The best business & leadership quotes from ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight

Phil Knight is the founder, former CEO and now Executive Chairman of Nike. In Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike (Amazon UK, US) he tells his story of taking the business from humble origins, through an IPO in 1980 and onto its current $30 billion market capitalisation.

Nike is still widely regarded to be one of the most innovative companies in the world. Phil Knight started and grew the business out of the back of a van in the early 1970s. A Stanford graduate, avid reader of the Classics and books about military strategy, and a natural introvert, he captures a wonderful story about what he calls his Crazy Idea and the determination and grit it takes to become successful beyond what he’d ever imagined. In Shoe Dog, he also includes some wonderful accounts of the hustle and sometimes downright dirty tactics that it can take to overcome the odds: “you are remembered for the rules you break” is his mantra throughout the book. I’ve captured the best of the rest of his business and leadership wisdom in the quotes from the book below.

Phil Knight Shoe Dog

Phil Knight on his Crazy Idea

Like it or not, life is a game. Whoever denies that truth, whoever simply refuses to play, gets left on the sidelines, and I didn’t want that. More than anything, that was what I did not want. Which led me, as always, to my Crazy Idea. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, I need to take one more look at my Crazy Idea. Maybe my Crazy Idea just might… work?

Maybe. No, no, I thought… It will work. By God I’ll make it work. No maybes about it.

Phil Knight on the fear of failure

Fear of failure, I thought, will never be our downfall as a company. Not that any of us thought we wouldn’t fail; in fact we had every expectation that we would. But when we did fail, we had faith that we’d do it fast, learn from it, and be better for it.

Phil Knight on building a business

It seems wrong to call it ‘business’. It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs and desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business. What we were doing felt like so much more. Each new day bought fifty new problems, fifty tough decisions that needed to be made, right now, and we were always acutely aware that one rash move, one wrong decision could be the end. The margin for error was forever getting narrower, while the stakes were forever creeping higher.

In the late 1970s, I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted,  as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something,  when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is – you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully,  and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.

Phil Knight on leadership

If I had any doubt about Blue Ribbon’s [the early trading name of Nike] management team in 1976, they were mainly about me. Was I doing right by the Buttfaces [the affectionate name the senior management team gave themselves] giving them so little guidance? When they did well I’d shrug and deliver my highest praise: not bad. When they erred I’d yell for a minute or two, then shake it off. None of the Buttfaces felt the least bit threatened by me – was that a good thing? I worried. Maybe I should be more hands-on. Maybe we should be more structured. 

But then I’d think: whatever I’m doing, it must be working, because mutinies are few… No one had thrown a genuine tantrum, about anything, not even what they were paid… The Buttfaces knew I wasn’t paying myself much, and they trusted that I was paying them what I could. 

Clearly the Buttfaces liked the culture I’d created. I trusted them, wholly, and didn’t look over their shoulders, and that bred a powerful two way loyalty.  My management style wouldn’t have worked for people who wanted to be guided, every step, but this group found it liberating, empowering.  I let them be, let them do, let them make their own mistakes., because that’s how I’d always liked people to treat me.

Want more inspiration?

Bill Gates writes an excellent summary of Shoe Dog in An Honest Tale of What it Takes to Succeed in Business.

My own post Ray Dalio identifies the 11 characteristics of visionary leaders, summarises the outcomes of interviews and psychometric tests undertaken by Dalio with the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Reed Hastings, Jack Dorsey and others. Dalio is one of the world’s greatest hedge fund managers. His business, Bridgewater Associates, has approximately $160 billion of Assets Under Management.

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