On October 28, 2006, the sports world lost a legendary figure with the passing of Red Auerbach. He was the architect and mastermind for one of the most successful sports franchises of all time, the Boston Celtics. He coached the Celtics to an unprecedented eight straight NBA championships from 1959 to 1966. After his coaching career, he moved to the front office where among other achievements he orchestrated the acquisition of Larry Bird through a loophole in the league’s draft rules. By adding Bird to the talent that Auerbach assembled, the Boston Celtics won three NBA championships in 1981, 1984 and 1986.
After their 1986 Championship, Red appeared poised for even further executive success when he had acquired the NBA draft’s #2 pick in 1986. But his luck ran out when potential superstar Len Bias died of a heart attack just days after he became a Celtic. Who knows what might have been had his next star survived?
Red Auerbach’s Celtics enjoyed success in both the early days of the NBA as well as the days of million dollar player contracts and free agency. So Red must have learned something about acquiring talent and building peak performance.
How was he able to prosper in such different environments and roles?
Despite fierce competition for free agent talent in the NBA, Red was a contrarian. While the other teams courted star players with incentive filled contract offers that rewarded scoring and rebounding statistics, Auerbach refused. He maintained a firm rule. He learned that with five players on the floor and only one ball, personal compromise was a prerequisite for success. The only incentives that were written into Celtic player contracts were team incentives. He thereby avoided the possibility that a Celtic player would be rewarded for selfish play. In effect, he clearly established that the Celtics primary core value was unselfish team play in support of their mission of winning the championship each season.
While other NBA teams were less focused, Red Auerbach and the Celtics established without compromise that players who valued personal glory over team success need not apply.
With this philosophy Boston actually improved their ability to attract talented players who bought-in to the concept of unselfish team play. The Celtic philosophy served to attract some surprisingly high profile veteran players like Pistol Pete Maravich and Bill Walton who, at the end of their careers, found it wasn’t all about money and were willing to put team success ahead of personal statistics and play a lesser role.
While Red is no longer with us, his philosophies can still coach us.
Do you have a competitor like the Celtics that continually find ways to outperform your teams? Or would you just like to build a stronger competitive advantage? Ask yourself…
- Has your organization defined your primary core values? Are they exhibited in all your interactions without compromise? Do they support your mission to attract both like-minded customers and employees?
- Do you foster short term individual goals that are not aligned with the long term mission of the organization? Does individual greed potentially compromise the success of the whole?
What would Red do?
While he would likely abolish all smoking bans, he left us with some valuable lessons for competing in any arena. Rest in peace, Mr. Auerbach. Your brilliance and legacy lives on. Link to Red Auerbach’s Biography