Leading with Happiness: What Bill Walton Taught Us About True Success

Posted 05.29.2024

Bill Walton’s Philosophy of Joy

Why is it that the death of NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton this week hits me harder than the passing of most celebrities that I’ve never met? I think it’s because he so clearly sought joy in his life and that a big source of joy for him was giving it to others, including me as one of his many fans as a player and especially as a broadcaster. Watching and listening to Bill Walton call a game was a joy for me and countless others. He tapped into and fed some of the best aspects of the human experience. 

Bill Walton’s joy, enthusiasm, and quirky intellect had an impact on me as a viewer and a fan. He made me happier for a few minutes. Reading about and listening to some of his memorable calls yesterday made me happy all over again and, at the same time, sad that there won’t be any more of those Waltonisms going forward. Happily, there are a bunch to remember such as:

  • “John Stockton is one of the true marvels, not just of basketball, or in America, but in the history of Western Civilization!”
  • “When I think of Boris Diaw, I think of Beethoven in the age of the Romantics.”

or, on a more reflective and serious note, there’s this one:

  • “Success at the highest level comes down to one question: can you decide that your happiness can come from someone else’s success.”

That from a man whose second NBA championship came late in his career playing the Sixth Man, or as Walton put it, “Larry Bird’s valet,” on the Boston Celtics.

How Walton Affected Others

In reading through many of the Walton tributes (and there are many, many) this morning, I was struck by how consistent the sentiments were of the many people who knew him well:

  • “He wasn’t happy unless he did everything he could to make everyone around him happy. He was the best of us.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • “A legendary person who always made me smile.” – his on-air partner Dave Pasch
  • “He just defiantly competed for every moment in life to be the greatest it could possibly be.” – Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle
  • “He called himself the luckiest man in the world, but it was us who were lucky — to know him.” – Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart (Bill attended over 1,000 Dead concerts)
  • “His incredible energy, passion, love and zest for life was never turned off.” – Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr

What Do You Want Your Eulogy to Be?

There’s an old observation about no one ever gave a eulogy praising someone’s skill at power point presentations or quarterly earnings calls. The best eulogies – the ones that touch the heart and not just the head – share stories about the impact the deceased had on other people. I don’t know about you, but I want my eulogy to approach what people are saying about Bill Walton and the impact of the way he lived his life. And the really good news for me and anyone who shares my goal is that you don’t have be a famous Hall of Fame center and broadcaster to do that. You just (and that’s a big “just”) have to follow Bill’s example of spreading the power of human connection through sharing authentic joy.

Who do you want to be, not just as a leader, but as a human? What do you want them to say about you in your eulogy? You could do a lot worse than looking to the life of Bill Walton for inspiration. 

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