Without question, forcing sports metaphors onto the corporate world is a tired approach. We’ve all been given pep talks and read blog posts that are littered with athletic analogies and references to great teams or star athletes.
As a sports junkie, I know what it’s like to idolize your favorite player and blindly follow your favorite team, but as I’ve grown up the notion of modeling our work life after the games and players we watch seems more and more naive.
That’s why Kevin Durant’s tearful acceptance of the 2014 NBA MVP award was so moving. By all accounts, Durant is a young man (he’s only 25) that routinely does the right thing on and off the court without demanding recognition or adoration. In today’s sports world, one driven by personal brand and money, he deserves credit for caring about winning, getting better, his teammates and the city he plays for instead of commercials and fame.
Interestingly enough, Durant’s quiet demeanor often leads to people asking about his leadership skills. Because he is calm and calculated and rarely thumps his chest, whenever he fails people ask if he has what it takes to lead and win. I know the introvert vs. extrovert argument has been debate to death lately (the reality is that most of us are probably ambiverts) and how you act should be dependent on situation and audience, not your predisposition, but at least sixteen minutes of his acceptance speech proved that Durant is the type of leader we should all strive to emulate.
Why you ask? His speech is riveting so I encourage you to watch it, but here are some key points that demonstrate the characteristics of a great leader:
On the biggest stage, Durant refused to shine the spotlight on himself. Obviously, the MVP is an individual award but Durant showed his fragility. He opened up about his fears and shortcomings. He admitted he is not a vocal leader and he makes mistakes. Never once did Durant make this award about himself and his dominance. He thanked everyone in his life for the help they gave him in his quest to be better.
It’s rare that leaders talk about shortcomings, at least outside of superficial ones. Self-deprecating humor is one thing (trust me, it’s the go to in my bag of tricks); actually opening up and sharing your insecurities and flaws helps you connect with your team. Empathy is the glue that forms bonds that aren’t broken by a bad decision or a tough quarter.
For me, the most emotional part of Durant’s speech was the ten minutes he took to thank his teammates. MVPs always thank their team (it’s kind of like thanking the Academy at the Oscars), but Durant singled out every player and gave specific reasons he was grateful to they were part of the Thunder. These weren’t really basketball related. Durant talked about player’s stories and what they meant to him as a human being. He showed that this team was about more than basketball, more than results. He thanked veteran players and rookies alike.
I don’t know how his teammates felt, but I know what it’s like to have a leader publicly admit how much your mean to him as a person and how that impacts a relationship. For me, it was a note to my Father when he got sick. TELUS offered up a couple of passes to the PGA Skins game in Nova Scotia, and that generous gift would have been enough for my Dad (and enough for me), but my boss included a note about me; how I help him every day and how I’ve grown in the 8 years we’ve worked together. It was a chance for people in my life to understand what I do and who I am. It meant the world to me and to my Mom and Dad. For members of the OKC Thunder, it was a chance for their friends and family to see why they are so important to the team and Durant.
People want to feel supported and challenged at work, but they also want to feel like they are making a difference. When orgs change, we all get celebration emails of new titles. When senior leaders leave, we are told of their great accomplishments. How much would it mean to your team if you sent out a similar note thanking them for what they did to help YOU get to your next milestone?
Good enough is not enough
Durant is at the top of his game, just finishing the best regular season of his career. The award asks him to reflect, but he points out the Thunder have bigger goals. This individual recognition, while important, is not the end goal. No one is perfect, but great leaders should always try to be. The Thunder and Durant himself have had some tough losses and criticism over the last year, and being voted most valuable would be the validation most of us need to prove our critics wrong. For Durant, the goal is to be world champion. Anything else is not good enough.
Orgs are always asking us to do more with less. We are asked for bigger wins through cheaper solutions. We judge ourselves on quarterly or yearly performance, but a great leader knows that targets will continue to increase and should focus on helping the team understand continual improvement as well as short term success.
Like most great leaders, Durant is supported by a high achieving teammate that could probably run his own team. Russell Westbrook brings a completely different skill set to the table and his strengths help let Durant lead in his own way. Too often, leaders take credit for assembling a team without acknowledging how much they rely and need their direct reports to innovate and drive results.
Durant praised the work effort and skills of his friend, but he also acknowledged that Westbrook takes the brunt of the criticism from the press and fans, shielding Durant from that added pressure. Durant understands how some of the top performers on the Thunder actually let him focus on what he does best and to shine the brightest in the public eye. Durant deserves the MVP, but if he wasn’t supported by someone like Russell Westbrook, his flaws would be more obvious.
It’s important to remember that even when you are leading the ship, there are people doing things you can’t do and those people are vital to the health of the team. If your key players leave, the team and your performance will suffer.
Durant’s concluded his speech by a moving thank you to his mother. He acknowledged she is the reason he’s a success. He thanked her for everything she is, and everything she helped him become. I’ve been lucky; I’ve worked with good leaders that helped me get better. I’ve learned from each of them and as a result, try to help people develop as well. I once heard that your leadership style is like a quilt made from pieces of fabric that are sewn together. Lessons learned that help define who you are and how you can lead.
Acknowledging the leaders that helped become who you are is important, but remembering to help people shouldn’t be optional. You as a leader need to give back. Your piece of fabric will help people finish their quilt.
We’ve all seen award ceremonies and heard famous people pretend to be something they are not. As awful as Michael Jordan’s acceptance speech was, it was authentic. He made his career out of stuid grudges, belittling opponents and teammates and demanding perfection. His speech reflected exactly who he truly is. The same is true for Durant’s. He cried. He talked about things important to him and let us see who he really was.
It’s impossible to connect with and lead everyone perfectly. All you can do is be yourself, be accountable and be fair. Those characteristics should be enough, but reinventing yourself to force connections will never work.