Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Air: The Air Jordan Shoe Story

My latest book, Reel Leadership, is now available on Amazon. If you love movies and leadership, you will love this book.

Have you ever wondered about the story behind the iconic Air Jordan shoes produced by Nike? Air tells this story and how Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) courted Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young) and his family to become the shoe sensation everyone talks about.

Nike wasn’t always the shoe powerhouse you think of today. No, years ago, Nike was more known for their running shoes than basketball shoes. 

That all changed when Sonny saw an opportunity to court a young man that would become synonymous with Nike and basketball. The sales path wasn’t easy, but it was fruitful.

That’s the story of Air.

Air is more than a shoe story. Or a Michael Jordan story. Air is a story of persistence, resilience, and tenacity that can impact your leadership today. Join us for a Reel Leadership journey into Air.

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in Air. Feet on his desk, barefoot.

If you haven’t watched Air yet, you can stream it through Amazon Prime.

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Air

1. You win some, you lose some:

Sonny was a gambler. He liked to make big predictions.

We see Sonny go to a casino. He places a bet on a few basketball games. He wins.

Then, Sonny goes to the craps table. He places a bet. He wins.

Sonny is on a roll.

He takes the winnings and goes all in again. This time, the dice don’t roll his way.

He won some; he lost some.

That happens in leadership. We have to take bets on what’s going to happen.

As we don’t know the future, we don’t see how the bet will pay off. Yet, bet we do.

Because we’re betting on a better future, we’ve got to take our losses with our wins. 

2. Organizations must learn to pivot:

Sonny discusses the state of affairs at Nike with Howard White. The two discuss what Nike is known for.

Back in the 1980s, Nike wasn’t the basketball shoe company we think of today. Instead, the image people saw when they thought of Nike was running.

Sonny knew Nike could and should pivot. They only had to take the chance. 

As we watch Sonny pursue Michael Jordan, we see the company pivot at the end. They go from a running shoe company to a basketball company, increasing their gross revenue dramatically. 

Where does your organization need to pivot? Do you need to pivot personally or professionally?

Pivoting allows you to keep going but in a slightly different direction. Be willing to pivot when you need to.

3. Funding is important:

Sonny had only been given $250,000 to find talent to wear Nike shoes. This $250k was to be split between three players.

That’s not a lot to court great talent. 

Sonny knew this. So did his coworker Phil. They wondered why a $900,000,000 company was only willing to budget $250K for this portion of the business.

Are your organization and budget similar to Nike’s? Are you underbudgeting specific departments or initiatives?

Your company is going to hurt if you’re not funding it adequately. You must be willing to loosen the purse strings so your people can do their job.

4. Great leaders study previous leaders:

Sonny was a student of the game of basketball. He would watch tapes of former basketball greats and potential basketball greats. 

His VHS player was constantly cycling through video of great plays and players.

What and whom are you studying? Are you taking the time to review what other leaders have done? Have you dissected their actions and plays?

The more you study the past, the more insight you have into the future. You will also have more ideas to try when it’s your time to lead.

5. Sonny:

You don’t win every hand.

Sonny decided to go all in with the $250K budget on Jordan. He was supposed to split up the amount between multiple players. He didn’t see this as a wise move.

Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, questioned Sonny on his choice. He also reminded Sonny of the previous signings he’d done.

Three previous players didn’t pan out. Ouch.

Sonny knew this. He also knew that you can’t win every hand. You’re not a winner all of the time.

Are you scared to take chances because a previous decision didn’t pan out? You’ve got to get over being afraid. You have to take risks.

Not every business decision will be a winner. The key is to take the risks when it is the right time to do so.

6. Present your case:

Sonny decided to drive out to the Jordan’s home after his agent, David Falk, declined to give him a meeting with the Jordans. Sonny knew they could compete in different ways than money against Converse and Adidas.

When he got to the Jordan’s home, he met Jordan’s father, James Jordan. He then met Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother.

In a discussion with Deloris, he tells her how the meeting with the other companies would go. He pretty much nailed what the executives at Adidas and Converse would say.

This made Deloris think differently about Nike.

What’s the case for your business? Why are you in business? What do you do well? How are you different than your competitors?

Learn about your competition. Then learn about yourself. Figure out what makes you different.

This allows you to present the case for your organization. 

7. Understand your risks impacts others:

Rob Strasser was a coworker of Sonny’s. He was a divorcee with a 7-year-old daughter. He saw Sonny being reckless in his decisions.

Rob brought this up to Sonny. He challenged him to think like him. To put himself in his shoes.

What were Rob’s shoes?

  • Divorced
  • Young daughter
  • Four hours a week with his daughter
  • One paycheck
  • Barely hanging in there

Sonny’s choices impacted Rob. If Sonny failed, Rob would be devastated.

Your decisions, your choices will impact those you lead. Make sure you understand how they will impact those you lead.

Talk to your people. Hear their story. Understand where they’re at.

They’ll be in a different position than you. One that’s precariously on the edge of disaster. 

Learn to walk the line between your life and theirs. Then make decisions that impact both of you.

8. Phil Knight:

Sonny made an audible.

Sonny landed a meeting with the Jordans. The Nike team was excited. They plotted and planned out their strategy. 

The meeting went according to plan… Until Sonny caught a whiff of passion.

He went off script. He changed what he was going to say. And it was full of passion.

His words were powerful. They helped the Jordans realize Nike was passionate about their son.

We practice and we prepare. We go out of our way to control our meetings and interactions.

That’s good. But are you ready to call an audible?

You have to be ready to switch things up. You have to be willing to go off-script.

Work on your script but make sure you’re also working on being spontaneous. These are the opportunities you get when you realize you can influence the moment.

9. It can take time to get an answer:

After the meeting with the Jordans, Sonny was on edge. Every time his beeper went off, he expected it to be a call from the Jordans. When it wasn’t, he was depressed.

Or when the phone rang in the office. He expected it to be Jordan’s rep. When those calls didn’t come, he looked forlorn.

Time and again, Sonny was disappointed. It took a while but, finally, Deloris called Sonny with an answer.

The answer was yes.

We get impatient. I understand. We want answers and we want them now.

But do we get the best answers when they come quickly? Nope, no, nada…

The quick answers often leave us wanting. Or with incomplete information.

Be willing to wait for the answer. 

10. Know your core principles: 

Throughout the movie, Nike’s core principles are displayed. Some of the principles were even captioned so the viewer could tell what the scene would be about. Below, you will find Nike’s 10 core principles (I edited number 10 due to language).

  • 1. Our business is Change.
  • 2. We’re on offense. All the time.
  • 3. Perfect results count – not a perfect process. Break the rules: fight the law.
  • 4. This is as much about battle as about business.
  • 5. Assume nothing. Make sure people keep their promises. Push yourselves, push others. Stretch the possible.
  • 6. Live off the land.
  • 7. Your job isn’t done until the job is done.
  • 8. Dangers. Bureaucracy. Personal ambition. Energy takers vs. energy givers. Knowing our weaknesses. Don’t get too many things on the platter.
  • 9. It won’t be pretty.
  • 10. If we do the right things, we’ll make money **** near automatic

Sonny’s pursuit of Jordan aligned with every one of Nike’s principles. He got pushback along the way, but he knew what Nike was about. He knew their principles.

Do you know your organization’s principles? Are you willing to live them out?

There’s power in an organization’s principles. They guide you. They keep you on track. And they grow the company.

Live out the principles of your organization.

If you enjoyed this Reel Leadership article, you may enjoy our collection of Reel Leadership articles eBook. You can get this eBook for free by signing up for updates by clicking here.
Follow Me