Mo Cheeks and a fundamental question of leadership

  • Date: March 6, 2012
  • Category: leading

This is from 2003.  You may have seen it before.  I only saw it recently, as I’m not a regular basketball fan.  I have to admit that each time I watch it, I tear up.

The situation was this: 13-year-old Natalie Gilbert had been chosen to sing the US national anthem before the start of a game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers.  The setting was an arena seating almost 20,000 fans.  All of us who’ve ever stepped out the door of our home — which I assume is everyone reading this post right now — has screwed up at one point in life, probably in a very public way.  Can you imagine what it would feel like to be 13 years old and flubbing your lines in front of a crowd of strangers the size of a small town?  Thank goodness for the proactive kindness of Mo Cheeks, the coach of the Trail Blazers at the time.

My question is this: of all the adults on the floor of the arena, why was he the only one to act?  And why did he act so immediately?  Why did he take such a risk to his own reputation — how could he not be embarassed to sing on national television given that his vocal skills are not, ahem, professional-grade?

My definition of leadership is simple: it’s the act of making something happen which otherwise would not have happened.  Mine is an action-oriented definition: if you act and make a difference, you are leading.  Hopefully that difference is a positive one.  If you know the right thing to do, or the right framework to use, you are part of the way there, but you are not leading (yet).  You must act.  It’s the only to make a difference.

A key implication from the example of Mo Cheeks is that acting as a leader demands that we embrace our own mediocrity.  “Am I willing to risk my personal reputation and status for the good of others?” becomes a fundamental question any potential leader must answer.  We must balance the inferior nature of our solution and abilities against what the state of the world would be if we did not act.  Case in point, just imagine if Cheeks had taken 45 seconds to pull up the exact text of the national anthem on a smartphone so that his leadership intervention could be perfect.  Sure, he would have looked better, but in the meantime, things could have turned very ugly for Natalie Gilbert.  Instead, Mo Cheeks turned the energy of the entire arena around.  The sound of the entire arena getting behind Natalie and Mo is really inspiring.  Thank goodness that Cheeks was able to overlook his lack of singing ability, for it allowed him to demonstrate his formidable acumen as a leader.