Magic and Me

Copyright Notice: Copyright 1991 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Back in the 1980s, when I was leading the telecommunications test equipment company I’d started with two buddies, I had a poster hanging outside my office. It was exactly the poster you see below, but in the upper right there was an inscription: “To Dave, MVP like me.” I had forged that inscription, kind of as a joke, but my admiration for Magic Johnson was no joke – it was genuine and strong. Aside from being just a few years younger than me; aside from growing up in Lansing, Michigan, just 50 miles from my hometown of Flint; aside from being an amazing and entertaining basketball player; Magic was a hero to me because of the leadership attributes he displayed on the basketball court. Those attributes transcended the game of basketball, and inspired a young tech company founder – me – to follow his example. I owe the success I achieved in business, at least in part, to the inspiration I received from Magic. That is why, to me, he will always be the G.O.A.T.

The poster I falsely signed “To Dave: MVP like me.”

I have given several talks on entrepreneurial leadership in which I’ve invoked Magic Johnson’s example. In those talks, I cited key attributes of Magic’s leadership style and related how I expressed them in my own career. Then I showed a video from NBA TV that demonstrated Magic’s basketball and leadership skills in action. I’ve decided to share the content of the talk in this article, in the hope that it will reach an even wider audience and inspire more up-and-coming business leaders.

What I learned about leadership from Magic Johnson

The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.

Warren Bennis

No one exemplifies the above quote more than Magic Johnson. His leadership qualities were forged by his mother and father, by thousands of basketball games played in Lansing driveways and parks, by his high school and college team experiences, by his exposure to some special local business leaders, and much more. Those experiences resulted in an extraordinary human being who excelled at inspiring others and leading them to great accomplishments. Like Stevie Wonder and Muhammad Ali, Magic’s inspiration radiated far beyond his occupation. The leadership attributes he displayed are applicable in every field of endeavor. I drew tangible and useful lessons from the leadership Magic Johnson brought to the game of basketball. Here are the key leadership attributes I gleaned from Magic’s career, and of how each of the attributes had a substantial positive impact on my career.

1. Prepare hard

From his childhood days, Magic loved the game of basketball, and no one worked harder to develop and polish his skills. The excellence Magic displayed in games was the result of thousands of hours playing in the park or in someone’s driveway; of shoveling snow-covered outdoor courts to continue playing in the winter; of practicing for and playing organized basketball at every level. Magic dedicated himself to working extremely hard at building his skills, and he exemplified something my high school coach Cliff Turner pounded in to me and my teammates: “you work extra hard in practice so that the game is just fun.” Perhaps that is why Magic seemed to enjoy himself so much during games. Perhaps his extreme preparation is what made “Showtime” possible.

I’ve been an electronics nut for as long as I can remember. My fourth-grade science fair project was a robot that would move in response to a beam of light. I spent many hours building, using, and enhancing my ham radio station throughout my teen years. Each year during high school, I spent months working on my science fair project until the wee hours of the morning, before getting up and heading to school just a few hours later.

Every phase of starting a tech business from scratch required the same kind of intense preparation that Magic practiced. Building a world-class business has a lot in common with becoming a world-class athlete – you must focus intently on your goal and push other, often desirable, activities to the side. During the years my co-founders and I were working like crazy to build our company, we were inspired to see that Magic’s relentless preparation resulted in unprecedented success. That meant there was hope for us.

2. Radiate joy

Watching Magic play, it was obvious that he genuinely enjoyed the game. Magic exuded joy even in the most difficult game conditions, and his joy infected and motivated his teammates.

At my company, Telecom Analysis Systems (TAS), we went through periods of excruciating difficulty and uncertainty. During those times, the poster outside my door reminded me of Magic’s constant optimism and enthusiasm. I found that if I displayed negativity and pessimism at work, the company atmosphere would be filled with negativity and pessimism. Seeing that poster reminded me every day to make a conscious effort to project optimism, enthusiasm, and joy. Radiating those attitudes made even the most difficult challenges easier to navigate.

3. Think different

A six-foot-nine point guard. ‘Nuff said. No one had heard of such a creature. Magic Johnson wasn’t just a ball player, he was an innovator.

A sophisticated telecommunications instrument that had no front panel controls or displays, but was instead controlled by an attached computer. When we adopted that approach at TAS in the early 1980s, few others were doing so. We did it because, for the first time, general-purpose computers were widely available. We realized that we could save lots of money and time and get our product to market faster if we didn’t try to build specialized controls for each of our instruments. Our novel approach helped propel us ahead of our main competitor. That unique design choice was one of several ways we applied the “think different” mantra at TAS.

4. Compete relentlessly

Despite his infectious smile, Magic was a fierce competitor. He wanted to win, and would do anything within the bounds of sportsmanship to do so.

Magic and Me

Many business people believe that one must be harsh or nasty to be successful. Magic’s example shows a different way. Why not be nice and ruthlessly competitive? I learned from experience that successful CEOs must absolutely be hard-nosed and results-oriented, but I learned from Magic that tough, smart, and nice are not mutually exclusive attributes.

5. Play any position

One basketball game is indelibly etched into my memory. Magic Johnson’s Lakers were playing Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1979-80 NBA championship. It was Magic’s first professional season. Kareem Abdul Jabbar was out with an ankle injury, and it looked like his absence might doom LA’s chances. In that game, which was on Philly’s court, Magic took over Kareem’s center position, and he did it with verve and flair. He even emulated Kareem’s patented “sky hook” shot. The Lakers won the game and the series. During that game, Magic played every position – point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. It was one of the greatest performances of all time.

My co-founder Steve Moore, who headed our engineering team, used to say that he would take out the trash if that’s what it took for us to succeed. (Some days, he actually did take out the trash!). In my role as CEO, I also assumed the roles of delivery driver, software developer, sales engineer, marketing director, and much more. My other co-founder Charles Simmons, a Morehouse/Georgia Tech/Stanford trained engineer, divided his time between product developer and IT manager and manufacturing operations chief. In a business startup, the principals often have to “play multiple positions.” Magic’s incredible performance was a shining example of such versatility, and all these years later it still inspires.

6. Practice active unselfishness

Magic got more pleasure from the assisting a teammate’s score than getting his own. He raised the act of passing the basketball to an art form.

The thing I miss most from my “playing days” is the camaraderie I shared with the members of our team, both inside and outside the company. I enjoyed achieving business success, but I also got a huge rush from seeing our team members succeed. One of the examples I’m proudest of is when we hired four young engineers to reinvigorate our sales efforts. I worked closely with the young recruits for more than a year. Though one of the four left the company, the other three achieved leadership positions in the organization in fairly short order. They built great careers and made lots of money for themselves and for the company. Thirty years later, we are still in touch, and I enjoy seeing them enjoying their lives.

7. Praise your teammates

Magic showed love and appreciation for his teammates on and off the court. He wasn’t shy about it – he was demonstrative and public.

I believe in giving praise when praise is due – not once a year or once a month but all the time. Not false praise, but genuine and specific recognition. One of the things I’ve sometimes struggled to remember is to approach every situation, whether feedback is positive or negative, from a position of love and respect.

If I had to sum up Magic’s career in one word, the word would be love. Love for the game. Love for teammates. Love for competitors. Love for the fans.

Roll the video!

It is hard to capture what Magic Johnson’s playing days were like in words alone. Fortunately, we are blessed with a rich video record of his performances. This video provides a small window into how Magic played the game, and what other players thought of him.

I finally met Magic Johnson years after his playing days, years after I had sold Telecom Analysis Systems. The scene was a Starbucks restaurant he owned in Los Angeles. I was sitting at a table with my then wife-to-be Kishna when Magic came in. He went to the back of the store and emerged with one of his managers. They walked over to a spot where floor tiles were damaged and seemed to discuss repairs. I was dumbfounded that this international star would show such concern and attention to detail about floor tiles. When Magic walked nearby, I introduced myself and shook his hand, and we made small talk for a minute. In retrospect, I probably should have mentioned the inspiration I drew from his career, but of course, I didn’t.

Maybe he’ll see this post.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

Lao Tsu

4 thoughts on “Magic and Me

  1. Thanks Dave for the article. I wanted to express my gratitude for your exceptional leadership. Your ability to guide us four young “kids” has been nothing short of inspiring. Your strategic thinking, coupled with your commitment to our growth and development, has not only driven us towards our collective goals but also fostered an environment where each individual feels valued and empowered. Your mentorship has been a pivotal part of my professional journey, and I am truly thankful for the wisdom and encouragement you’ve shared. Your leadership motivates us to strive for excellence and navigate challenges with confidence.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful article about Magic. I will share it with both Eric and Jared

    1. Tash – thank you so much for those kind words. I will never forget the rainy evening when I met you in the foyer of TAS after your interviews with our engineering team. It was a miserable night, it was raining cats and dogs, and your car wouldn’t start. I was so impressed that despite being at the end of what must have been a long and miserable day, your demeanor was upbeat and optimistic. I saw something special in you that night, and I thought you had great potential, but I had no idea that in just a couple of years you would be running our sales and marketing operations in Asia. I thoroughly enjoyed working with you and getting to know you, and seeing you work your magic with our partners like Mineo Yamamoto in Japan and C.S. Kim in South Korea, and so many others. I’m so happy to see the success you have enjoyed at TAS and beyond – it is well deserved. Give my best to the fam! I look forward to getting together again on a future visit to NY/NJ.

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