Leadership lesson from the NBA

Written by Rhys West

When I was asked this month to provide a few thoughts on leadership, I had a brief moment of hesitation. Not because of any absence of things to say or share, but because it often feels to me like one of those topics that gets bandied about a lot.

I get a bit tired of hearing the management vs leadership debate and seeing the two-column table with the various comparisons in characteristics. Do I think leadership is important? Of course, it’s vital, but I think it means different things to different people in different contexts, and that’s okay. Recognising different people need and expect different things, and that the basis for these will change with other factors from the wider environment (often called ‘life’) is a lens that’s worth looking through.  I believe that doing so highlights the value and importance of flexible or different leadership styles. 

Leadership isn’t always about a ‘senior’ person in the team or situation taking ‘the lead’.  Sure sometimes that’s necessary, but I think more often it’s about good people doing the right thing, even (or particularly) when that’s personally uncomfortable.  Yes, there’s a role for hierarchy and accountability in some decision making, but I’m not a fan of the often drawn and relied upon line that says leadership can only come from the top.  In my experience, and in the best organisations I’ve seen, self-leadership is promoted, and valued just as much as team leadership. In a nutshell it’s all about people taking responsibility for who they are, how they turn up, and how they treat others.

I recently saw a great example of my earlier point in the video I’m sharing below.

The video is of Maurice Cheeks.  Basketball fans out there will know the name because he’s a former professional player.  He played in the NBA for 15-years mainly with the 76ers.  Cheeks retired from the NBA in 1993 and at that time he was the all-time leader in steals and 5th for assists.  Since retirement he has been head coach for the Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and the Portland Trail Blazers.

So, I want to take you to 2003.  Cheeks is Head Coach for the Blazers, they’re at the Rose Garden in the build up for a crucial must-win playoff.  Imagine the pressure on Cheeks, the number of thoughts he would have been juggling as the game was about to start.  The only thing between that moment and the start of the game was the singing of the national anthem.  It was to be sang by 13-year old Natalie Gilbert, who had won a promotion to gain this opportunity in support of her aspiration to reach Broadway.  Natalie woke up with the flu that morning, but still fronted the ~20,000 fans.  Here’s what happened…


I doubt Cheeks did what he did because he thought he had a singing voice that needed to be shared.

Talking about it afterwards, Gilbert said “It was like a guardian angel had come and put his arm around my shoulder and helped me get through one of the most difficult experiences I've ever had”.  Cheeks, a modest man who is known for deflecting credit, pointed to his parents for shaping him.

“I was brought up the right way by my mother and my father,” Cheeks said. “We didn't have the best life. But they instilled in us to treat people the right way. That's all that is. It's no secret. It's no recipe to it. It's just treating people correctly, and if you do it correctly it'll come back to you.”

About the author 

Rhys West is the Chief Executive of Fair Way, New Zealand’s largest specialist conflict management and dispute resolution organisation.

With experience in Business Development, Operational Management and Sales Leadership, Rhys is passionate about delivering a great customer experience and he challenges his team to find new and interesting ways to add more value.

To get in touch with Rhys, please email rhys.west@fairwayresolution.com