Back in the 1960s, who would have thought the humble running shoe could become a fashion icon? Well a shy, 21-year-old middle-distance runner named Phil Knight did. And Nike was the result.
When Nike founder Phil Knight was growing up in the 1960s, running wasn’t even a sport. “Running for pleasure, running for exercise, running for endorphins, running to live better and longer—these things were unheard of,” Knight wrote in his autobiography Shoe Dog, his three-years-in-the-making business memoir.
I, too, remember how few joggers there were back then, even though I ran at school. “People would go out of their way to mock runners,” Knight wrote. “Drivers would slow down and honk their horns. ‘Get a horse!’ they’d yell.”
That was all about to change, thanks in good part to Knight’s unshakable belief in the power of running to “make the world a better place.” In his memoir, he shows us how he took a Crazy Idea and turned it into a billion-dollar business through a relentless combination of will and belief. But just as important, Shoe Dog shows us what a shy and introverted person can do when something resonates so deeply inside a man’s heart and mind that it becomes his art. “A businessman can be an artist,” Knight said, “just like a painter or a writer or a musician.” Nike, a multibillion-dollar brand known across every corner of the world was—and is—his art.
Like any company, it started from humble beginnings. And like most companies, it succeeded because Knight recognized something that almost every successful entrepreneur comes to know instinctively: you have to find a niche.
To succeed, you need to have a niche.
A niche is a profitable market that competitors have overlooked. If an entrepreneur without deep pockets can’t find a niche, the battle to succeed is next to impossible. What was Knight’s niche? Back in the 1960s, people were overlooking the emerging power and quality of Japanese manufacturing. For years, Japanese products had been considered cheap knockoffs, poor substitutes for German and American and British wares. (In the 70s, I remember getting a Japanese camera from my father for my birthday and feeling disappointed it wasn’t German. And yes, I’m ashamed to admit it.)
Knight noticed that Japanese manufacturing quality was growing by leaps and bounds. Their cameras and other electronics had begun to match the quality of their German counterparts, all because of a national zeal to become the best manufacturers in the world. At the time, the world’s top two running shoe companies—Adidas and Puma—were German. Knight realized that Japan had the potential to out-manufacture the Germans when it came to running shoes as well—and at a much lower price. Knight realized that Japan was on the rise well before any of his peers. So he approached one of Japan’s up and coming running shoe companies—Tiger brand—and asked them if they would be interested in selling their shoes to the U.S. The rest is history.
Was Phil Knight a great leader?
The answer is a resounding yes, and here’s why:
- Although he was an introvert and somewhat awkward socially, he had a passion for running and a clear vision for the business he wanted to build. His unshakable belief transformed him into a fiery salesman.
- His vision wasn’t to make running shoes. It was to make the world a better place through running… something he felt on a deeply personal level because he ran almost every day.
- He convinced others that his vision would be workable, doable and ultimately profitable.
- He hired smart people who were as eccentric and passionate as him.
Most important of all, perhaps, the people he worked with knew they could count on him to stick with his vision through thick and thin… and there were plenty of thin times. Oftentimes, the bank would come calling and the money would run out and the payroll couldn’t be met on time. When optimism about the future was in short supply, Knight found a way to keep everything moving forward, no matter what. His faith in the business was that strong. And his employees and partners admired him for it. Which leads me to one of the qualities virtually every great leader seems to have in abundance:
Shoe dogs and top dogs don’t have to be liked or even want to be liked, but they do have to garner respect and trust for a very simple reason. Young companies experience tremendous peaks and valleys, and the valleys tend to be long and unpleasant. Rejection becomes your constant companion, and only a shared passion for the business by everyone involved gets the team through the dark moments. I know that feeling. When I was young I worked for a brilliant engineer/entrepreneur as his right-hand man, and it often felt like I was running on a treadmill that was constantly accelerating.
In a 2017 interview with David Rubenstein, Phil Knight said his greatest strength might have been his ability to evaluate talent. The people who worked for him in the early days were iconoclasts and rebels and misfits and eccentrics just like him, but they were also smart and hardworking. They believed in the product and the vision and where the company was going, and they believed in each other.
Looking back, Knight said there were three keys to his leadership success: Get the right people, get them to work together and get them to work for a common purpose. He made it work when Nike had just five employees and he was still making it work when there were over 50,000.
Get the right people. Get them to work together. Get them to work for a common purpose.
It sounds simple but of course, it’s not. Knight was a special kind of leader. He had a vision driven by his twin passions: running and entrepreneurship. He believed in his product so deeply that he overcame his shyness… and in the process, he created a sports empire the likes of which we may never see again.