Demma’s Notes: 5 Leadership Takeaways from Shoe Dog by Nike Founder Phil Knight

My first pair of baby shoes were Nikes (see super cute pic at the end of this post). When I was 7 I had to have the Bo Jackson cross-trainers to go with my Bo Knows poster that hung on my bedroom wall, and when I was 12 I had to have Air Jordans. Piles of aggressively worn Nike football cleats, Nike baseball cleats, and Nike wrestling shoes accumulated in tattered cardboard boxes in my parents garage for years as the swoosh became the de-facto logo of my youth.

bo knows

I’ve always been a Nike fanboy, but I never heard of Nike’s founder Phil Knight until my Audible app recently recommended his awesome new memoir Shoe Dog. I loved the book, so here’s a quick recap to maybe pique your interest in reading Shoe Dog for yourself.

Knight is a native Oregonian who was a track and field standout in high school and later at the University of Oregon. His book kicks off in earnest in WWII American Pacific Northwest. Knight was graduating with his MBA from Stanford where he wrote a paper titled, “Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?” With the seed for what would grow to be Nike planted in his mind, Knight set out on a life changing trip around the world.

After a several month stop in Hawaii, Knight flew to Kobe, Japan where he would connect with his first Japanese manufacturing partners at a company called Onitsuka. He bluffed and improvised his way through the initial meetings, and made up a U.S. sneaker distribution company on the fly called Blue Ribbon Sports in a Japanese boardroom. Knight placed his first order for a few pairs of Japanese running shoes, and then continued his journey.

His mind expanding world tour also included stops at the Himalayas, the Great Pyramids, and the Greek Acropolis (note: Knight visited the Temple of Athena Nike on this trip, the goddess of victory in war and wisdom).

Shortly after returning to the U.S. his first shipment of running shoes arrived at the post office. Knight started selling sneakers from the trunk of his car. Blue Ribbon was in business.

Knight then spends the rest of the book chronicling his journey from those first days of Blue Ribbon to Nike’s initial public offering in early 80s.

Here are my 5 Leadership Takeaways from Shoe Dog

  1. Form a great team: People make all of the difference in business. As a leader, selecting and developing a winning team is by far the most important factor in determining success. Knight, either by luck or by a gift, was surrounded with superstars. His co-founder Bill Bowman would become the most famous track coach in the country while he experimented with making shoes on his waffle iron in his garage. The company’s first employee was a salesman named Jeff Johnson, who had a neurotic drive to sell shoes and make the company better (Johnson would later suggest the name Nike). The book goes on to list another half dozen early employees and partners that formed the foundation of Nike, and it’s amazing to be there with Knight as he forms these key relationships.
  2. Never give up: Starting a business is easy, but keeping a business alive is impossibly hard. It felt like there were more dark days than light ones in Shoe Dog. Law suits, government interventions, and banking problems, among other crises, stalked Nike relentless from day one through the IPO. It was Knight’s unwavering perseverance, and willingness to fight back against his adversaries, that led to the company’s survival.
  3. Fake it till you make itImagine walking into a boardroom of experienced Japanese businessmen twice your age in your first ever business meeting. Or walking into a bank and asking to borrow $1 million for the first time ever with your company’s survival on the line. Or walking away from a negotiation at the 11th hour before your company’s IPO with the financial reward for you and your employees decades of hard work on the line. Knight modestly describes how he guessed, improvised, and trusted his instincts through these make or break moments.
  4. Travel the world in your early 20s: The post-college backpacking journey around the world always felt like a cliche waste of time to me. That’s probably because I’ve never traveled the world and I’m a bit jealous. I hope to give my kids the opportunity to see the world before they become adults – either through an exchange program, study abroad, or an extended vacation. For Phil Knight, his several-month trip provided the inspiration, context, and perspective for him to dream big.
  5. Get lucky: Towards the end of the story, Knight talks about the thousand coincidences and strokes of luck that he experienced. To be ultra successful you have some help from Lady Luck. But only the prepared can turn luck into opportunity and only the bold have the guts to reach out and grab ahold of Lady Luck.

Some of my other highlights from Shoe Dog include two great love stories, a beautiful account of the company’s partnership with tragic track star Steve Prefontaine, the genesis of the swoosh and the name Nike, and candid discussions about Knights personal struggle to balance his business life with his family life.

Phil Knight started his business selling sneakers out of the trunk of his car. Today he is the 15th richest person in the world with a net worth of $28 billion. I loved his book and recommend it highly to anyone interested in starting a business, leading/managing a business, or anyone into Nike or sports history. Also, the audiobook on Audible features a great performance by Norbert Leo Butz. Thinking of reading Shoe Dog? Just Do It.

Bonus: Here’s a picture of my newborn son James William wearing my 1982 Nike baby shoes.

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