I first met Tony Parker during the 2011 NBA lockout when he returned to Lyon, France to play for ASVEL, the basketball club he owned. I was playing for an opposing club, Paris-Levallois, and was set to match up against Tony in his debut match back in his home country! This was prime Tony Parker – without a doubt, the best French basketball player of all time and one of the most accomplished guys in the history of the game. For French fans it was the equivalent of Michael Jordan returning home. While it ended up being a good game, Tony made some big plays down the stretch and we lost a close one.
Fast forward a few years to 2015. I was a few months into my season in Milan, Italy when I received a call from Tony who wanted me to come play for ASVEL. It was an easy decision, and my wife and I were happy to return to France and play for the historic club. Throughout Tony’s NBA career, he has become increasingly involved in the management of the club and returns to Lyon in his offseasons. I was excited to observe and learn from a guy who has excelled at the very highest level!
I was waiting for Tony to deliver the motivational speech. That’s what I thought constituted leadership, and I was disappointed when it didn’t happen. Tony communicated differently. It was usually through one-on-one conversations that included a lot of questions. He’d text or call to offer encouragement during a tough stretch in the season. He asked for advice regarding personnel and any changes that should be made. Perhaps most profound was when he called to check on my wife during a difficult pregnancy and offer connections for medical help. Through those moments I learned that great leaders communicate on a personal level and understand the importance of establishing a relationship beyond the objectives of the team or organization. It took time for me to understand that the best leaders’ most impactful communication rarely happens on stage; it is through one-on-one conversations. And most of those conversations are driven by questions.
Communicating a speech:
Finally with our team down 0-2 in a best of 5 series in the Finals, Tony gave the “locker room speech.” It was his last resort, and he lit into us with more than a few choice words. He didn’t do it in a degrading manner; however, he communicated in a way that demonstrated belief in us despite our under performance. Although we were playing a team that had a better record and beat us handly the first two games, he diminished all of that. Sometimes we can be so focused on the strengths of our competitors that we don’t value our own abilities. Tony basically said to forget about our opponents. We already had everything we needed to get the job done. We won the next game by 20+ and then the final two, culminating in a championship! Tony’s speech didn’t win us the title, but his passion in that moment showed us he believed we could turn the series around. Leaders, showing you have confidence in your people is a powerful thing to instill!
Having awareness and using emotion in communication:
If you’ve ever watched Tony play, you’d see incredible composure and focus. For the most part he is even-keeled, but he will show emotion at key moments to get himself and his teammates going. As my team’s leader and owner, he was the same way – always composed and calculated. He spoke calmly but with assurance. But when he did give that speech, he was fired up and used his emotions to stir. If he always operated at that level, his speech wouldn’t have had the same effect. If he was always emotional, his passion wouldn’t have been so inspiring. Leaders must have high emotional awareness for self and others to understand when and how to best communicate in order to move their teams.
Explore Further: In “The Captain Class,” author Sam Walker details the captains behind the most dominant sports teams throughout history. Tony Parker’s San Antonio Spurs, which won 5 NBA championships over the course of 20+ consecutive winning seasons, are one of the 16 “tier one” teams according to Walker’s criteria. The book highlights seven traits elite captains possess and discusses how their leadership styles may differ from what we commonly expect leaders to look like. In regards to communication, Walker says these captains go about it in “a low-key, practical, and democratic style.” And while the author identified Tim Duncan as the Spur’s leader, Tony took on a similar approach in his communication as the leader of our basketball organization.