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June 01, 2019 Chair's Column

Lesson No. 41 on Servant Leadership

Alexandria Hien McCombs, Signify Health, Dallas, TX

With the audience fixated on the 24-second shot clock, one of the best shooters in the NBA known for his precision and versatility didn’t take the final shot. He could have nailed a three-pointer to top off his 30-point streak in the final home game of his 21-year NBA career. He could have closed his illustrious career with panache. Instead, he passed the ball. His teammate returned it to the 14-time All Star and 12-time All-NBA champion. Dirk Nowitzki—a true servant leader behind jersey #41—dribbled quietly to the final second.  

Robert K. Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive and prolific writer, is credited with defining servant leadership in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Servant leadership is a “philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” It starts with a desire to serve first: to focus on the growth and well-being of others in contrast to the conventional view of a leader accumulating and exercising power from the top.

Dirk Nowitzki announced his retirement from the Dallas Mavericks on April 9, 2019. Just like every other Mavs fan, I experienced a range of emotions.  Dirk was synonymous with grace, humility, sportsmanship, and love of the game. I was a Dirk fan first and a basketball fan second. The iconic seven-foot power forward exemplified Dallas at its best in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on June 7, 2011. Battling a fever of 101 degrees and a sinus infection, Dirk scored 21 points and 11 rebounds for a win of 86-83 to tie the series at 2-2 with the Miami Heat. His commitment was relentless as he attacked the bucket for a lay-up with 14.4 seconds remaining. The following day, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James feigned sniffles during practice, but Dirk continued to focus on his game with stoic resilience.  His laser focus earned him the MVP award in the series and his team the championship that year.

Rick Carlisle, who coached Dirk for 11 seasons, summarized him best: “When things are bad, he steps forward. When things are good, he highlights his teammates and credits the fans . . . He really functions more as a servant than a leader on many levels, which is extremely unique. And yet, at the end of the day, he’s one of the greatest leaders that I’ve ever seen.” As servant leaders, we do not react to distracting noise, but listen to the inner voice inspiring us to take action. With seconds left on the shot clock, what would you do? I know what Dirk would do.