Kevin Durant: a shining example of authentic leadership

durantWithout 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.

Be yourself

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.


This is why we fight. This is why we shouldn’t complain.

logo_to14On Sunday evening, I completed the online check-in for the 2014 Ride to Conquer Cancer. the RTCC is a 200km ride from Toronto to Niagara Falls, with benefits going to the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, one of the top 5 cancer research centres in the world.

Last year the ride raised 19.1 million dollars, but more importantly, it gave us hope. As we rode through Ontario, we were surrounded by sadness – people peddling in loving memory of friends, family and peers no longer with us, but we were also surrounded by yellow flags. We were surrounded by survivors.

In 2012, my ride started like most. I knew someone that knew someone that was battling cancer. When I got the news, I did what we all do. I shared FB status updates, liked heartfelt posts and retweeted fundraising efforts before returning to the security of my own insignificant problems. I did the most I could without really doing anything. I cheered from the side as people I knew peddled for a cause or for closure.

Things changed when my Dad got sick. Aggressive brain cancer. Horrible prognosis. I started reading stats and tried hard to hold onto the hope that maybe he’d be the miracle case. I started raising money. Instead of doing everything I normally did (essentially nothing), I forced myself to believe that every dollar I raised could be the one that helped them find a cure. I organized concerts. I asked people for money. I asked people for help. I admitted weakness and fear. I was scared and RTCC let me think about something else. All my energy could be directed somewhere meaningful.

Quickly, I realized that people are amazing. Strangers, families, and friends rallied behind me. The stories they shared kept us believing. They gave me and my family hope… almost too much hope. Naively, until it was really bad, I still thought Dad was defying the odds. To be honest, until we moved him into a hospital bed that took up so much space in the family room that we had to move his favorite chair, I thought he was strong and stubborn enough to simply outlast this disease.

This year is different. Dad’s gone and I don’t know what these 200 km will be like. Instead of riding for his cause, I’m riding in his memory. It will be good for me in some sense as well; eight hours to think about the life he led and the times we shared. It’s a chance to say goodbye in a way that I know he’d respect.

Cancer is awful. I know that’s not a surprise to anyone, but it takes away your will to fight. This year, those yellow flags will be inspiring for another reason. Each time I see a flag, I’m going to see someone that refused to quit. They took the pain. They took the poison. They spent months, if not years holding on by a thread. They persevered.

My family has dealt with too much loss lately. Old friends. Fathers. Husbands. Mothers. Wives. Aunts. Grandmothers. Cousins. Despite all that, I’m encouraged by two people in my life that are fighting. They refuse to yield. They turn into the torrents and gusts and defy the storm to do its worst. Remarkably, I’ve never met either of these people in real life. I work with a woman that is everything you’d dream to be. She’s determined, hard working, funny as hell and a dedicated mom. I worked with her husband at my old job, and he and I shared sushi, beer and work drama almost every day. I looked at her picture on his desk every morning while I waited for him to get organized for a coffee run.

Somehow just from two pictures and casual stories, I felt like I knew her. Little did I know that when I switched jobs we would start working together. We shared jokes and work drama, and I realized that she was a f@cking rock star. She’s the type of person that makes you re-evaluate how you approach your life – plus she mailed me a Tom Waits shirt to say thanks for working extra hours. But suddenly, she was gone. Emails were going to other people. She was no longer in project meetings. I didn’t know until she was packed up and beginning her first fight.

She kicked cancer’s ass. She reshaped her life and did everything right. She even started drinking some blended green juice that made me physically ill to even look at. Now she’s fighting breast cancer for a second time, dealt a hand that would make even the biggest gambler toss away their two cards and concede their stack of chips, but her outlook and spirit is still unbreakable. She will not stop fighting and she’s showing us how we should live life (especially when ours is undoubtedly much easier).

Forget tattered leather jackets, skin tight jeans and high top Chuck Taylors. Carissa is punk rock.

Another man fighting this same fight is someone I’ve only shared emails with. We “know” some of the same people. We “love” some of the same things. We bonded through his talent and my appreciation. I guess if life were a Venn diagram, our circles would touch but only ever so slightly. Yesterday, I wrote to him about his new music and shared that I had given a few of my songs to my father – another music lover – and they were played many times as sitting in a chair or lying in a bed became more common.

Will was diagnosed with cancer in his mid-twenties. For a gifted word smith and peaceful man, it just doesn’t seem fair.  He used music as his inspiration, documenting his treatment, his anger, his hope and his reality in eight beautiful songs that try their best to remove shock of the stark message they carry. Honestly, there are moments on this record that take my breath away, but their are moments that help me understand the torment my Dad went through and refused to discuss.

Both these people refuse to stop fighting. They were given something awful and turned it into beauty and inspiration. They take statistics and challenge them with heart and determination. They fight, and it’s why we should all fight. It’s too easy to think we have it bad, decide that life is trying to push us down. I’m realizing that most of us are lucky. We come home after work with money in our pocket and a house filled with love and warmth. We see life and it’s endless possibilities. We have the freedom to look back and laugh and the time to dream about what might be.

I’m sorry these two great people have to go through this, but selfishly, I’m thankful for them showing me how to really understand what’s important and what life can really throw at you.

I’ll be riding the 2014 Ride to Conquer Cancer with my Dad’s picture on my back and the memories we share in my heart, but Carissa and Will’s names will be attached to my bike frame to remind me that not everyone has the chance to ride 200km in beautiful countryside left only to complain about the pain in their legs.



Social adoption:: Find their solution, don’t sell yours

img-collaborationIf you read this blog, chances are you’ve spent countless hours trying to sell the value of collaboration to business units or project teams across your organization. I’ve tried to creative tactics – honestly, I’d have a few less greys if Daniel Pink had published To Sell is Human years ago – focusing on business issues, value propositions, inspiration and potential.

I’ve sold the successes we had and retold the stories we shared. I’ve surfaced problem resolutions and surprising outcomes to help teams connect positive outcomes to their own situation. I dug and dug until I found something that connected with the target audience. Obviously, I see huge value in collaboration; sharing ideas, encouragement, support and expertise is what I do on a day-to-day basis and what I expect from others, but that’s not a universal truth and it’s important to remember that when you are trying to “help.”

In almost every org I’ve worked for/with, the training for social technology is to simplify the tools and site development to the point where any user can start building sites and sharing content as soon as possible. Make it easy to use and impossible to break. We develop templates to minimize the required starting lift. We create chunked support materials to allow employees learn only what they need to learn to perform a task.

Unfortunately, that simplification also makes it hard to control the flow of information and content on sites. Employees are routinely asked to fit a square peg into a (nicely designed) round hole. For our Jam sites, we ask teams to use the SAP created templates or a customized TELUS template. This makes it easy to create sites, but also makes it easy for the purpose of the site to get lost behind widgets and design. The general assumption is that if we can let teams hit the ground running, chances are they will be more interested in sharing ideas or content.

In reality, the most important collaboration occurs before you design or launch any new site.

Selling collaboration is one thing; creating a solution is another. Before a team creates a solution, there are many important questions that should be asked. At TELUS, we’ve stopped talking about the benefits of collaboration, and now simply ask why is the site being built, what value does it add and what will help it stay relevant over time?

If your new users can’t answer these questions, chances are even the best designed, easy to use community will stagnate quickly. Even worse, if users don’t know why they are visiting a site and are forced to hunt blindly for content, the platform will become a distraction that will derail productivity.

We’ve realized that standardization and simplification are important, but creating sites that allow users to ask a question, find an answer or consume content effectively is what will drive results and allow the user to get back to the task at hand. Alex Pang – author of the Distraction Addiction – offers this insight:

“There are times when it can be a lot more efficient to ask the person who knows the answer to a question, than to hunt around the corporate intranet or two-year-old crowd-sourced FAQ for the answer,” Pang writes. “However, we need to just do that judiciously, be mindful that your convenience may come at someone else’s expense, and do it only when necessary.”

So how can you help?

The biggest value I can add to any discussion about collaboration is perspective. When I meet with teams, the first thing I do is share a single .pptx slide.

What is the purpose of this site?

While this seems like an obvious question, it’s one that gets forgotten more often than not. Is it a marketing site? A support channel? A site set up because your director said we need to use the new tools? If you don’t determine the purpose of your site, you will most likely not showcase the best content or user experience.

If you want your Jam space to be a support channel – maybe an easy way to allow field technician to ask a question to a large group of technicians and capture that context – it makes sense to surface the Forums or even Feed Widget on your Overview page. If your site is more of a brochure site – maybe a Meet the HR team – it makes more sense to showcase the People widget (Featured Member) and work on an engaging Overview page. If it’s a Learning space, highlighting the appropriate content (maybe, using hashtags) helps direct users as soon as the page loads.

Bottom line, even though ideas like all content must be accessible in less than 3-clicks have been debunked, your site will be more effective is you surface appropriate content on the home page. In order to do this, you need to clearly understand the site’s purpose.

Will this site improve on existing process?

In large organizations, the creative workarounds teams come up with are incredible. When a tool or process doesn’t meet a team’s needs, it is morphed until it does. Asking a team to change for the sake of changing is a difficult and often detrimental to your working relationship. If you don’t ask this question, and proceed to implement a solution that impacts actual work, your business partners will begin to question your intentions.

Sometimes it’s best to simply walk away.

When I meet with teams and ask them to explain there current process and try to determine if changing how the team does something is worth the work and training required. If it’s not, I am honest with them. “Listen, this tool won’t make your team more productive or reduce the time required to perform specific tasks. If there are other issues you are having, maybe we can use our collaborative tools to help.”

I’d rather earn their trust and build a relationship so when I do find a problem that can be solved by our collaborative tools/methodologies, they know I actually understand there issues and am trying to help.

How can you keep group members coming back?

By definition, collaboration is a two-way street. A lot of group admins assume the two-way flow of ideas and content is the responsibility of the users. By asking this question prior to launch, you can model behaviors and pre-set the expectations of the group. How often will the content be updated? What is the expected reply time to questions asked in the forums? If a group admin doesn’t have a clear understanding of posting cadence and service level agreements, users may question the value of the site.

When we launched Jam, we asked technicians to use Forums to ask questions, promising timely responses. Because no SLA was documented, questions took a back seat to other tasks. Once technicians realized it was faster to call another technician or simply start scouring product documentation, they stopped using the site. We lost their trust, and almost instantly our collaborative space became static.

When we proposed a similar solution to another group, we talked expectations and commitments. Group admins committed to answering all questions within one hour. As a result, technicians began to trust the process and actively participate. The tool met the needs of the user group and as a result, the Jam space was successful.

Before you can help team use new tools and transform they way they work, I suggest you take a step back and determine if they are ready to support the transformation and if the shift is appropriate.