| Apr 14, 2023

Humble Star Shows Leadership Doesn’t Always Look Like Hogging the Ball

Markquis Nowell announced himself — and the virtues of a team-first ethos — during college basketball's March Madness. He's now on the brink of the NBA.

How many people can lose and still feel like they won?  

“Harlem is on top,” Markquis Nowell tells reporters in the locker-room at Madison Square Garden. Despite the Kansas State Wildcats’ close defeat to Florida Atlantic that saw the team miss the Final Four, the New York City local is in good spirits. After all, he put up 30 points and 12 assists in the loss, just after knocking out tournament regulars Kentucky and Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen round. At The Garden no less. 

He continues: “Some people say Harlem died and New York City point guards fell off. But I’m a testimony to how great a New York City point guard can be.” With another eventful March Madness in the rearview, Nowell remains one of the most talked-about players of the tournament. 

There’s a lesson to be learned from Nowell’s performance. Most of the time, the media conversations point to the Jordans and the LeBrons of the world. Who has the most rings? Who put up the most points? Who’s the GOAT? 

Despite how we lionize the individual, basketball — like business — is a team game. For every Jordan, there’s a Pippen. For every Kobe, there’s Pau Gasol. Servant leadership, or the way some leaders share power to grow and better their teammates, is an increasingly effective way to lead, whether in sports, the arts, or business. Nowell knows this well. So when do we start giving these kinds of players their flowers?  

Servant Leadership in Different Industries

Cheryl Bachelder, the former CEO of Popeyes, used to spend a third of her time mentoring her direct reports and every other week she would meet with individual employees for 90 minutes to increase their leadership capacities. Busy CEOs sometimes tap managers for this role, but in servant leadership, actual participation from higher-ups, rather than email chains, makes all the difference. 

In the world of film, critics laud the well-known directors of history, like Hitchcock and Kubrick, for their obsessive attention to detail and tyrannical passion. Hitchcock was even quoted complaining that “all actors are cattle,” which is no surprise considering the intensity and depth of his films. 

Actors often put on their best performance when they connect with a director. Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) was famous for sitting on the other side of the spectrum as an “actor’s director.” A rare winner of an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), Nichols was known for bringing the best performances out of his actors, some of whom included Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Philp Seymour Hoffman, and Meryl Streep. 

Nichols was a perfect example of someone who uplifted actors and members of his productions so that the final cut stood as a reflection of everyone’s contributions, not just his own. 


Bachelder came to the “well-founded conclusion that serving the people and the enterprise is by far the best path to superior financial performance.” Modern leadership approaches are putting an emphasis on coaching instead of bossing people around, and this style brings employees and managers closer together, emphasizes a healthier workplace, and does away with strict hierarchical dynamics. 

When it comes to Markquis, the idea is the same. His playmaking style and high assist records are evidence that he’s a leader players feel comfortable following. He doesn’t need to put up the most points.

Staying Humble at the Top

Harvard Business Review outlines a few tips for a method adjacent to servant leadership that they call “humble leadership”. The gist is this: 

  • Ask how you can help employees do their own jobs better — then listen.
  • Create low-risk spaces for employees to think of new ideas.
  • Be humble.

Allowing space for mistakes, failures, or unconventional ideas is imperative in building trust and creating an environment where people want to take risks. In basketball, this looks like a point guard letting someone else take the final shot. On a film set, it’s trusting your actors to improvise a scene. 

The throughline here, in simplest terms, is being humble. No matter one’s present station, they were once upon a time a lower-level executive, a manager, an employee, an intern, or a candidate interviewing for a job. Virtually everyone has warmed the bench or gotten coffee for the director. We all start somewhere. 

The Floor Generals

As of late March, 23-year-old Markquis Nowell will enter the 2023 NBA Draft. But it’s unlikely that he’ll forget his humble beginnings.  “I feel like I gave my heart and soul to this game these past couple of games,” Nowell told the New York Post. 

Nowell will enter the NBA arena as one of the new generation of floor generals but can take inspiration from one of the veterans. Chris Paul, now 37, was drafted fourth overall and played 18 seasons on five different teams, yet he still hasn’t won an NBA Finals. Averaging 10 assists per game, the Phoenix Suns guard is set to eclipse John Stockton on the all-time assist record and has Jason Kidd in his sights. 

When he played for LA, Paul even earned the Clippers the nickname “Lob City” because of his ability to make plays and use his teammates creatively. While an abundance of talent enters the draft each year, any team in the NBA will be lucky to have a young leader ready to follow in Paul’s footsteps. “I maximized everything I had inside of me to see these guys happy,” Nowell said after putting the game on notice at The Garden. Nowell, like Paul, knows that glory isn’t a road paved alone. 

Danny Avershal
Danny Avershal

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Danny Avershal is a video producer and ghostwriter based in LA. He writes about entertainment, technology, and entrepreneurship. view profile


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