The role of humility in team development

Issue 24: Self awareness and how modesty empowers people

I hesitated about writing another issue with an American football theme. Since the Super Bowl is approaching, I figured the theme fits.

This will be a trigger warning for Detroit Lions fans, an NFL fanbase that saw two beloved hall-of-fame players retire too soon: Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson.

To appreciate Calvin Johnson, we must know the mythology of the wide receiver known as Megatron. At 6'5" and 239 pounds, Johnson's nickname derived from the villainous robot and leader of the Deceptacons in the Transformers series. They say the football gods were drunk when they created Calvin Johnson. In the role of wide receiver, size, speed, and strength are the three core elements, and players in that position are lucky to possess two of those attributes. Johnson has all three and at was unfair for the opposition who had to defend him.

After a stellar career in college at Georgia Tech, Johnson was selected with the 2nd pick of the 2007 NFL draft. As a Raiders fan, I am sad that we could have drafted Johnson and Al Davis decided to draft JaMarcus Russell instead. Picked by Detroit, a city that emobodies the blue collar mindset of hard work, Johnson brought that mentality in everything he did. After nine prolific series, Johnson retired in 2016, leaving people wondering what could have been if he kept playing. Many believe he could have exceeded Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver of all time.

Though Johnson retired four years ago, I was reminded of him when watching YouTube clip last weekend. The clip was a story his former teammate, Nate Burleson told. Burleson, now a sports analyst, tells a story about minicamp when he was traded to the Lions and becoming Johnson's teammate. My story won’t do it justice so I recommend you check out the clip.

Detroit did something unique in minicamp, which is gathering benchmarks on their team. The NFL hosts an event called the combine which does this for incoming college athletes entering the NFL Draft. The most infamous trial is the 40 yard dash, where they measure the speed for an athlete in a sprint to measure burst and speed. The other two are the vertical jump and bench press.

Burleson, a respected veteran known for his leaping ability, shared recorded a 38" jump. Then it was Megatron's turn. The first attempt...42", beating every wide receiver in his first attempt. His next jump...43". People start looking around and converting about what they're witnessing. Instead of going further, Johnson stopped.

The next mark is bench press. For the NFL, they use 225 pounds of weight on the bench press as the weight to measure. Being a position where speed and agility is more important than strength, wide receivers average around 10-15 repetitions.. Again, he exceeds everyone's number of reps, now approaching the high teens. Burleson describes the room of teammates yelling and rooting for Johnson to break the record. Johnson looks around after completing 19, easily does 20 simply to appease the audience.

As teammates are celebrating, Burleson approaches Megatron and challenges him that he could have done more and decided to stop.

"You saw that?" Johnson said.

The most humble superhero with a blue collar mindset. It's not common to witness humility at the wide receiver role, often known as divas. The most talented player was putting in work like he was trying to make the team. Because he knew people were trying to make the team, he didn't want to embarrass the team in the moment it didn't even matter.

Despite being lightyears above everyone else in terms of talent, Johnson comes from modest roots and the role of humility. Johnson's humility played a tremendous role in how he thought of his teammates. Understanding that minicamp was still a time where players were fighting to make the team, Johnson took the high road in order to not destroy the confidence of his teammates.

Self awareness to elevate others and destroy imposter syndrome

Let's be clear, humility doesn't mean not having confidence. You can be very confident in your ability and lead by example. Leadership is about getting people to your level and beyond, not putting them down.

Imposter syndrome is not only for new designers and creatives, seasoned vets experience it. I feel imposter syndrome every day. Listening to Burleson talk about Calvin Johnson, it made me reflect about what we as creatives and designers might inadvertently do to gate and discourage people because of intimidation and imposter syndrome. Designers often feel the pressure to know all the trends, frameworks, and tools out there. If you’re an experienced designer, it’s important to be aware of how you might speak to less talented or experienced designers. The way you navigate the approachability might make or break someone’s confidence.

Good leaders aren't out to embarrass their people, rather take their greatness in a humble way to help people get there. At my work, we have a core behavior “lead by serving others.” The actions of Calvin Johnson is such an accurate example of how leadership is about showing, but not showing off. I highly recommend hall-of-fame coach Tony Dungy’s book “Quiet Strength” which speaks on this theme.

Design and EQ is often not discussed. Rachel Weissman's Design to Be is a great start to learn about role of how self awareness plays as designers.

Hearing the minicamp story about Calvin Johnson reminded me how important humility is for the self, but the impact it has on developing a safe environment for your team.

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