There are three reasons that excite us about the new Hollywood movie ‘Air’. First, it is the latest work of perhaps the greatest writer-actor duo of our generation – Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, best known for the now classic hit ‘Goodwill Hunting’. Second, it is about Michael Jordan, the basketball legend and how he got his first big endorsement break. Third and most relevant to this piece – it is about Nike, the iconic sportswear company which signed up Jordan when he was still a rookie. This article talks about Phil Knight, the founder of Nike (his book ‘Shoe Dog’ is arguably the best memoir by a founder about starting up a business) and his business philosophy.
“There’s a scene in the new movie “Air” that should be required viewing for any executive in any line of work. It’s a conversation between Phil Knight and Sonny Vaccaro, the characters played by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, in which the Nike co-founder gives his company’s basketball guru the budget to sign a rookie named Michael Jordan. Before they offer him a shoe deal, Knight has one final question for Vaccaro: What’s the name of the sneaker?
The silence hangs like MJ himself.
“Hmm,” says the Knight character, who is dressed in a regrettable 1980s wardrobe. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe it’ll grow on me.”
It’s a fictional scene, but it manages to capture a truth about the real Phil Knight’s business philosophy in a few lines of dialogue:
I don’t know. Maybe it’ll grow on me.
For a billionaire who was influenced by Buddhism, this could have been Mr. Knight’s mantra. He wasn’t sold initially on the name Nike. He wasn’t a big fan of the swoosh logo, either. He ran with them anyway because he listened to the people around him.
It’s a formula that can apply to every company: hire employees who are good at what they do and let them just do it.”
The author contrasts Knight’s humble approach to the more common founder/CEO we are familiar with:
“But masters of the universe rarely have the patience to green-light something in the hopes that it will grow on them. They typically behave in the opposite way: They’re too confident in their own beliefs. If you look at perhaps the defining CEOs of their generations, Mark Zuckerberg decided to rebuild a $1 trillion company around his own vision for the metaverse, while Elon Musk is busy shaping policy and building towns based on his personal whims. Mr. Musk is more likely to toss his phone in the ocean than to tweet “I don’t know. Maybe it will grow on me.”
Today’s strain of executive exceptionalism is one reason that seeing a character in “Air” stand outside his corner office and express uncertainty is so refreshing.”
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