Leading When Cultures (and Basketballs) Collide

Any leader who has ever worked with international partners no doubt felt a twinge or two of empathy for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in light of the recent controversy involving the league’s relationships with China.

Every country brings unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to business relationships, but China is in a class of its own. The best word to describe China is huge. It is huge geographically with a huge population and huge differences in the way people think, the way people act, and the way the government and markets operate. When the government began opening itself up to international companies, the opportunities were huge, but so too have been the challenges.

Silver knows this better than almost any leader. The Chinese love basketball, so naturally the NBA wants to partner with people and organizations there to sell its version of the game. That means working with the government and other groups tightly tied to the government. We’re talking billions of dollars in business for the NBA in things like apparel sales and television and internet streaming rights.

The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, however, have created a great deal of tension in that part of the world. And that tension found its way into Silver’s court when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, sent out a since-deleted tweet with an image that read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The government of China took offense to Morey’s support of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, which is a semi-autonomous Chinese territory, and roughly 30 years-worth of partnerships with the NBA hung in the balance.

Silver’s dilemma? Stand up for free speech and democracy or bow to the Chinese government to protect relationships with a lucrative golden goose.

Silver appeared to stumble a bit when the controversy initially hit, but part of that might have been because of some faulty translations of his response. The more he talked, however, the more I appreciated the way he navigated the situation.

Here are a few quotes by Silver from an Associated Press article that I found particularly revealing:

  • “Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right (to free speech) as one of our employees. What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”
  • “I’m sympathetic to our interests here and our partners that are upset. I don’t think it’s inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time stand by our principles.”
  • Silver also said at the time that he didn’t expect the CCTV television network to follow through with threats to not show the Los Angeles Lakers-New Jersey Nets games being played in China. “But if those are the consequences of us adhering to our values,” Silver said, “I still feel it’s very, very important to adhere to those values.”

Silver came across as empathetic to China’s cultural values and the government’s position, while respecting America’s societal values, as well. He didn’t criticize or lash out at anyone. Instead, he recognized that the ultimate consequence was a loss of business and that gaining it back shouldn’t come at the expense of American values.

As the CEO of Prologis, I worked with business and government leaders all around the world, and I can attest to the reality that those leaders tested my commitment to my values from time to time. The top priority for me was to know my values – to know what really mattered to me – and to determine where flexibility was an option in the name of progress and good business and where firm lines had to be drawn. The old adage typically (and wrongly) attributed to Thomas Jefferson provides useful guidance: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” I would add that when it comes time to stand like a rock, do so respectfully. Otherwise, you quickly will find yourself out of the game.

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