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We The Champions: The Toronto Raptors are an Inspirational Underdog Story About Effective Leadership

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

Original Photo by Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors made franchise history earlier this month by bringing home the first World Championship to Canada within its 24-year history, and it was a proud accomplishment for Canadians to celebrate nationwide. What made this even more impressive was not only that it was a momentous underdog story, a David vs. Goliath, but a championship journey that was fostered by effective leadership at all levels of the organization, one that aligns as explained below with our core principals of P.A.C.T - Passion, Authenticity, Communication and Teamwork.

PASSION - Being the Visionary Leader for Success.

It began last July, after hitting roadblocks for multiple years, the President and General Manager Masai Ujiri, the visionary behind the organization recognized that the team could not achieve its goal the way it was currently structured. He needed to make transformative changes in order to advance to the next level and with the void of their key competitor Lebron James now in the Western Conference, he realized the window of opportunity to strike was now.

Masai made two major controversial and bold moves that shocked the league and their fans. The first was replacing the "Coach of the Year", Dwayne Casey who led the team to the most wins in franchise history for an unproven, rookie Head Coach named Nick Nurse. The second bold move was shipping away their beloved fan favourite and franchise player Demar Derozan for a coming off injury superstar Kawhi Leonard for only a guaranteed one-year term. Masai understood the chance for the title came with a lot of calculated risk. He stated that “It had to be one of the toughest decisions he’s probably ever had to make in his career". It was an unpopular and polarizing decision that was met with a lot of resistance at the time, but one we can now all agree in hindsight had to be made.

AUTHENTICITY - Leading with Trust.

The Toronto Raptors organization were “all in”, they had developed a culture of trust with one another, they worked in cohesion and gave each individual the autonomy to succeed. From the head coach, to the assistant coaches, right down to the sports training specialist, they were all empowered with the accountability to make the necessary decisions without interference from outside influences. The organization knew that keeping Kawhi healthy would be a key factor to their success; so, the training staff worked collaboratively with him to ensure that he was able to do so all year round with the implementation of "Load Management". If the trainers felt he needed a night off to recover and rehabilitate, then their decision stood without question from higher levels of management. This sent a powerful message across the organization that no matter what level of the organization you are involved at we respect and trust that your decision in the best interest of the organization as a whole .

COMMUNICATION - Working Together with Defined Expectations.

What made this Raptors team unique was that it wasn't built with the traditional model of success; building capacity through high lottery picks and gathering a talent of mega superstars. Instead, they crafted their team with players who had the right cultural fit. The values were clear, players needed to have strong grit, tenacity, a high understanding of basketball IQ, the right amount of unselfishness and be able to play on both ends of the floor. They had a good balance of experienced veterans along with a group of young emerging talent; most notably Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam both of which were originally overlooked and even went undrafted. They were a team that did not play for individual statistics and were more concerned with doing the gritty little things that go unaccounted for such as making the right defensive plays, winning loose ball battles or making the extra offensive pass. They played for the passion of knowing it contributed to the bigger picture, the main objective was clear and concise - Bringing home a championship to Canada.

Even though the team was well constructed, sports analysis and fans alike still thought the team would crack under pressure, likely not make it past the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, and even if they somehow made it to the Finals, that they would get dismantled and swept by the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors were a team stacked with experienced all stars, top level talent that had won the Championships three times in the last four years, now with the goal of becoming an NBA dynasty.

TEAMWORK - Confidence in Each Other and Coming Together to Overturn Obstacles.

In the playoffs, the pressure dialed up, the Raptors were now being tested with overcoming adversity head on and the team did not crack, instead they remained level headed with unwavering confidence in themselves. In the first round of the series, after dropping the first game in a poor performance to the Orlando Magic, skeptics felt that the Raptors' curse was taking over again - they bounced back taking the next four games. The Raptors showcased their composure and resiliency in the second round of the series against the Philadelphia 76ers. They bounced back after two blowout losses and were challenged all the way to the brink of a game seven elimination battle, in which they were able to overtake in the final seconds of the game. Against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, they were torn apart in the first two games as they were no match with their athleticism. Many thought the series was now over as the Bucks seemed to be an adversary too difficult to overcome. But the Raptors understood how to thrive in adversity and accepted the challenge with open arms. They took the next four games and with that converted the doubters into believers.

One of the key differences in the team this year was Kawhi Leonard's leadership attributes. He displayed humility with a quiet demeanour, was not overly flashy and led by example on the floor. He preached to his teammates to enjoy the moment, to not get too high or too low emotionally and to play through adversity. This instilled a focused confidence in his teammates, and they all followed suit.

It’s amazing what he’s doing. We follow behind him. Everything he’s doing from on the floor to off the floor. His leadership. His voice has been amazing for us. It really helped us stay focused on the task at hand.” - Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors

The tone of the players soon changed to mirror the leadership excellence of Kawhi. After winning big games they would not get overly excited, instead they stayed collected and focused. After losing blowout games, they did not panic, they discussed the failures, made appropriate adjustments and remained focused and confident in themselves.

By the time they faced the faced the Golden State Warriors, they had looked in the face of adversity multiple times and learning from those experiences were now more ready than ever for their final challenge. With a belief in themselves and the best possible execution for their game plan (along with a bit of luck) the Raptors were able to stay composed throughout the juggernaut series and eventually took the series in six games - securing Canada's first ever championship title. The Raptors had done it, they had beaten the odds and ignited a nation. They did so in textbook fashion, leveraging leadership effectiveness and at its core the principals of P.A.C.T. Well done Raptors!!

As we bask in this championship journey, we leave you with one final look at "The Shot".


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