Great Leaders Put a Ring on It


By Logan Speights

Lessons from a 13-year-old NBA World Champion

In 1962, President Kennedy visits the NASA space center. As he’s walking the floor, he sees a custodian sweeping the work. President Kennedy breaks away from the tour, walks over to the janitor and says, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?” The custodian thinks for a beat and says, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

One reason I love that story is my fundamental belief that organizations succeed at the highest level when leaders make sure every single employee knows they are mission critical.

The other reason is that I, too, cleaned floors at an organization in which Rockets reached new heights.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently announced the league's intention to resume the 2019-2020 season with a 22-team format in Orlando, Florida on July 31. I am excited to see these organizations resume their climb to the top of the NBA mountain. There is nothing like winning it all. I should know – I became an NBA World Champion in 8th grade. Seriously.

Joining the Houston Rockets

Close your eyes and imagine the greatest possible job a basketball-obsessed boy in junior high can get.

Perhaps it’s one where you get out of school early on game days, go to the arena well before the general public is allowed in, set up your favorite team’s locker room – putting Hakeem Olajuwon’s actual shoes and actual jersey in his actual damn locker – and rebounding for NBA players who know your name!

And on top of it all, THEY pay YOU $30 for each of the team’s 41 home games! Adjusted for the deflation of teenage perspective, that’s approximately three million dollars.

As one of ten members of the elite squad known as the 94-95 Houston Rockets Ball Boys, I lived that dream.

Of course, the day-to-day reality of the job wasn’t nearly that sexy. We routinely worked 12-hour days, had to learn and keep track of specific information about each player (these guys each had a preferred type of shoe lace, I kid you not), hustle all game long, lug sweat-soaked gear around, and clean up the locker room long after the buzz of the game had lifted.

We worked our asses off because the hard parts of the job made it even more awesome. We weren’t kids hanging around the arena. We were Houston Rockets.

And we won.

Confetti and bling

When the Rockets beat the New York Knicks in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals and hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy, I wasn’t just there. I was right there. We were in the front row of the trophy presentation, having already prepped the locker room for just such an occasion.

That’s where the party starts when a team wins the biggest prize at the highest level of their sport – the locker room. It’s an appropriate setting. Exclusive. With the exception of Bob Costas and his camera crew, only members of the organization were there. We were there.

Then the revelry spread to the community as the party spilled out of the arena and into the city. And when it did, we were there too! Unlike the players, we spent the entire next day back in the locker room, cleaning up an all-timer of a mess left by millionaires. Totally worth it. Especially when the team owner addressed the staff, saying that everyone on the payroll played a role in getting us here, and because of that, everyone on payroll would receive a championship ring.

Certainly, I thought, that doesn’t apply to me and the other nine ball boys raking in $30 per game. Rings aren’t even given to players and coaches until a ceremony before the first game of the following season, so over the course of the offseason, we kind of forgot about it, assuming it was an over-promise fueled by championship champagne euphoria.

Nonetheless, it was awesome when the ceremony took place at the first home game. We remained proud. Then we got back to the locker room and saw what was waiting for the rest of the staff, including the kids that carried sweaty clothes to and from the team laundry.

Servant Leadership

That feeling – and that ring – is something I keep with me to this day. I am no longer on an NBA payroll, but the influence of my experience with the Rockets can be seen in the work I do with business leaders every day.

I have started companies, served as a mentor, and consulted industry leaders, but nothing matches the feeling of rolling up your sleeves and helping solve problems – whether it’s shutting down Patrick Ewing, or making sure your teammates have the right tools to do their job (even shoelaces).

True servant leadership is understanding both of those tasks, and the people who do them, are necessary to succeed at the highest level.

We constantly remind our clients that "Culture isn't in ping pong tables". Employee Enablement programs, Special Interest Groups, Staff Career Mapping processes, etc., are the "rings" in business that let people know they matter. In most businesses these are the initiatives that fall through the cracks, because they're strategic, operational, human capital related which is why we're focused on the Chief of Staff - the assistant coach that makes sure everyone is part of the process.

When you let the people you serve know how important they are, anything is possible.

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