leadership lessons

How To Be a Leader and Build a Culture – 7 Takeaways From Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog

Our community library has this section right when you walk in called “It’s Your Lucky Day”. It’s where all the hottest new releases are, and when I saw Shoe Dog by Phil Knight on the shelf, I made a beeline for it.


I’m a Nike fan, but not a fanatic. I don’t stand in insanely long lines for shoes, or wear only Nike gear. I also didn’t really know much about Phil Knight, or the origins of Nike.

But I am a fanatic of reading memoirs and biographies. I think it’s incredibly fascinating to see how people’s lives evolve, and what insights the power of hindsight brings.

Turns out, Phil Knight’s story is incredibly engrossing. Here are seven takeaways on leadership, failing and building a team.

Own Your Crazy

“So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy . . . Just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”           – Phil Knight

Knight had no money, no experience, and no guarantees – just one crazy, half-baked idea. He took action on his idea before he could talk himself out of it, and that led to the creation of one of the world’s most well-known and profitable companies today.

Fail fast

“But my hope was that when I failed, if I failed, I’d fail quickly, so I’d have enough time, enough years to implement all the hard-won lessons. I wasn’t much for setting goals, but this goal kept flashing through my mind every day, until it became my internal chant: Fail fast.” – Phil Knight

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve delayed starting some new project or hobby because conditions weren’t perfect. Fear of failure, fear of the unknown…my own internal resistance holding me back.

But what happens if you don’t fight yourself? If you go into new things not only expecting to fail, but embracing that failure as an opportunity to learn?

Big things can happen. Nike-size things.

Overpromise, but deliver

Ever heard that phrase “under promise and over deliver”?

Knight takes a completely different approach. Time after time, he overpromises. From the beginning, when asked what company he represents, Blue Ribbon pops out of his mouth despite the fact that it doesn’t yet exist. From there it snowballs. Sure, we have an East Coast office (they didn’t). Yes, of course, we can come up with $20,000 (they were broke).

Knight consistently let the business evolve as fast as it wanted (despite many warnings from bankers and accountants to do otherwise), scrambling to play catch up. And because he was able to deliver on each overpromise, the company continued to successfully grow.

Granted, he barely scraped by on some of these deliveries. Part of the time he was able to do so because of his own hustle, but more often than not it was the people he cultivated around him who came through.

Which leads us to . . .

Build a tribe

Knight surrounds himself with people who get it. They get the crazy idea, they get what he’s trying to build, and they get each other. They play their strengths and weaknesses off of one another, becoming a strongly united front.

And because of that camaraderie, personal trade offs were frequently made for the good of the business. People moved across country because it was what the business needed. Parents of employees provided interest-free loans because a business that takes care of their son is a business worth taking care of.

When you invest in people, people invest in you.

It’s more than business

“It seems so wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs and desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business.” – Phil Knight

For Knight, Nike was always more than just shoes, and more than just money.

Nike was about building a family, establishing a non-traditional culture, and helping athletes achieve greatness. It was about innovation and making a product that would bring people health and happiness. It was about making a positive contribution to the world.

And because Nike was more than just a bottom line, Knight gave it more. He weaved his business and personal life together intricately, treating Nike like a child. His devotion and dedication saw the company through challenges that have sunk many a start-up, and entered Nike into the realm of greatness

Let truth lead the way

Those challenges that Nike faced ran the gamut from attempts at a hostile takeover to tax issues to shoe recalls. Each time they found themselves up against a wall, despite temptation to try to slip and slide through, Knight and his fellow cohorts stuck with integrity and transparency, telling the truth and relying on that truth to be seen by all parties involved.

And, time and time again, that transparency and integrity led them to positive outcomes.

Always ask if you’re doing enough

A leader who doesn’t reflect on how he leads is not a leader worth following for long.

Knight frequently seeks to learn from the leadership of past military giants, and from the strong male figures in his life. As Blue Ribbon Company grows and transitions into Nike, as his own family grows by two sons, he often reflects on how he’s doing and whether or not he could be doing things differently, or better.

Is his hands-off, minimal praise leadership really what his employees need? Is he spending too much time at work and not enough time with his family? Will his sons have some of the same challenges his way of being a father as he had with his own father at a younger age?

I highly recommend reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. In addition to the leadership and culture takeaways, it’s packed with a lot of fun memories and interesting sports tidbits, and is one of my new faves.