Unconventional paths lead to unconventional ideas.
Phil Knight's life started pretty normally. He grew up in Oregon and ran track. He attended undergrad at University of Oregon and then got his MBA from Stanford.
But then, Phil Knight had the crazy idea to sell Japanese running shoes, which he wrote about for his final research paper at Stanford. After planning for several weeks, Phil Knight bought an $80 one-way ticket to Hawaii. He spent several months in Hawaii surfing and enjoying the weather, but on Thanksgiving day 1962, he left for Japan.
After making a deal with the Japanese shoe company Onitsuka Tiger, he traveled the world for months before finally returning back to Oregon start his shoe selling company.
While many of us often rush to formulaically create success, there really is no formula for success. Success is a consequence of the unique experiences that we pursue, and Phil's experiences were fundamental in shaping what Nike has become today.
Leaders do not always have to be the loudest or most outgoing.
When we think of successful business leaders, we think of the Steve Jobs/Elon Musk types. Strong, opinionated voices, detail-oriented, and constantly in the public eye.
Phil Knight is an example of a more quiet, introverted leader, more in the mold of a Level 5 leader that Jim Collins talks about in his book Good to Great (reading notes forthcoming).
Phil was extremely hands off with his employees - he didn't want to tell them how to do things, but tell them what to do, and be surprised by the results. His first employee Johnson received little direction on how to run the first Blue Ribbon store down in Southern California, but it became a huge success as he turned it into a haven for runners (back before running was popular).
Phil Knight's ingenuity is an example for all startup founders
When Phil Knight first went to Japan to get a deal to be the distributor of Onitsuka Tiger shoes, they asked him what his business was called. He had no business and his first thought was of the blue ribbons from track that hung in his bedroom, so he answered Blue Ribbon.
This was one small moment, but representative of Phil's creative approaches to the challenges Nike faced. Phil trusted his gut on many of his first hires, many times not even knowing an exact role for them. He secured endorsement deals from some of the best track athletes. He met with state congressman and federal legislators to help Nike get past the $25 million fine levied against them.
His creativity and willingness to do the dirty work made him a respected leader and helped the company survive trying times.
Phil Knight's take on work-life harmony:
Play. Yes, I thought, that’s it. That’s the word. The secret of happiness, I’d always suspected, the essence of beauty or truth, or all we ever need to know of either, lay somewhere when the ball is in midair, when both boxers sense the approach of the bell, when the runners near the finish line and the crowd rises as one. There’s a kind of exuberant clarity that pulsing half second before winning and losing are decided. I wanted that, whatever that was, to be my life, my daily life.
As someone in their midtwenties, one of the most inspiring lines I've ever read:
I’d tell men and women in their midtwenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigues will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve felt.
Don’t stop. Just don’t stop. If there's one takeaway from the book, find one thing, something you are deeply passionate about, what Phil Knight refers to as your calling, and pursue it. And never stop.
At so many points, Phil Knight could’ve given up and we would have never had Nike. His father refusing to lend him any more money to buy the first shipment of shoes, Blue Ribbon fighting their supplier Onitsuka to become the sole American distributor, their distributor backstabbing them and pulling the rug on their shipments and finding new distributors, banks refusing to lend them money because Phil kept pouring capital into growth (something unheard of at the time), competitors bringing attention to the antiquated American Selling Price law leading to the Feds charging $25 million in tariffs. At any of these points Phil Knight could’ve given up, and Nike would've gone with him. But Phil never stopped.
That’s why its so important to follow your calling. Because when you’re following your calling, it’s impossible to stop.
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