This NBA Star's Motorcycle Crash Cost Him His Playing Career. His 3 Leadership Lessons Show Why He Was Able to Reinvent Himself.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 195-pound point guard was told he was too short to play basketball at the next level. He committed to Duke University -- a perennial Division 1 powerhouse -- despite the forewarning. Jay Williams became the best college basketball player in the country, a lottery pick in the NBA draft and a Duke University graduate, in just three years.
As an NBA rookie, Williams remained disciplined, despite all of the social distractions and multimillion-dollar contracts. That is, until he made a career-ending decision that cost him his on-court contracts. Depression ensued, but Williams fought all the way back, beginning a new career as a best-in-class sports analyst, entrepreneur and activist. And if that's not enough, he's a New York Times bestselling author for his book, Life Is Not an Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention.
Related: 50 Rules for Being a Great Leader
I had the opportunity to sit down with Williams, press my podcast record button and hear his story. Here are my three takeaways from Williams that will help you become a more effective and balanced leader.
1. Challenge yourself.
Williams faced more life-altering challenges in his first 30 years than most of us will ever have to endure over the course of a lifetime. That said, being challenged doesn't have to come involuntarily. The best leaders seek out challenges and embrace the pain, knowing that uncertainty and discomfort often lead to growth.
After an illustrious college career accompanied by the No. 2 overall selection in the NBA draft, Williams decided to ride his motorcycle to a meeting without a helmet. He lost control and crashed the vehicle, damaging his body so badly the healing process required weeks in the hospital and an entire year bedside with a nurse.
It happened in a flash. Today, Williams calls it "the worst decision I made, but the best thing that's ever happened to me."
On the basketball court, he never backed down. Williams played with tenacity unmatched in college hoops. When the Blue Devils were down by 10 with 55 seconds left in a sold-out University of Maryland College Park arena, he helped orchestrate a memorable comeback unlike anything ACC basketball has ever seen.
In his elementary school years, Williams played soccer on a primarily Spanish-speaking team. Rather than being frustrated with the language barrier, or looking to play on an English-speaking team, Williams embraced the challenge and learned to speak a second language. This skill set has proven to be quite useful for his burgeoning career in communications.
We learn from Williams that challenges can arrive when we least expect them -- or by choice. Developing the courage to face our fears, combined with the will to drive forward, can lead to our most powerful moments in life.
2. Become an effective communicator.
Throughout his college career, Williams surrounded himself with two of the best communicators in basketball history: Coach Mike Krzyzewski and senior captain, Shane Battier. Coach K's military background and Captain Battier's relentless scouting report studying habits justify categorizing both as disciplinarians.
Williams recalls Coach K emphasizing how "the business of basketball" worked, ingraining healthy, communicative habits in his players during practice. It was a Duke basketball mandate to shout the name of the player you were passing the ball to -- at all times. On several occasions, Coach K pulled Williams aside to chastise him for not communicating with his teammates, calling him "selfish." As Williams evolved, he realized how unselfish communication was to his team's greater success. The caveats are that your words must be honest and helpful.
Battier was Coach K on the floor, talking the team through every scenario. On the podcast, Williams said, "Sometimes when playing, you can get lost in the muck ... but when you have someone constantly telling you what the game plan is, that's a leader." Battier's consistent, aboveboard communication helped Williams mature as both a basketball player and leader.
Today, Williams sounds like Battier during his college basketball analyst role on ESPN, citing scouting reports and player tendencies during pre- and post-game tapings. In the business of sport, Williams told me, "Regardless of whether a teammate is having a good or bad game, with healthy communication in support of them, they'll always be there for you."
3. Be empathic.
Empathy is the most valuable tool in his arsenal. By practicing empathy, Williams has become a thought leader, igniting healthy conversation on social rights and human interests.
Williams has dually addressed both players and fans of the NFL and NCAA during two seminal moments we're witnessing unfold: the kneeling protests of NFL players on behalf of racial equality, and the FBI investigative findings in college basketball -- more largely, NCAA amateurism. Critical to being an effective leader is understanding the narrative of both sides. Williams told me that having empathy isn't about coming out of a conversation right or wrong. Rather, it's the process of seeking to understand the other party, acknowledging their feelings and corresponding with yours.
How can we practice developing empathy? Williams recommends diversifying your peer group, engaging in conversation and educating yourself through reading and listening to podcasts. He recommends reading Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids about That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!, by Robert Kiyosaki. Kiyosaki helps us understand behavioral and socio-economic differences between divisions of upper, middle and lower-class families. For well-rounded political comprehension, Williams recommends listening to Pod Save America, a show that unpacks the inner workings of the American government through the lens of former White House administration experts. On personal and relationship capital, Williams recommends reading The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Through this book we can learn to identify ways our partner, co-founders, coworkers and employees prefer to receive love.
In a hyper-competitive sport and workplace environment, we're constantly challenged. It's hard to find enough leverage to make a difference. Likely, there are folks with more experience than you, a better winning percentage, even more skills than you. The same is true about your competition.
But, there's a more meaningful area where you can make your mark: your attitude.
As Williams continues to progress personally and professionally, I feel inspired to practice and improve my ability to communicate, be empathic in my relationships and seek to challenge myself -- even if there's a risk of failure.
Hosted by a professional athlete and entrepreneur, Suiting Up with Paul Rabil is a podcast that explores the psychology, playbook of tools and strategies of the most influential people in sports, entertainment and business. Navigating each conversation, Paul unpacks how world-class performers think, compete, improve, operate, train, eat and sleep.
Be the first to listen to future episodes as well as catch up on previous episodes, including my one-on-one conversation with legendary New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, world-class tennis star and entrepreneur Venus Williams, and NBA phenomenon Jeremy Lin.
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