“I don’t wanna be you, I just wanna be me. I don’t wanna be cool, I just wanna be me.”
— “Wanna Be Cool” by Donny Trumpet and The Social Experiment (feat. Big Sean, Jeremih & KYLE)
The concept of a “servant leader” was introduced to me by a modern day Perseus, the winged foot hero of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. A man that has turned his greatest weaknesses into his greatest strengths. A man that gave a 19-year-old kid from the southside of Chicago a chance to realize his dream as a Designer. A man known by many as Michael Jordan.
Over the past 14+ years as a professional Designer with Nike and Jordan Brand, I primarily focused on products, services and experiences intended to amplify human potential. And as such, I have learned that the greatest champions, much like the greatest entrepreneurs, all have three key intangibles.
1. They dictate the game.
The first, and probably the most important, is their ability to center themselves and exercise great emotional restraint amidst the turbulence of the game.
A very important indicator for success for a professional athlete is their ability to manipulate the distance between themselves and an opponent. During my many conversations with Michael, he would often remind me that we are creative “chess players” while others are playing “checkers.” His ability to think algorithmically, calculating thousands of contextual data points to execute his will on the person in front of him also translated to his business acumen. He sees what others do not see and marches fearlessly across the terrain of impossibility much like the great African military strategist of Carthage, Hannibal Barca.
The best entrepreneurs understand this. They are not comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, but they are willing to march forward. Their vision of a better tomorrow fuels them. Their passion for their craft consumes them. Their desire to pursue the impossible defines them. They understand that the game will and often does change. However, they are “chess players” leveraging laser-sharp focus and intuition that is amplified by the contextual data points of culture.
2. They understand timing.
The next critical intangible of an athlete is their ability to master the art of timing. The difference between a “gold medal and no medal,” as Usain Bolt describes it, usually comes down to one one-hundredth of a second. A lifetime of sacrifice that leads to an unfulfilled aspiration is the destiny of many Olympians. But the risk of losing it all does not deter them from their quest.
They train for that moment.
They obsess over that moment.
They fight tirelessly to seize that moment.
The sacrifice it all to become legendary in that moment.
In Silicon Valley, it is often said that “everything comes down to timing.” This too, is something that the most exceptional founders understand. This mindset of preparedness has no room for ego. It thrives on constant feedback from the consumer and it obsesses over discovering new and better problems to solve on behalf of the very people they hope to inspire.
This attitude, combined with a culture of inclusivity and transparency, engenders all employees from the ground up to adapt and respond to the market forces that so many businesses succumb to.
3. They turn to the past for the future.
The last of the three key intangibles of a champion is their ability to study the history of the game and leverage it to define the future. This is often called “Athletic IQ,”: By learning from the style of those who came before them, the best athletes are afforded the opportunity to combine the styles, mindset, attitudes—and in the case of Kobe Bryant—the exact mannerisms of the people they admire the most.
The concept of style mimicry is referred to as “pattern recognition” in the venture capital world. Firms often look for characteristics that fit the mold of previously successful founders, companies and market segments.
However, the times have changed. Styles have become more complex, behavior has become less predictable and influence has shifted from those with the most capital to those with the most relevant content.
In the near future, we will see the rise of what I call the “Cultural Alchemist™”.
The Cultural Alchemist™ can be defined as contextually educated, multi-racial, methodically creative, socially aware, culturally blended and technologically proficient. They are driven by genuine interactions, exchanges of ideas, collective aspirations and access to experiences that lead to meaningful opportunities. They are not just looking for a job, they are looking for a mission and a purpose. They are the champions of the future.
They do not believe in “picking a lane.” They believe that they are the lane.
Their access to information has allowed them to see the world from a unique global perspective that will soon disrupt the very way we create, use and consume the very products and services that drive our global economy.
Jason Mayden is a Designer/Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Accel Partners and lecturer at Stanford University’s d.School. Prior to joining Accel and Stanford he spent 13+ years at Nike where he led and contributed to the creation of innovative sport performance products for athletes and cultural icons such as Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Derek Jeter, and Michael Jordan. Since leaving Nike, he has worked with industry-leading organizations such as Pixar, Google, Disney and LinkedIn to help develop strategies focused on building and scaling diverse and inclusive creative organizations.