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Why Colin Kaepernick’s Nike Ad Sets the New Bar for Leaders

Real leaders aren’t neutral. They take risks, stand up and speak out.

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BY Sunny Bonnell - 06 Sep 2018

Why Colin Kaepernick's Nike Ad Sets the New Bar for Leaders

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

If you haven't been on Twitter in, oh, about ninety seconds, you might have missed the furor over quarterback Colin Kaepernick's starring role in a new Nike ad. In case you did, it's simple: a full-frame black-and-white photo of Kaepernick's eyes with the caption, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

Kaepernick's role as the instigator of NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality has already sparked angry talk of boycotts, throwing away Nike shoes and the like. But I'm going to steer clear of the controversy and the politics, because I'm more interested in Kaepernick's example for leaders.

"Wait a second," you might be saying, "are you telling me I should be inciting rage against my company?" Not on purpose.

Public anger is one outcome of Kaepernick's stance, but that's not why he knelt. If he was doing this just to make people mad, it would be nothing but an empty PR stunt. He would deserve the criticism. No, what makes Kaepernick a powerful role model is that he's risked his career to speak up about what he feels is right.

When we think of great leaders, we typically bring up mental images of inspiring speakers, brilliant motivators and daring innovators. Truly great leaders are often those things, but they're also more. Speaking, motivating--those are things they do, but it's who they are that inspires their people to walk through fire and sets their competition back on its heels.

Great leaders stick their necks out. They take a stand. They lead with character and values. They fight for unpopular causes because they're right. They know that nobody was ever inspired by a focus group or tracking poll, but by someone with a great deal to lose who is willing to lay their reputation on the line for what they believe in. They know they'll be opposed; in fact, they count on it. Opposition, resentment, fear--those are indicators that they're doing something right.

You don't need to spark a social movement like Kaepernick has done. That's probably not where your passions lie. But what about about attacking gender inequality in your field? What about taking on a giant competitor that's ripping off its customers? What about inventing a technology or a brand that challenges a stereotype, or being the one to call out the naked emperor, like the finance nerds in The Big Short? Those are acts of rebellion and dissent, and dissent moves the world forward. Not always easily, not always quietly, but necessarily.

When your Colin Kaepernick moment as a leader comes up, what will you do? Here are some important things to remember:

Lean into it quickly.

Be the first person to stand up and speak out. If you're not, someone else might beat you to the punch, and then you'll look like a coattail rider, not a leader.

Make your message calm and rational.

Nobody wants to be shouted at, so let the people who disagree with you do all the shouting. Be icy cool and let your position do the shouting for you.

Make your position, and the reason for it, clear.

The reason kneeling during the anthem has won Kaepernick as many supporters as detractors is that he did it for a specific reason: to protest police violence against black people. Don't leave any ambiguity about why you're speaking out.

Have a specific goal.

Do you want to change a law? Grab market share? Win a legal concession from a rival? Know what you want and make sure everyone else knows it.

Don't back down.

You will get pushback. Plan on it. Kaepernick's suing the NFL because he can't get a job, but he hasn't backed down. Stand strong and you'll earn respect.

 

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