By Jack Golub
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made waves recently when he dropped the “bombshell” news that former player Kawhi Leonard, the star who sat out a whole season with a suspect injury and refused to communicate with his team, was not a leader. In response, Kawhi got angry and claimed he was a leader. That makes sense. He’s a star player looking to get a supermax salary; he’s not going to say he isn’t a leader. I don’t know what Kawhi thinks or how he conducts himself in his team’s locker room. His relatively quiet demeanor gives us a cool case study into what it takes to be a good leader.
Susan Cain, in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” writes of the Extrovert Ideal. This idea is characterized by “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.” Cain goes on to include how the extrovert skews more towards action over contemplation, favors risk in place of certainty, prioritizes speed over patience. If you’ve ever watched Kawhi hoop, his game mirrors his internal disposition. He always moves at his own pace; even when he’s sprinting at full force his body looks locked in control. He takes his time to read the defense and to get to his spots on the floor. He plays like a giraffe runs, with mechanical grace.
Kawhi Leonard is an introvert, through and through. His preference for taking his time, for keeping to himself and for avoiding the spotlight do not automatically make him a bad leader. Before last season’s debacle, he earned compliments from his teammates for his commitment and discipline. However, he may well be a bad leader. My impression of him since his trade fiasco has dipped negatively. He didn’t get loud in the spotlight but he also didn’t talk individually with his teammates and focus on cultivating strong relationships. However, just because there are non-leaders who are quiet doesn’t mean that one can’t lead quietly.
There are plenty of leaders in the NBA who lead quietly. Former teammates praise James Jones, two-time NBA champion and current Suns GM, as a fantastic leader and teammate. His nickname, fittingly, is “champ.” Never does he seek the spotlight. The winningest player in NBA history, Bill Russell, was a quiet leader. (Disclaimer: He won 11 titles back when there were only eight teams and two rounds of the playoffs, so his accomplishments are a bit overrated.) (Second disclaimer: I hate the Celtics and try to diminish their accomplishments in every way possible.) He focused on communicating well with his teammates and playing his game the best way he knew how. He didn’t command attention the way his contemporary Wilt Chamberlain did. It’s no coincidence that Russell bested Chamberlain at almost every turn. Quiet leadership can be the best kind of leadership.
Sometimes, though, a lack of transparency can be confused with quietness. When Kawhi kept his health status private and refused to talk to his teammates, coaches or the front office, he wasn’t being a leader. Not wanting to discuss something is not a reason to avoid it. Good leaders seek the difficult conversations. Stanford, our beloved home, has struggled with its leadership lately. Student Affairs, in particular the branches of ResEd and OCS, have often kept their inner workings secret from the people they purport to serve. Administrative bureaucracy and efficiency rarely make friends, so it is understandable, albeit frustrating, when our administration takes a long time to devise a policy or conclude an investigation. What is less understandable is an utter lack of transparency and a lip service commitment to valuing, appreciating and maybe even empathizing with student input and rarely using it. It’s one thing to hold a forum allowing students to share their thoughts on alcohol policy; it is another entirely to include students in the decision making process of that policy.
When ResEd announces the next incarnation of its attempt at an alcohol policy — who knows, maybe they’ll decide it’s a good idea to try to ban alcohol entirely — students will likely get angry. They’ll get angry because their opinions weren’t heard and they’ll stay angry because they don’t trust their administrative leaders. Maybe they’ll have had good motivations, just like Kawhi might’ve secretly always wanted what was best for his team. At the end of the day, leadership is about more than intent. Good intentions alone do not satisfy good leaders. A quiet intent with a harmful outcome is not quiet leadership; it’s cowardice.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu