How would you respond if someone told you a former boss had criticized you?
That's basically what happened recently to NBA star forward Kawhi Leonard, who helped the San Antonio Spurs win a championship in 2014. Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors in the off season, and has helped his new team achieve the best record in the NBA. But recent comments by his former coach in San Antonio, Greg Popovich, have been framed as negative by many in the media.
Asked about the importance of Spurs player Patty Mills' leadership after Leonard's trade and Spurs legend Manu Ginobili's retirement, Popovich said the following (per ESPN):
"Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn't a leader or anything. Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi's talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn't his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus [Aldridge] came a long way in that regard also."
So, how would Leonard respond to his former coach implying that he lacked the ability to lead during his time with the Spurs?
His response was perfect.
"I heard about it," Leonard told reporters in Toronto. "It's just funny to me because, you know, I don't know if he's talking about last year or not, but I guess when you stop playing they forget how you lead. Other than that, it doesn't matter. I'm here with the Raptors. My focus is on the season and not what's going on the other side."
Leonard went on to explain why his leadership may look differently than what some might typically expect.
"I lead by example coming into practice every day. Just going hard and coming into these games mentally focused," he said. "You can't see things once you're playing on the floor. Guys ask me questions about their matchup or if I see something on the floor, I'm telling guys, 'Go here, go there,' just motivating people, do you know what I mean?
"I'm just trying to lift people's spirits up, that's about it. Don't try to get anybody too down, just lift them up."
Leonard's response is a great example of true leadership and emotional intelligence. Here are two reasons why.
1. He doesn't take offense.
The media has a reputation for often trying to frame comments in an inflammatory way. Popovich's words could be interpreted in many ways, and it could have been easy for Leonard to take those words personally.
But doing so could easily become self-defeating. A war of words could cause him to become distracted, embittered, or to dwell on the past.
Instead, Leonard chooses to focus on the future and his current team, along with their current goals.
2. He highlights a different side of leadership.
Great leadership manifests itself in many ways. Yes, part of it is being vocal and saying what needs to be said. But even more important are the actions behind the words.
Former NBA coach and all-star Kevin McHale described it well in his recent analysis for NBA.com, when he described what he calls two different styles of leadership.
"As a coach, you really like the verbal guys who that take your message and throw it out there," said McHale. "But as a player, you know what I liked? The leadership guy...I played with a "just-do-it" guy. Larry [Bird] didn't say a whole bunch...But he went out there and did it. Robert Parish was quiet, but Robert went out and did it.
"So with those guys, as a player, following them was easy. Because they just went out there and did it."
And this highlights one of the most unsung aspects of leadership:
They do so by setting the right example, working hard, and encouraging others.
So, the next time someone tries to get you riled up because of what someone else said, take a page out of Kawhi Leonard's playbook. Resist the urge to become distracted or dwell on the negative. Instead, stay focused on your goals.
And be sure to lead the best way of all--with actions that speak louder than words.