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BOOK REVIEW: Nike founder's tale proves the power of passion

Jan 19 2018 06:00
Ian Mann

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE, by Phil Knight

THIS book is about an entrepreneur’s journey, how one man took on the giants and won. The Dassler brothers, founders of Puma and Adidas, began their business in 1924 and Phil Knight began his in 1963.

Over the past 18 years of writing reviews, I don’t think I have reviewed more than three autobiographies. My experience has been that hardly any avoid being little more than an airbrushed account of an extraordinary genius, with depth of character and business prowess, written by the paragon him- or herself. My visceral response to an autobiography is – ignore.

Shoe Dog came to my attention in 2017, and I ignored it. A week ago, a client, still in her mid-30s and halfway to building her company into a billion-dollar business, raved about the book.

I share her enthusiasm for this autobiography. Let me tell you why.

If you are looking for ‘my 7 secrets of great success’ in this book, you will find only one. And for that one, this 400-page book is not worth the effort. So why would Bill Gates call this book “…an amazing tale”? Primarily because, as Gates says, “Knight opens up in a way that few CEOs are willing to do.”

There are no two businesses that could possibly follow the same paths to success. Every business is one of a kind, with a unique history, built by unique people, facing unique challenges, and responding in their uniquely flawed way.

Everything about this book links back to Phil Knight’s love for running.

His humourless, stern and brilliant college track coach, Bill Bowerman, eventually became one of his earliest business partners. This was a man who would take the athletes’ shoes from their locker, tear them apart, examine them and redo them. He understood that if you remove one ounce from a shoe, you remove over fifty pounds from the runner. It was Bowerman who used his wife’s waffle iron to develop the soles for which Nike became famous.

In one of the many beautifully written passages in a remarkably well written book, Knight describes watching a race in which the legendary middle-distance runner, Steve Prefontaine, participated.

The joy and agony Knight and his wife experienced is described vividly – Knight was no passive spectator: he was experiencing the tension of the athletes, their physical exertion, their ‘digging deep’ into personal reserves to push through the last moments before the finish. At the end of the meeting, Knight describes – in passing – the physical exertion he experienced as a spectator, and the beauty and the art of these athletes.

Knight, trained as an accountant, didn’t start his sports shoe business, Blue Ribbon, because he had a vision of manufacturing sports shoes and turning them into a universal, essential clothing item across the globe. He didn’t have the strong desire to get rich as even a part of his decision-making criteria.

Throughout his business career he chose not to make real money in favour of other decision criteria: not spoiling the culture of the business by listing, or selling to the wrong people.

The culture of Nike is possibly best described as wild, made up of “losers” (a disabled athlete confined to a wheelchair; an obese accountant who would never make partner in his firm because he was so large; a needy and obsessive letter-writing lawyer).

But all were perfect in their positions and each a “Buttface” as the inner circle was called. The interactions in the company were forceful, crude and remorseless, which is why truth was heard. No, they were not polite and sensitive: in fact, the essential common denominator across the various Buttfaces was a thick skin.

Theme of financial survival

For most of the history of the company, from the early days when it was still called Blue Ribbon to its emergence as Nike, the company was cash-strapped. All but the last chapters of the book had an underlying theme of financial survival.

Initially it was to pay the few thousand dollars to be able to buy the next shipment of shoes from the Japanese manufacturer, to having the bank cut off their credit line, to being sued by the Customs Department for $25m of unpaid fees for an obscure tax (finally reduced to $9m.)

And all this time, there was an escape route – go public. And each time it was rejected because of what it might do to the ethos of the company.

So, what is the only lesson you will learn from this book? It is not that Knight was the quintessential ‘Jack Welsh’ quality manager - confident, kind, clear thinking, and a team player.

As a textbook manager Knight would not make even a department head. He is shy, introspective, and does not praise, or give much feedback unless it is to solve problems.

Power of passion

The lesson is passion. Having real passion for what you are investing your time, effort and money in. Real passion. The stuff that makes you thrill when you see a master take the race, with the grace of an artist, drawing down on resources he never knew he had.

A level of passion that leads you to doing things you may regret – like being sorry your wife will not stay an extra day in hospital after giving birth to your second son, because you wanted to attend an athletics meeting.

Passion is why you teach accountancy to support your micro-business of selling superb running shoes. Passion is running almost every day of your life, knowing how important shoes are. Passion is when you enthusiastically encourage and support others who are masters of your passion – the athletes. And passion is the drive to see your heroes in your Nikes, not Adidas.

Passion is what makes an accounting graduate into a “shoe dog”, strong enough to take the whipping that life and business deals you. Passion is the only thing that will keep you going, and digging deep into mental and physical reserves you never knew you had.

If you are an aspiring entrepreneur you will grow in important ways from reading this book. If you are asked what you learned, you may not be able to articulate a single lesson beyond ‘passion.’ 

But this is all about you, the entrepreneur, and reading the frank account of the journey of a founder-CEO now worth $10bn will be a meaningful experience.

Readability:    Light -+--- Serious
Insights:         High +---- Low
Practical:         High ----+ Low

  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.


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