Bill Simmons writes great stuff. And when he writes it he writes a lot of it, as evidenced by his 700 page book about the NBA. He recently wrote an article for his Grantland site that addressed the topic of player leadership. In it he told the story of an interview with Bill Russell, the legendary basketball player. Russell was unique, as far as I know, among champion athletes in that he took it as his primary role in the team to make all of his teammates better. There are many who did that as part of their role, but for him it was primary. To achieve that end he consciously studied his teammates strengths and weaknesses so he could use them in exactly their best way. Of course there is no way to know whether the story is literally or only partially true but it is certainly true that his teams won at a rate that has never been approached at that level either before or since. From that fact alone, we can deduce that whatever he did he did exceptionally well. As only Simmons can do, he subsequently related the story to Magic Johnson who added his two cents (as related by Simmons in the article). He thought that players can lead in four ways. They can lead by example, by intimidation, by being a communicator or by some combination of all three, or even two of the three. He didn’t believe there was a right way or a wrong way. He believes basketball teams assume the personality of their best player, for better or worse.
USA Olympic basketball and Duke University coach, Mike Krzyzewski, puts it this way…
“Talent is important. But the single most important ingredient after you get the talent is internal leadership. It’s not the coaches as much as one single person or people on the team who set higher standards than that team would normally set for itself. I really believe that that’s been ultimately important for us.”
In volleyball, the best leader I have ever seen in person was Andrea Gardini from Italy. I will never forget seeing him change a match through sheer force of will at the 2000 Olympics and you could just see that the team was ‘his’ team. Stories I have heard from people who have worked with him only confirm what a great and wonderful leader he was. Referring to Johnson’s principles, I suspect that his choice was number four.
The best leadership performance I’ve seen from afar was from Ivan Miljkovic at the 2011 European Championships. Somehow, and I still don’t really know how, Serbia won the tournament and became European Champions for the first time. However, their’s was not the team of the Grbic’s and Vujevic. It was Miljkovic’s team, you could feel it through the TV screen. His willingness to take risks to win, to take on the responsibility of the moment, and never deflect that responsibility regardless of what his teammates did was inspiring. Clearly, he led by example, although of course being the best player in the world and playing in the most decisive position didn’t hurt.
I’m pretty sure none of these players required a leadership group.