What Leaders can Learn from Kawhi Leonard

Jun 14, 2019 | Leadership

To paraphrase the great sports writer Cathal Kelly, it’s the personalities and drama that make sports truly interesting – often more than the winning or losing of the games themselves. Without great characters, who are often larger than life, watching sports can get boring.  

Typically, these characters follow basic archetypes. There are nice guys (like Gary Carter); heroes (like Sidney Crosby); helpers who support the hero (Mark Messier comes to mind); villains (former U.S. soccer goalie Hope Solo and the whole New England Patriots machine – Bill Belichick in particular); and misfits, who go against the grain (like Dennis Rodman or, more recently, Brad Marchand). This helps to keep things simple, because the characters are often basic and stick to their roles like actors in a Hollywood movie.

Then, along comes Kawhi Leonard.

The Toronto Raptor is an enigma. He defies the typical sports-character archetypes – with a tragic back-story, and total absence from the social media landscape – in a way that is curiously inspiring and endearing.

So, let’s take a moment to ponder what leaders can learn from Kawhi Leonard:

Look for those who actually deliver, not simply those who talk about how awesome they are. Too many people in today’s workplaces are obsessed with their own PR and getting the credit. Kawhi doesn’t ask for praise or glory – he just gets the job done. Leaders should find those people within their organizations and celebrate them not only for the results they deliver, but also for putting team before self. Often the true stars in any organization are introverts. Remember to celebrate and recognize them – but to do so in ways that work for their personalities. They probably wouldn’t like being spontaneously called to the stage to give an impromptu speech in front of 500 people.

Avoiding the trappings of grandeur. As the story goes, when Kawhi was traded to Toronto, he made all his own travel arrangements and just showed up for work on time like most normal people do. He didn’t ask for special treatment or for Toronto’s Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment empire to handle everything for him. Lesson for leaders? If you fly first class, everyone else sees you there. And believe me, they make a mental note. 

Take time off to re-charge. If we read into the situation that resulted in Leonard getting traded from San Antonio to Toronto, we can guess that it was probably because San Antonio was pushing him back into action after injury before he felt ready or healthy enough to do so. With the Raptors, Leonard was rested for 22 games during the regular season. That’s about a quarter of the year. The lesson we can draw from Kawhi is not to let ourselves get burnt out, so that we can focus on key performance moments where we add the most value. Take that vacation – not simply for personal benefit, but because you will be more productive and impactful to your organization when you come back.

Don’t freak out in times of high pressure or stress. When times are tough, and when his team is behind, Kawhi’s demeanour is the same as when they are up by 30 points. His steely resolve and calm-under-pressure attitude is contagious, providing confidence to his team members, his coaches, and fans. Many a time when the Raptors were significantly behind in games this year, everyone could feel that quiet confidence and believe that they would come back to win. Which they did.

Don’t get flummoxed over past mistakes: focus on the task at hand. Like all human beings, Kawhi Leonard makes mistakes. But he doesn’t obsess over them – or let them drag him down. Nor does he worry about the next game, or where he will be playing next year. He just focuses on the now, and the task at hand.

The final lesson for leaders is this: while raw talent is key, attitude and demeanour matter just as much for high-performing teams. There are four or five other players in the NBA who are arguably just as talented, if not more talented, than Kawhi Leonard. But his unique, low-key, focused and determined leadership makes those around him better as well. So, if you can find star performers like that, give them the space and autonomy they need to do their things.

And, do everything you can to bring them back for next year.

By: Hugh MacPhie



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