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Leon Kaye headshot

The NBA’s Adam Silver Shows Business How to Lead in Times of Crisis

Adam Silver is showing the global business community what it means to be a leader- stand your ground while deferring to the experts.
By Leon Kaye
Adam Silver

As we start this Monday morning in a very different world than the one to which we awakened just one week ago, we’ve witnessed plenty of examples of where global leaders have shined while, quite frankly, others have tanked. And more than anyone else, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has shown how to step it up.

We’ve seen restaurant and retail chains promise sick pay to affected workers — after public outcry drove them to make such a decision. We’ve seen some utilities (but not all) announce they won’t be quick to shut off the switch or valve, though we here at 3p would argue that isn’t leadership, but is instead showing humanity. And true, the beleaguered airline industry has been dropping change fees, but they have little choice in the face of more cancellations than bookings.

In fairness, there has never been a herculean challenge like this — you can do your best to prepare for a natural disaster; society can rally in the face of a national security threat; and you can tighten your belt and shuffle money around in the event of an economic downturn. But we’re not facing a double whammy: it’s a whammy that is hurling barriers at us from all directions. The coronavirus crisis is still generating more questions than answers.

Nevertheless, Adam Silver yet again showed us how to make a bold decision while emphasizing what really matters.

By now you’ve heard the backstory of what led to the NBA's decision to suspend its 2019-2020 season. At first, the league was leaning toward having games continue in front of empty arenas. But then a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19, and it was clear what Silver had to do.

“This should not, of course, be a business decision. We should be listening to the public health experts,” Silver told TNT. Further noting the league’s responsibility to do what it can to stall the spread of the virus by stopping players from traveling across the country, he continued:

“We are relying on the public health experts. What they are telling us is if you can so-called ‘shift the curve’ or ‘flatten the curve,’ if we can push out how quickly this spreads as a public health matter, we’re doing a service for the country. Because particularly for old people, if a lot of people get sick quickly, we’re going to run out of resources, we’re going to run out of respirators, ICU beds and etc.”

Public safety comes first, Silver continued to explain during his TNT interview. And according to the commissioner’s account of meetings with the NBA’s Board of Governors and team owners, no discussion of money was ever made — though based on how other professional sports leagues and college sports quickly followed suit after Silver’s fast and unequivocal decision, each of the 30 team’s leadership surely assumed any discussion of revenue would be swatted away fast.

Sportswriter Dan Wetzel best articulated the commissioner’s strengths:

“Silver has always been a strong leader for the NBA. He’s made mistakes. He’s struggled occasionally. His ability to forcefully and convincingly explain his viewpoint though has always been his strong suit. Here was a smart, sensible, serious person making a very big decision that would cost his business incredible amounts of money, and then laying out in clear and concise ways why it had to be done.”

Silver is showing the global business community (and politicians) what it means to be a leader: Stand your ground and explain the reasoning that drives your decision logically and calmly, and if you have to, defer to the experts on matters that aren’t aligned with your pay grade. In Silver’s case, he made it clear, with humility, that we need to listen to those who are knowledgeable when it comes to medical and public health matters.

Sports has long given society a group of people to look to for inspiration — from the early 20th-century baseball players to women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe. In this case, Adam Silver is the sports leader who is showing the way. And business leaders who have to answer to a multitude of stakeholders during these uneasy times should look to him as an exemplar on how to manage a crisis.

Image credit: Taylor Smith/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye