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Monday, June 28, 2010

Pat Williams' "The Winning Combination"

When I interviewed Orlando Magic Senior Vice President Pat Williams about a month ago, he told me about his new book The Winning Combination: 21 Keys to Coaching and Leadership Greatness. He explained that he got the idea for this project after his son Bobby received the opportunity to become a manager in the Washington Nationals' minor league farm system. Bobby Williams asked his father for advice and Pat Williams in turn sought out the wisdom of 1500 coaches and managers who had enjoyed success in a variety of sports, in the process discovering that their advice could be divided into 21 categories or keys.

I have now read The Winning Combination and I wholeheartedly recommend it not only as a leadership training manual but also as a guide for how to live a meaningful and productive life. Although Williams has been a successful executive for multiple baseball and basketball teams, many NBA fans will always remember him most for being the man who built the Philadelphia 76ers into a powerhouse in the 1970s and a champion in the 1982-83 season, so it is fitting that the book's dedication focuses on that time period: "I served as the General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers from 1974 to 1986. I dedicate this book to four sports leaders of that era, whom I greatly admire: Billy Cunningham, coach of the 76ers; Dick Vermeil, coach of the Eagles; Dallas Green, manager of the Phillies; and the late Fred Shero, coach of the Flyers."

In the book's introduction, Williams explains just how much the advice and guidance of several mentors helped him during his career and he describes how eager he was to return this favor to his son. Williams notes that self-help guru Maxwell Maltz believed that it takes 21 days to change a habit, so Williams suggests that readers study a chapter a day of The Winning Combination with the goal of changing their leadership habits: "If it takes 21 days to change a habit, then it takes 21 days to change your life and transform your career as a leader" (p. 12, The Winning Combination).

Each chapter provides many examples of how a particular key helped various coaches achieve success; here are a few quotes and/or stories that particularly resonate with me:

1) Chapter Three ("Build a Strong Work Ethic") includes a classic Vince Lombardi quote: "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." Working hard not only prepares you mentally, emotionally and physically to deal with the rigors of competition but the more sweat equity that you invest in a project the more tenaciously you will fight until the bitter end; if you invest nothing and sacrifice nothing then it is very easy to quit when things get tough.

2) Chapter Four ("Build Perseverance") relates the well known story of Paul "Bear" Bryant's "Junction Boys," the Texas A&M football team that became the subject of Jim Dent's book and later an ESPN movie. Williams notes the very important fact that Bryant's hard driving-ways did not lead to instant success; Bryant's 1954 Texas A&M team went 1-9. It certainly would have been easy for critics to say that Bryant's methods had failed--but Williams contends that Bryant had actually laid the groundwork for future success by weeding out players who were not committed and by instilling discipline in the remaining players. That turned out to be the only losing season in Bryant's 38 year career (he spent three more seasons at Texas A&M before moving on to Alabama).

Although Williams does not mention this, I am struck by the fact that Bryant did not win the first of his seven national championships until his 17th season as a collegiate head coach; similarly, John Wooden did not win the first of his record 10 NCAA basketball titles until his 18th season. In this day and age of saturation media coverage delivered by self proclaimed experts, coaches like Bryant and Wooden would have been fired, run out of their respective towns by writers and broadcasters who would have called Bryant "tyrannical" but charged that Wooden was "too laid back and philosophical."

3) Chapter Five ("Build a Disciplined Team") contains another Lombardi gem: "In a football game, there are approximately 160 football plays. And yet there are only three or four plays that have anything to do with the outcome of the game. The only problem is that no one knows when those three or four plays are coming up. As a result, each and every player must go all-out on all 160 plays." Lombardi also once said, "A good leader must be harder on himself than anyone else. He must first discipline himself before he can discipline others. A man should not ask others to do things he would not have asked himself to do."

4) In Chapter Six ("Focus on Preparation"), Williams quotes former Baylor football coach Grant Teaff explaining the importance of game planning: "I always say, 'You've got to plan like you're robbing a bank.' People always find that statement a little shocking but it's actually a good way to approach the challenge of preparation. If you want to be successful. you have to plan out every detail, anticipate every possible problem and leave nothing to chance. You have to ask yourself, 'If A happens, what's my Plan B?' In football, that's called an 'adjustment.' When your opponent throws something at you that you didn't expect, you have to adjust your plan. You have to have a fall-back plan, a Plan B. And you have to have it figured out in advance. That's what preparation is all about."

I emphasized the second to last sentence by placing it in bold print and attentive 20 Second Timeout readers will immediately realize that I made a very similar point in my article What is Wrong with the Cavs? I refuted the notion--popularized in Cleveland media circles--that Mike Brown is allegedly a great game planner but not good at making in-game adjustments: this is the kind of thing that writers say in order to sound sophisticated but it actually makes no sense, because--as Coach Teaff explained--a good coach goes into a game with a solid game plan that includes contingency plans for various scenarios; in-game adjustments actually consist of implementing contingency plans that were thought out (and practiced by the team) long before the game began. Therefore, a coach is either a good game planner or he is a poor one but it does not make sense to say that he made good game plans but was not prepared to make in-game adjustments; if he was in fact not prepared to make such adjustments then his game plans were not good. The reality is that Mike Brown proved his ability to game plan by turning the Cavs into an elite defensive team that advanced to the NBA Finals in 2007 and posted the best regular season record in the NBA in both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, accomplishments that are only possible when a team is very well coached; what went wrong for the Cavs versus the Celtics was not a failure in game planning or in-game adjustments but rather that LeBron James quit during the biggest game of the season (game five at home with the chance to take a 3-2 lead). Go back and reread point three: it is not possible to know in advance which plays will be most important so you have to play hard all the time--and a leader cannot demand anything of others that he himself is not willing to do. LeBron James is in no position to question the efforts of his coach or his teammates because James showed horrible leadership during game five; as I declared in the aforementioned article, "The bottom line is simple: even the best game plan in the world will fail if the team’s best player does not invest his mind, heart, body and soul in the process of trying to win a championship."

5) Chapter 10 ("Care for Your Players as People") refers to the "33 Percent Rule" cited by former UCLA women's softball coach Sue Enquist, who divided people into three categories: the bottom third "suck the life out of you" with their constant whining and negativity, the middle third are people whose attitudes fluctuate depending on how well or how poorly things are going and the top third are people who have positive attitudes even when facing adversity. Enquist declared that top third people live in a "bubble" of high standards and they bring out the best in others. She sought to create that "bubble" on her teams. We all know bottom third people and one of the most important traits for a winner to develop is the ability to completely disregard what such people say or do; such people rarely if ever accomplish anything of significance but, like the cartoon character Pigpen could not shake off his dust cloud, they always bring with them a cloud of negativity that attempts to stifle the dreams of the few people who dare to be great when most of the world embraces mediocrity.

6) Chapter 13 ("Surround Yourself With Loyal People") deals with a very important issue. It is discouraging to realize how many people in this world will smile to your face and then stab you in the back when you turn around. Sadly, many people lack the integrity and/or courage to be forthright in their dealings with others, so Williams is quite correct when he stresses the importance of loyalty: a coach must have a loyal staff and he must have players who are loyal to each other and to that coaching staff. Problems should be dealt with in house and should be resolved in a way that is most likely to benefit the team. Success begins with getting rid of the bottom thirders and the potential traitors within your organization/inner circle.

Remember San Francisco Coach Mike Singletary's infamous rant? He had a player who was not fully committed to the process of winning and not loyal to the team, so Singletary declared, "I'd rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we have to do something else rather than play with 11 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team. It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win." That player (Vernon Davis) later mended his ways and became a Pro Bowler but the point is that Singletary established that anyone who has the wrong attitude and is disloyal to his teammates will not continue to be part of Singletary's program.

7) Chapter 15 ("Unity of Purpose, Diversity of Skills") notes that Bill Russell once said of his Boston Celtics, "There were Jews, Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, white men, black men. The one thing we had in common was an Irish name. The Celtics." Williams comments (p. 165), "Every team should look like that--diverse yet unified. That's how America should look. That's how the world should look. Such a world would be a utopia." Fans of Star Trek will immediately think of the acronym "IDIC" (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), a central theme in Vulcan philosophy.

8) Chapter 16 ("There's No Substitute for Talent") acknowledges that regardless of how well prepared a coach is and how well he relates to his players he will not win games unless he recruits/drafts/acquires talent and then figures out how to meld talented individuals into a cohesive unit. The second part of that equation is addressed in Chapter 18 ("It's Always About the Team") when Williams writes (p. 197): "You can't just throw a group of people together--even highly talented people--and declare them to be a team. They may be a group, a committee, a bunch of people wearing identical uniforms but they are not a team, not yet." Williams then offers this quote from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski: "You do not select a team, you select a group of people and then work together to develop into a team. In other words, teams don't instantaneously become, they evolve."

I have not written very much about the free agency circus that is currently going on in the NBA but I am amused by the idea that a "team" consisting of LeBron James, one or two max contract players and a bunch of minimum contract players will suddenly become the scourge of the league. For the past two years, James played for a well-balanced, deep and well coached team that posted the best regular season record in the NBA--and he did not make it to the NBA Finals once but now we are supposed to believe that he and one or two other stars will suddenly carry a roster of mismatched supporting players to a championship! I'll believe that when I see it.

If you think that what Boston accomplished in 2008 provides a model for the kind of success that James could have teaming up with another superstar or two, there are some important differences: the Celtics not only brought together three future Hall of Famers but they had a deep roster supporting those stars and the whole team was completely committed to winning a championship--and even with all of those things in their favor the Celtics were still pushed to seven games in two playoff series. Is James' primary goal winning or being an "icon"? I used to think that he was committed to winning but now I am not so sure--and I am sure that two or three stars plus nine or 10 role players hastily thrown together is not a likely championship recipe.

9) In Chapter 20 ("Develop Your Leadership Abilities Every Day"), Williams writes (p. 217), "Not all readers are leaders but I'm convinced that all great leaders are readers." That statement immediately brings to mind the dominant championship-winning NBA and NFL coaches of this era, Phil Jackson and Bill Belichick: Jackson is a reader and a writer who is renowned for annually selecting a different book for each of his players that he thinks will have particular meaning for that person, while Belichick has an extensive library of football books dating back to the sport's earliest days (and Belichick's father Steve wrote Football Scouting Methods, a book that has been called "the bible of scouting techniques"). It is hardly a coincidence that highly successful coaches like Jackson and Belichick are avid readers; my perspective is obviously shaped by being a writer/voracious reader, but I cannot imagine any well rounded person in any endeavor not surrounding himself with books, magazines and manuals: in order to achieve greatness you have to immerse yourself in the wisdom of those who came before you.


The Winning Combination is well put together both in terms of the structure of the ideas and also the aesthetic presentation (the text is printed in a large, easy to read font) but I found three errors:

1) The statement on page 106 that Bill Sharman coached the 1967 76ers to the NBA Championship is incorrect; Alex Hannum coached that squad to the title, while Sharman guided the 1972 Lakers to the NBA Championship.

2) On pages 114-115, Lenny Wilkens' last name is spelled "Wilkins."

3) On page 150, it is asserted that 1957-70 was "The Jim Brown Era"; Brown's NFL career actually ended in 1965.

I point out such things in my book reviews not to nitpick but in the hope that if a subsequent edition is published then the errors will be corrected; one of my favorite Vince Lombardi quotes is, "Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence."

Final Thoughts

The Winning Combination is well researched and well thought out but despite Williams' references to seeking out 1500 or so coaches and managers many of the quotes are actually culled from previously published material; the book is more of an anthology of great insights gathered from older sources than an original compilation. Obviously, Williams had no way to interview deceased coaches like Vince Lombardi and Knute Rockne but I had assumed that a higher proportion of the content would be original; that said, there is a good amount of original content in the book and there are 19 pages of footnotes that make it very clear where each older quote and anecdote originated. Though the book contains less new content than I had expected, Williams did an excellent job of going through a lot of sources to find many pertinent examples relating to each of his 21 keys. The book is written in a breezy, easy to read style and yet it contains some profound insights regarding leadership, human psychology, building relationships and competition.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 AM



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