A Transformational Leader: Remembering Arnold "Red" Auerbach
As coach of the Boston Celtics from 1950-1966, Red won nine championships, and an NBA record eight straight. He was also responsible for seven other Celtics’ championships as GM. As a coach he had a career record of 938-479 including four years of coaching prior to the Celtics. In addition to developing a basketball dynasty, Red helped integrate the league. In 1950 he drafted the first African-American player, Chuck Cooper. In 1962, he started five African-American players for the first time in NBA history. He did so to help the team, with no intention of making a racial statement, and did not realize the significance of what happened until reporters brought it up: “I wasn’t making any statement. I was trying to win games! Those were my five best guys. It was no big deal.” When he finally stepped down from coaching in 1966, he appointed player Bill Russell as his successor, making him the first African-American coach in all of professional sports. Red never allowed the media or other outside influences to negatively impact the work he did with the Celtics organization. Decisions were made to benefit the team and the well-being of the players, not to please anyone else. When pressured by the media and the fans to draft the hometown superstar point guard Bob Cousy out of Holy Cross, Red didn’t think he was the right fit and responded: “I’m here to build a team. I’ve got no interest in local yokels.”
Red sought respect from his players. To get respect, Red would not only consider feedback from his players; he would actively seek it out:
"If you can win their respect, then everything else comes rather easily. But you don’t get respect by demanding it. You can get obedience that way, but not respect. When I was thinking of a new play I’d discuss it with them at practice. And when a guy had a suggestion to make, I’d always listen and consider it. I never kidded myself into believing I had all the answers. I respected their knowledge of the game."
Ultimately, Red understood that the success of the organization depended on the players, and he would have to treat them with respect in order to get results. He was strong-armed, yet reasonable. He was decisive, yet considerate of other’s input. He was confident, yet humble. His high level of emotional intelligence kept him in tune with his players, and he would often recognize problems before they fully manifested themselves. He trusted his players, a trust which was reciprocated. He gained respect by delegating responsibility in necessary situations: As Bill Russell puts it:
"Red found subtle ways to transfer to us the responsibility for things he didn’t control that he knew we had to do to win. He never imposed anything. Instead, he set it up so that we had to buy in to the system and then be responsible for whether the plays worked or not."
Red worked with what he had, and brought the best out of his players. Rather than make the players conform to his system, he changed the system to fit his player’s skill sets:
"I have a system for the guys on this unit. No matter what your skills are, there’s a place for you in this system. I will never say to you that you have to change what you did in college or someplace else in order to play for me. We brought you here because we think you’ve go skills. Now it’s our job to find the right spot in the system for you."
This approach to coaching is radically different than a coach who imposes their will on their players and makes them conform to their style of coaching. Red did the opposite, the prime example being how he handled Bill Russell. Most coaches would have tried to turn Russell into an offensive powerhouse, but Red saw that Russell was first and foremost a defensive player, so he used him to rebound and anchor the defense.
Key to Red’s success was treating each player differently, while treating everyone the same in a team sense. It is a common misconception that treating everyone equally is ideal because everyone is not equal; rather individuals are different in their work styles, their personalities, and their motivations. As the Celtics’ Bill Russell put it:
"Another of Red’s master strokes was knowing how to treat each player differently and still retain our cohesiveness as a team. For example, Red never yelled at me. He knew that Bill Russell would never respond to that. He yelled at Satch Sanders and Tommy Heinsohn because they responded to being yelled at--they needed it sometimes to get motivated."
Red used different types of communication for different players because he recognized each player had a unique personality, and thus would have to be led and motivated in a way that resonated with each individual on a personal level.
Red sought to understand his players, rather than judge them based assumptions. Red didn’t come into the organization with preconceived notions of what types of people his players were, or what they should be. Instead he took it upon himself to learn who his players really were, and to then to turn this into something positive for the team. Auerbach’s Celtics shared one vision, which was to win championships. It wasn’t about who scored the most points, or who played the most minutes. Whoever the player, they all had an equal stake in the outcome of the team, and that is what made the organization so successful. Auerbach was hyper aware of the whole, and would listen to his players, which was crucial to his success as a leader. Auerbach’s Celtics were considered one of the best teams in the history of professional sports. They have been referred to as a family, a tribe, and a community, but of all the descriptions, Red himself said it best: “The Celtics are a way of life.”
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