the players?” Alan asked, expecting, I imagine, a complicated, multi-faceted answer. “Pride, that’s all,” Red answered. “Pride of excellence. Pride of winning. I tell our guys, ‘Isn’t it nice to go around all summer and say that you’re a member of the greatest basketball team in the world.’”
No wonder so many fans at Game 6 wore T-shirts emblazoned with messages about “Celtics pride”—a mystique that Red Auerbach invented, and this team finally restored, not because they won this game, but because of how they played all year.
But there was a second legendary leader whose values hovered over the court during Game 6. At the beginning of the season, searching for a way to inspire three great players to sacrifice on behalf of team goals, coach “Doc” Rivers read a collection of speeches by South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu. At the center of the speeches was the concept of “ubuntu”—a term from the Bantu languages of southern Africa that’s hard to translate into English but boils down to a simple but rich idea: “I am because of you.”
As Tutu explained, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished…”
The players took to the idea with real passion—they wore “ubuntu” on their wristbands, they chanted “ubuntu” as they broke the huddle, and, most important, they played selflessly, as if infused by the philosophy about which Archbishop Tutu spoke so eloquently.
Call it pride. Call it something more exotic. But it’s still what separates mediocre organizations from champions. And it’s why, the morning after Game 6, I ordered a different kind of T-shirt. It’s green, of course, featuring the Celtics shamrock, but it has only one word on it: Ubuntu.