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Level 5 Leadership Lessons from NBA MVP Kawhi Leonard

The Toronto Rapters are NBA Champions. Say it with me, the perennial Eastern Conference pretender to the throne are now sitting on top of the basketball universe. And there is one big reason why: Kawhi Anthony Leonard. I'm seeing a very interesting trend in the best basketball players of this generation - they are fabulous leaders in their own ways. Lebron James has become the model of showing the way and going the way. Stephen Curry's powerful humility paved the way for Golden State to seamlessly integrate Kevin Durant into their organization. And now, we have a most unprobable superstar in Kawhi Leonard - who is probably the least vain and most focused basketball player I've ever seen.

In Good to Great, by Jim Collins, Level 5 Leadership was a key differentiator of the best performing companies. It is defined by Collins as the somewhat paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will that leads to enduring organizational greatness. Level 5 leaders, therefore, create an organizational destiny that is far bigger than their own need to be recognized. To know what it is it can be helpful to know what it is not. Steve Jobs for all his brilliance, is not a level 5 leader - you still can't talk about Apple without talking about the founder. Can you imagine Tesla being successful without Elon Musk at the helm? General Electric however, has had enduring success since it's most well known chief executive Jack Welch retired.

Kawhi Leonard is a walking paradox of modern superstardom. Here are 5 level 5 leadership lessons from the champion:

  1. It's not about the shoes: Michael Jordan defined the superstar athlete archetype for a generation and what he wore became an extension of that success that everyone wanted a tiny piece of. Kawhi Leonard is the exact opposite. To the point that he chose a shoe company, New Balance, that until endorsing him had never produced a basketball shoe. New Balance wants to be associated with winning just as much as Nike, but they understand that the example Kawhi sets on and off the court resonates perfectly with the unassuming brand that invented the "dad shoe".

  2. Stay above the fray: During the 2017-18 season, where Kawhi played only 9 games due to injury, everyone from his San Antonio Spur teammates and coaches to the talking head media painted a picture of a difficult, stubborn, and selfish player who put his own health over coming back to his team. At no point has Kawhi defended himself or given a public justification. He has simply focused on his rehab, moved to a new city and a new team, integrated with the team, and led them to an NBA championship - all without engaging in the negativity people wanted to embroil him in.

  3. Focus on what you control: Linked to the lesson above, Leonard is a walking example of a leader who acts on his circle of control - meaning his attitude, where he invests his energy, and what he concerns himself with on a daily basis. He has always maintained that his sole focus is to become the best version of himself on the basketball court and that's really all we see him doing. In this age of the do-everything superstar, it's radically refreshing to see someone who loves their job so much that they put everything into it.

  4. Lead from the front: With greatness comes the responsibility to set the bar for your teammates and organization in terms of habits, expectations, and norms. Kawhi is the best player on the court for sure but he also works so much harder on both ends of the court than any superstar I've ever seen. This is linked to his unique strengths as a basketball player, sure, but it has a synergistic effect on everything the Raptors do. Lack of effort on both ends is unacceptable because Kawhi does it. Creating controversy off the court is unacceptable because Kawhi doesn't do it. Always believing you can win is the standard in Toronto because Kawhi has brought that to the table. Long after Kawhi is gone from this team, his enduring example, habits, and principles will live on and continue to positively influence.

  5. Quiet does not mean meek: Kawhi Leonard is famously reserved and steely in his resolve. He allows his game to speak for him. He does not carry his emotions on his sleeve. He just relentlessly comes at you both on the offensive and defensive end - in his words, "Stop you from getting buckets and give you buckets on the other end." And these attributes lead opponents to underestimate and misunerstand him. How do you think Joel Embid, Giannis Antetekoumpo, and Stephen Curry are defining Kawhi now after he has run roughshod over them during these playoffs all without cracking a smile and rarely expressing emotion? There is only one definition: NBA Champion and 2X Finals MVP.

What other leadership lessons do you take away from Kawhi Leonard? Let's discuss in the comments. If you liked this article, please give it a like/share with your network!

Omar L. Harris is Associate Vice-President and Country Manager for Allergan PLC in Brazil. He is the author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams available for purchase in ebook or print on Please follow him on instagram, twitter, and/or LinkedIn for more information and engagement.

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