At first blush, it's hard to see what we might have in common with a professional basketball player--or what we could learn from someone who makes millions upon millions every year.
But Kawhi Leonard is different from your average showboating superstar. The Spurs forward has earned multiple distinctions--NBA Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, selected for the 2016 All-Star Game--and remarkably seems to look at basketball simply as his job.
It'd be easy to extrapolate the normal clichéd lessons from Leonard--the value of teamwork, as one overused instance--but he's remarkable. Here are just four examples of his professionalism that are useful reminders for us today.
1. Don't take yourself so seriously.
Kawhi Leonard still drives a 1997 Chevy Tahoe that he had as a teen. Why? "It runs and it's paid off." Whether you've gotten the dream job or made it big with a successful venture, never forget that you likely started from someplace very different. In our focus on the road ahead, in our race toward a better future, the past can recede in our rearview mirrors much too quickly. Pick a touchstone--something tangible--to remind you of the you from before. Being grounded makes you a better, more likable professional, and a better, more empathetic person.
2. Decide whether you want to be great--or to be a star.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Leonard, "He wants the greatness badly. He doesn't give a damn about stardom." For most of us, the choice is clear: it's one or the other. Greatness is authentic; it's pure. It's being the best without the ego that clamors to be fed with public recognition and wild adulation. Stardom is most often flash without the meat and meaning of substance. The difference between greatness and stardom is a Leonard versus a Kardashian. Wildly successful, both make piles of money; just one has talent.
3. Be unabashedly yourself.
Leonard still sports cornrows, which many consider outdated and an impediment to endorsements--but he doesn't care. Likewise, he sponsors Wingstop because, as Sports Illustrated noted, he likes the Mango Habanero kind and uses their coupons. Pretty remarkable for someone who has a $94M contract. It's good to be who you are. Yes, we all evolve over time--maybe you loved your neighborhood dive and now like the wine at a Michelin-starred restaurant. But make sure your evolution is because you want it--not because it's something you feel you must do to fit in and advance. You'd be surprised how often being yourself is so very compelling to others.
4. Focus on the work.
Superstars often act like the worst stereotypes of themselves: arrogant, unpleasant, superficial. But the best ones--whether it's a pro athlete, a CEO, or a rising young professional--know it comes down to getting the job done. You have to do the work, plain and simple. And that involves focus, dedication, and a ruthless purging of anything extraneous. As a high-schooler, Leonard's points were routinely awarded to another player by a local reporter but he never corrected the guy--and he chose not to attend a prestigious Nike camp because "he didn't need the exposure." Even today, he doesn't appear to like the flash and bang of the NBA players we're used to thinking of: the swagger, the suits, the cars, etc. A recent Sports Illustrated article talks about how Leonard just shows up to do the work. That's it. He comes in his black hoodie, ignores the trash talk of his opponents, and does the job.