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What Innovators Can Learn from Bill Walton’s Thoughts on Basketball and the Grateful Dead

Spend any amount of time with Bill Walton (the greatest college basketball player in the history of the sport and an NBA legend) and it almost certainly will not go the way you thought it would.

That’s his genius. On the court or off, Walton embodies the kind of innovative spirit leaders at every level of an organization need to succeed in today’s rapidly changing markets.

Mark Hurd Nik Deogun Jim Cramer
Mark Hurd with CNBC Host Jim Cramer and CNBC Editor-In-Chief Nik Deogun (Photo by: Kim White/CNBC)

Although it’s clichéd to apply too many sports analogies (excluding tennis) in business, I recently enjoyed an evening in San Francisco with Walton and several dozen chief financial officers at a CNBC event hosted by Jim Cramer.

Great Athletes Make Great Innovators

Cramer met his match in Bill – who encouraged all of us to think broadly about how we prepare our teams for the challenges each of our organizations face. “There’s no better innovator than a great athlete because there’s no carryover – you have to bring it every day,” Bill said, relaying a story about legendary UCLA coach John Wooden telling his players not to look to him during a game because he couldn’t help them on the court.

The same holds true in business, now more than ever. Our job as leaders is to equip employees at every level with the skills, judgment and authority to make responsible and creative decisions even when the landscape is changing by the minute.

Creativity is particularly important for CFOs, who are being called upon to play a larger role across their organizations. Talking to financial leaders from diverse companies, it’s clear CFOs are crucial to driving innovation.

CFOs Are Instrumental in Driving Change

For example, as we at Oracle migrate companies to the cloud, it’s often the CFO who sees the strongest case for change. The democratization of data moving off in-house servers changes the CFO role dramatically. And that’s where Bill’s passion for the Grateful Dead extends his eclectic insights. The Dead, according to Bill, have thrived for so many decades in a fickle business because they embrace curiosity, experimentation and a willingness to take risks.

Sometimes it seems every business is now as fickle as music as technology and generational shifts disrupt the tried and true. In that way, every day is like an evening with Bill: it rarely goes the way you plan, but if you pay attention and act on what you learn, it can end up being a lot more interesting.