Finding Your Larry Bird
By Steve Gladis
We all need a touchstone—someone who makes us the best person we can be. I’m not talking about superstition, like rubbing the bald guy’s head before you place a bet at the race track or throwing salt over your shoulder for good luck. No, I’m talking about finding the person who makes you the best you possible— your Larry Bird.
If you don’t know pro basketball, Larry played his entire career with the Boston Celtics. He’s arguably one of the very best to ever play the game. He’s been on 3 NBA championship teams, been the MVP several times, was on the Olympic Dream Team, coached the Indiana Pacers and now is their president and guiding light. In Boston and Indiana, Larry Bird is an immortal.
Larry’s coach, the famed and storied Red Auerbach, regarded Bird as one of the most coachable players ever. As legend has it, Auerbach had a rule that no matter who scored, Bird had to touch the ball at least once on offense, because 99% of the time Bird would make the best decision about whether to pass or shoot. Larry Bird was the natural touchstone for the Boston Celtics. In fact, one quote attributed to Bird affirms this legendary practice of having Bird touch the ball: "It doesn't matter who scores the points, it's who can get the ball to the scorer.”
Like basketball, business has had its share of great leaders with their own Larry Birds. Steve Jobs (the marketing genius) had Steve Wozniak (the technical genius) to pass to at Apple. At Microsoft, Bill Gates had Paul Allen. Warren Buffet has Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway. Michael Eisner had his own Larry Bird at Disney, now deceased Frank Wells. And, Larry Paige and Sergey Brin have each other at Google.
Some people are lucky enough to find their touchstone. I married mine! My wife, Donna, has always been my Larry Bird. She has the uncanny ability to always stay calm, untangle emotion and facts, and either “pass or shoot the ball” at exactly the right time. In short, she gets the ball to the scorer. There are many examples in my life. I remember when I was set to leave the FBI where I had been an agent for years. I was being recruited by a large firm. In fact, they had made me a very nice offer, which I was close to accepting. However, I brought home an advertisement for a job on the faculty of the University of Virginia that a friend had given me. Donna saw it and thought it might be worth my consideration. When I mentioned how financially good the firm’s offer was, she said, “You’ve never been about money.” She was right, and I ended up at the University where I was very happy.
The two keys to finding your own Larry Bird are simple: Look and listen.
Look at what people do. The Romans had a saying, “facta, non veba,” which means “deeds, not words.” People say, even promise, all sorts of things but often don’t actually deliver. For example, an executive might give speeches about integrity and honesty and then do shady things to maximize corporate profits and look good to Wall Street. A father might talk about healthy eating to his children and then constantly stuff his face with junk food. Sure, we all disconnect from our words from time to time—but the Larry Birds of the world have a better track record at staying close to what they say. In my world, Donna’s as consistent a person as I’ve ever met. Her say-do consistency is remarkable. So, keep your eyes wide open for people who consistently do what they say.
Listen to what they say. While I don’t have a lot of empirical data to support this, my personal and professional experience with thoughtful advisors has been heavily weighted on the side of introverts. And there is data on them. In the world, there are roughly 3 times as many talkers (extroverts), as there are listeners (introverts). This means that there’s a lot of chatter or noise going on. However, when extroverts talk, it’s like brainstorming. It’s often unrehearsed and free form. Don’t listen too much to extroverts, at least not to their early “rough drafts.” If you let them talk long enough, you may get to what they really mean. However when an introvert speaks, listen up. Introverts don’t “publish” words or advice unless they’ve thought about it a lot and are strongly committed to what they’re saying. Donna is the kind of person who talks softly and a lot less frequently, certainly less than me. Something we extroverts need to learn is to shut up and listen. Often the wisdom of an introvert can get muted by the barrage of words from extraverts. Be careful to avoid suppressing introverts and listen.
In short, it might take you some time to find your Larry Bird. But if you find a person with a sense of say-do integrity who speaks softly but profoundly, you might just have found yours. Run your critical ideas by them before you shoot or pass the ball—you’ll be glad you did.