Something unprecedented happened on Wednesday afternoon, August 26, when I turned on ESPN to watch game 5 of the NBA Playoffs series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic. The Orlando Magic players were on the court warming up for the game when they learned that the Bucks would not be playing in the wake of the tragic shooting of Jacob Blake - an unarmed black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin - shot 7 times mere feet away from his three children in their SUV. Shockwaves from their boycott in turn led other sports leagues in baseball and soccer to cancel the days slate of games as well.
After a spring of protests provoked by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, NBA players stepped up and led protests around the country in spite of the dangerous pandemic. Social injustice fatigue had reached its peak in the midst of a year of economic, health, and racial strife. Rather than resting on their laurels as wealthy and privileged young athletes, these valiant players chose to leverage their substantial platforms to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement that first surged into existence in 2013 after the acquittal for Trayvon Martin's murder at the hands of George Zimmerman.
While other sports leagues cracked down on peaceful protests such as those led by Colin Kaepernick in the NFL when he began kneeling during the American National Anthem; the NBA took a very different approach under the leadership of Commissioner Adam Silver.
Silver has long been known as a player's commissioner, meaning someone who understood that his role was to grow the popularity of the game of basketball worldwide by remaining engaged and fully supportive of the players without whom the sport would not be possible. With this attribute of proactive engagement, humility, and will to lead, it's also not a coincidence that the NBA was the first league to postpone the regular season and playoffs once evidence of the emerging threat of the coronavirus was apparent.
Leaders are truly made or broken by crisis. The twin crises of a global pandemic and social injustice would be enough to overwhelm even the most seasoned of executives. However, Adam Silver rose to the challenge and successfully navigated his league through the pandemic postponement and protests. Moving all NBA games to the bubble of Orlando, Florida, this season, there had been zero cases of the virus during the first eight weeks. This in an environment within Florida where at the same time cases were spreading like wildfire.
And then came the pre-game hours on August 26th, when the Milwaukee Bucks walk off spurred a full cancellation of the slate of games for three days.
To some, the action of the players to cancel the playoff games on Wednesday seemed to be a slap in the face of a league which by all accounts had wholeheartedly embraced the cause of social injustice. From the Black Lives Matter messages emblazoned on the courts to the powerful phrases on the back of player's jersey's to the continued focus across the board on amplifying the voices, the NBA supported its players taking a stand. But as any servant leader knows, consistency is the true key to service, not a singular action. And Adam Silver's response demonstrates this understanding in spades.
Read Adam Silver's response to the stoppage of play here:
With this powerful response let's examine 5 ways Adam Silver has successfully leveraged servant leadership principles to respond to both the pandemic and the protests.
Empathy: Re-read this line from Silver's letter - While I don't walk in the same shoes as Black men and women, I can see the trauma and fear that racialized violence causes and how it continues the painful legacy of racial inequity that persists in our country. Servant Leadership Principle 1: Servant Leaders understand and wield the power of empathy to foster connection with their stakeholders. This connection allows them to build trust and trust allows them to create alignment towards shared goals.
Humility: Mr. Silver has never presented himself as someone having all the answers to the emerging crises faced by the NBA and the players. He had no fear saying "I don't know" and reflecting on his process for joint decision making. Servant Leadership Principle 2: Remaining humble in the face of challenge does not make a leader passive. It is only the leaders recognition that there are brutal facts and root causes that must be addressed before progress can resume. Know-it-all ego-driven leaders rarely act on root causes, which is why problems are not resolved under their leadership.
Openness: Due to his humble approach to the issues at hand, Silver and his league were open to a variety of approaches to restarting basketball despite the overwhelming odds against them. It was this openness that led to the correct strategy employed in the bubble that not only protected the players and staff, but also maintained the goal of keeping the spotlight on the social injustice concerns. Servant Leadership Principle 3: Humility and openness truly go hand-in-hand because once you recognize that you don't have all the answers, you surround yourself with a team of the right voices and knowledge to identify solutions together by leveraging the wisdom of the crowd.
Engagement: You can tell the degree of respect Silver garners from the NBA owners, managers, and players when you listen to their comments about the commissioner. This is largely due to his style of engagement. Chris Paul, the NBA Players Association President, and Silver are in lock step. He speaks with Lebron James as needed and regularly keeps his fingers on the pulse of all key stakeholders around the league. Servant Leadership Principle 4: Servant leaders were among the first to transition from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, meaning that rather than respond to only the "owners" (as Roger Goodell NFL commissioner is guilty of doing during the Kaepernick protests), they respond to the owners, managers, customers, community, and environment. Remaining engaged with the entire realm of stakeholders ensures a clearer picture about the situation and how to effectively navigate it versus only working with those motivated by monetary concerns.
Trustworthiness: Adam Silver leverages the "give to get" model of trust building. You can tell the way players feel empowered to act and speak up, and this is a direct result of their environment. They feel safe and secure as a consequence of this powerful culture, and know they have a voice at the table. Servant Leadership Principle 5: Toxic leaders withhold trust from their employees, who must earn it and can lose it at the slightest slip. This ego-driven approach does not lead to empowerment or right actions. In comparison, Servant Leaders, give trust freely and treat their constituents as equal partners in decision making. If mistakes are made, they are made together. And when praise arrives, it is given to the group, not the individual leader.
As result of Adam Silver’s Servant Leadership, I've been tremendously impressed by his poise under fire this year. And my fandom of the league has grown one-hundred fold as a result. I am certain that under his leadership, the NBA will continue to be a large part of the solution to help heal the nation and bring important issues to light.
Omar L. Harris is the managing partner at Intent Consulting, a firm dedicated to improving employee experience and organizational performance and author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams and The Servant Leader's Manifesto available for purchase in ebook or print on Amazon.com. Please follow him Instagram, Twitter, and/or his website for more information and engagement.