What I Learned From Bill Russell

Celtics legend Bill Russell was, in every sense of the word, a giant. If you saw him play, or stood next to him during a presentation training session in your office on lower 5th Avenue, you would swear he was taller than the 6’10” listed in the program. He used his soft voice, and loud laugh, to rail against injustice and fight for equal rights. He didn’t run onto the court during player introductions – he strode as if he was in no hurry to dominate you, he had plenty of time to do it. And he faced the type of hatred and bigotry in the city he represented, and won for, that makes you shake your head and wonder how anyone could say, or do, the things that were said, and done, to him.

I am unable to do anything listed above that Russell could, except laugh (too) loudly. But working with him, I did learn a few valuable lessons that I have, hopefully, been able to incorporate into my life.

The most interesting thing I learned from Russell came in a discussion of the 50 greatest NBA players celebration he had recently been part of. In trying to find a hook for a motivational talk he would be giving, I asked what all the players there had in common. I can’t remember the exact words he used, but the gist was “we all knew what we weren’t good at.”

The answer stunned me. Players as great, and varied, as Michael Jordan, Dave Bing, Wilt Chamberlain, Dolph Schayes, and Bill Walton, all knew the parts of their game that they could not do, or not do as well as they would like. And, obviously, they were able to overcome them.

I didn’t have the guts to ask Russell what he wasn’t good at (my guess would be outside shooting, or acting based on his work on Saturday Night Live). But it did make me assess whether I know, and admit to, what I’m not good at. While the obvious, and innocuous answers, including drawing, vocal imitation, and fitting into small spaces, it’s more important for me, and all communicators and professionals, to figure out what we are not good at in our jobs.

I feel in training sessions, part of my job is to get people better at what they don’t do well. If they don’t gesture naturally, I’m going to work on their gestures. If they keep their voice in a monotone, I’m going to focus on getting more vocal variety.

But, at some point, there are just things we aren’t “going to get.” We can all get better, to a degree, at maintaining eye contact during our key points, or dribbling with our off-hand; but we cannot focus on improving these areas at the expense of writing better presentations, or perfecting our three-pointers.

Bill Russell died Sunday, July 31, at the age of 88. His impact on the court is still being felt. His impact in society is still being felt. And, the message I heard from him that day in 1997, is still impacting me.

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