I’m hardly impartial when it comes to Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry. After all, if my wife had agreed (or if the form arrived when she was asleep while recovering from delivery), our youngest child would be named Steph not Emma Kate. But I don’t think it requires a rooting interest in the Warriors to appreciate his style of leadership and how effective it can be.
As the NBA shut down in response to the novel coronavirus, Curry showed great leadership off the court by helping his community and even interviewing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. More recently, he displayed such leadership by protesting the killing of George Floyd, while encouraging his millions of followers on social media to stand up for racial justice and the dignity of black lives. But we can really see his effectiveness as a leader and his distinct approach to leadership when we examine his role in helping to build and sustain a championship culture in Oakland — one that offers valuable lessons for all types of leaders, especially those who are not by nature loud, brash, or confrontational.
As a Bay Area native, the moment Stephen Curry slipped to the Warriors in the NBA draft was one of sheer elation for me. He quickly became my favorite player before becoming the all-star I had hoped he would become. But then something crazy happened. He became an MVP and led the Warriors to a championship — something I was resigned to never seeing in my life. Then, he became the first unanimous MVP. With Curry as the fulcrum of their remarkable offense and captain of the team, the Warriors became perhaps the best team of all-time and one of the greatest dynasties in the history of the sport, with five straight NBA Finals appearances and three championships.
Not bad for someone who was not recruited to play major college basketball because coaches were too blinded by expectations about size and body type to see his potential for greatness.
Winning championships in professional sports is exceedingly difficult. It takes more than talent. The drive and culture that allow a team to reach the top of the mountain can fall apart once that goal has been achieved. A big reason for the sustained success of the Warriors has been the vital and unique leadership of Stephen Curry.
When we think about leaders, we often think about outgoing, loud, demonstrative, take-charge personalities. Steph Curry’s leadership is different. A lot of it occurs behind the scenes — it’s more subtle and quiet. And like his great potential as a player, this type of leadership can be overlooked and underrated.
Here are five characteristics that define his leadership.
The NBA is entertainment, and Steph has been known to play to the crowd or mug for the camera in key moments. This, combined with his supreme confidence on the floor, has certainly given some bitter rivals the sense that he’s cocky or arrogant.
But at a fundamental level, his approach reflects a great deal of humility. Coming off an MVP season, he recruited another superstar to his team, a move that he knew would take him out of the race for future MVP awards and other individual accolades. Why? He was more focused on winning championships and playing the right way than his image, awards, or manufactured narratives.
While other NBA players struggle with the daily torrent of unfair criticism they face from hot-take artists or let the praise of stans go to their heads, Steph has kept a cool demeanor and let his play speak for itself. His coach has highlighted his refusal to seek special treatment as a superstar, something that surprised teammate Marquese Chriss: “He talks to everybody. It’s weird for me. Somebody being so good, you expect them to have an ego, but he talks to everybody like they’re on the same level as him.”
Steph plays with joy, like a kid who is having fun playing the best game in the world — you can see it in his demeanor, the audacious plays he makes, and the way he celebrates the success of his teammates.
This playful joy has been foundational to everything the Warriors have done. As coach Steve Kerr explained, “From the beginning, I wanted Steph Curry’s joy, and the individuality that represented, to spread throughout this organization.” Steph Curry’s joy has shaped his electric and revolutionary play, given the Warriors an identity as a team, and radiated that joy to millions of fans.
Concern for the flourishing of others
Steph celebrates the accomplishments of others because he sincerely wants them to flourish. He has the ultimate team mentality. Some superstars demand the ball in their hands all the time, but Steph fully embraced being part of a system predicated on sharing the ball and freeing up teammates.
With his buy-in and unparalleled gravity in pulling defenders out of position, the system turned into the best offense in the history of the league. His teammates have played the best basketball of their careers next to him. And the signature Warriors play might just be the extra pass — when an open player has a great look at the basket but makes one more pass for an even better shot.
Commitment to excellence
The key to effective quiet leadership is setting high standards for yourself and meeting those standards. Curry’s work ethic is remarkable. He is constantly working to get better, add new dimensions to his game, and perfect his craft. As a superstar and the team’s captain, this sets the tone and expectations for the entire team.
He is secure as a person
Steph Curry is comfortable with who he is as a person, an identity that extends beyond basketball and is rooted in his faith and family life. He knows that his worth and his character are not defined by winning awards or any accomplishments on the court. His humility and joy are rooted in this recognition and his overall worldview. It frees him to pursue excellence on the court and the flourishing of his teammates, while seeing basketball for what it is, rather than as a means to overcoming insecurities or filling an internal void. This security provides the foundation for his entire approach to leadership.
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