October 12, 2015

The Benefits of Being Invisible

Every so often, I go back and reread a book I liked a lot. Recently, I re-read a book by Bill Russell, my favorite all-time athlete, entitled Russell Rules. To me, Bill Russell is the greatest team sport athlete of all time, simply because his teams won the most championships. As a college player at the University of San Francisco, he was the star of two successive NCAA championship teams. He was a star on the 1956 Gold Medal Olympic team. As a Boston Celtic, he played for 13 seasons, and the Celtics were champions 11 of those years, including 8 in a row between 1959 and 1966. In the two years the Celtics did not win, he was injured in the championship series against the St. Louis Hawks in 1958, and lost to one of the great teams of all time, the 1966-1967 Philadelphia 76ers led by Wilt Chamberlain. Michael Jordan may or may not have had better talent as a basketball player, but even his record was not as exceptional in terms of helping his team win championships.

The reason I think Bill Russell is sometimes not rated as highly as Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, or even Shaquille O’Neill by many experts is the way he went about winning. In chapter 5 of Russell Rules, he refers to the value of “invisibility.” The way he characterizes it,

“Invisibility opens doors, creates opportunity, where none seemed to exist before. When we are unseen, we have an enormous advantage in moving in, doing things we wish or need to do, and in the process, to change the very dynamic of existing, seemingly closed, patterns.”

What is “invisibility?” Although Russell does not specifically define it, I would characterize it as the ability to have a profound impact without appearing to do so. In describing myself, I always aspired to be a “stealth change agent.” Russell used many examples, but the best one was his description of how he mastered the challenge of competing against Wilt Chamberlain, possibly the most talented and physically intimidating basketball player of all time.

Russell said that, while he knew he could block Chamberlain’s shots or score directly against him, he also knew that if he visibly succeeded, he would get Chamberlain aroused and angry, and Chamberlain would become very dominant. Instead, he did subtle things, like defending Chamberlain in such a way that he altered the angle of Chamberlain’s shots by a few inches, which significantly reduced the percentage of his shots that were successful. Russell did not call attention to himself, but Chamberlain was less effective attacking Russell than he was against anyone else. Russell’s success was precisely because he operated in a stealthy, “invisible” fashion. The commentary done on any of these games never singled out Russell’s accomplishments, and he wanted it that way.

It is counterintuitive that invisibility and stealth can increase impact in an organization, but it has always made sense to me. If a leader is trying to effect fundamental change, there will always be deep resistance to any change initiative in which everything that needs to be done is highly visible. On the other hand, if the levers used to effect change are not understood as being as profound as they really are, they will not draw as much resistance.

For example, control of a leader’s calendar is a critical lever of change, because the organization implicitly understands that how a leader spends discretionary time indicates what the leader considers to be important. How facilities are laid out (for example, open office versus closed office) will determine traffic and conversation flow. How informal recognition is given and for what is a key determiner of what people will do.

Invisibility can also undermine change initiatives if it is not understood and used properly. In other words, an organization can receive unintended, low-visibility signals that undermine what a leadership team is attempting to do. Recently, I have seen a number of companies simultaneously say that they want everyone in the organization to be more entrepreneurial and find ways to reduce costs and grow revenues. At the same time, they implement hiring and travel freezes, and tighten spending controls, which send a strong message that they do not trust anyone in the organization to behave consistently with organizational goals. Actions trump words, and the stealth change that occurs results in individuals not looking for ways to improve the organizations, but falling back on waiting to be told what to do. It can drive positive change or can create insidious processes that diminish the energy and enthusiasm within an organization.

As great a basketball player and coach as Bill Russell was, I believe he is an even better thinker about what works in life to make individuals and organizations more effective and fulfilled. Thank you, Bill Russell!