If you have a minute or two this morning, have a look at basketball star Kevin Durant’s acceptance speech for winning the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player award. The MVP award is the pinnacle of individual achievement in his profession, yet Durant chooses to use this occasion to talk about something of greater importance. It is a wonderful case study in leadership.
He calls out each of his teammates by name, describing not only how each has pushed Durant to be the best he can be, but also the depth and significance of their relationships as teammates. This is something that is very hard to fake. It would be very hard to stand up and look each of your colleagues in the eye in this way without having first laid the groundwork. These moments are built day by day, out of the sight of cameras. It is because these late night texts, conversations, notes in lockers were unprompted and unscripted that they have meaning. These men are not merely his “supporting cast” or resources to be allocated.
Kevin acknowledges that there are bigger, team-oriented goals which overshadow his own honors. The ultimate goal of any sports team is to win a championship. However Kevin leavens this focus on team goals with genuine joy at individual success. Some leaders are scared, or have been taught to be scared, to admit that individual recognition feels good. You can pick out such leaders by their robotic monotone in interviews or speeches, or their insincere-sounding platitudes that amount to “there is no I in TEAM”. Unfortunately there is a large population of young coaches and leaders, often coming from privileged backgrounds where they themselves received affirmation on a frequent basis, who can only speak of sacrifice to the cause. Leaders who will label anyone who desires individual success or acknowledgement to be selfish. This sounds particularly insincere when taken in the context of billionaire team owners and company CEOs, and million dollar coaches and unpaid amateur athletes. While nobody likes working with someone selfish, going too far the other way is also counterproductive. We all have a need to feel valued individually, not just as a cog in a wheel. There is a joy that comes from knowing that you’ve done your best work, and while it’s best to assess success strictly according to one’s own potential, as John Wooden would advise, it is an undeniable fact that that we often look outside ourselves as a barometer.
Kevin is emotional because he is passionate about being the best, and cares about his teammates, coaches, and trainers as people. He truthfully acknowledges difficulties and dust-ups he’s had with different players: discomfort at dealing with a reserved teammate and angry clashes with fellow stars. He is not insistent on the team looking a certain way to the outside world.
It’s telling that Kevin Durant chose for himself the (admittedly silly) nickname of “the Servant”. He has chosen a different path of leadership than the individually brilliant but imperiously bellicose Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant. Nor has he chosen to be some guy you’ve never heard of. It will be interesting to see how Kevin and his team fare as the years go by.