Skip to main content

11 Leadership Lessons from Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Blogger || Media professional || YouTuber || Yoga enthusiast || Avid reader || Spiritual || Loves to travel || Loves to cook ||


There are some books which leave a long lasting impression on the readers. Shoe Dog is one such book.

Shoe Dog tells the story of Nike’s origins, told by none other than Phil Knight, its founder. The book starts in 1960s. At the age of 24, Knight decides to travel the world to explore his crazy idea i.e.— importing Japanese running shoes into the US. Being a running enthusiast himself, he is passionate about this idea.

After a successful start of business with the Japanese supplier Onitsuka, Knight begins to sell designs by his own company. This strains Nike’s relationship with their suppliers and eventually leads to a separation. Nike grows despite numerous setbacks and problems on the way. The memoir ends with Nike’s initial public offering in 1980.

Phil Knight’s journey is interesting as well as inspiring. It is full of struggles and challenges but it is also full of hope and victories. Knight shares precious leadership lessons and pearls of wisdom throughout the book.

So, here are some major takeaways and leadership lessons from Shoe Dog:

1. Find your passion

Knight created Nike in partnership with his track and field coach, Bill Bowerman. A large part of the company’s success can be attributed to Knight’s and Bowerman’s passion for the sport. Throughout the memoir, Knight talks about his love for running. It was this love for running that kept him going during tough times.

The key takeaway here is: Believing in your product or what you’re doing is extremely important if you hope to sustain in the business world. Never underestimate the inherent motivation that comes from doing something you’re passionate about.

2. Pursue your dream

Knight refers to his shoe company ideas as his crazy idea. For him, it was the only idea worth pursuing. He didn’t want a routine job but wanted to build his own company. So he did everything to pursue his dream.

Just because others think that your idea or dream is crazy, doesn’t mean that you should stop chasing your dream.

3. Hire smart

Can you believe that Knight wasn’t the one who came up with Nike’s name? He wasn’t involved with its signature swoosh logo or developing its trademark waffle pattern shoes. But one thing he did right and that was to hire people that shared his vision of creating quality shoes. All his earlier employees were somehow or the other involved in sports. Nike’s success story reinforces the value of hiring people who align with company’s vision and are a good fit with its culture.

Beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.

— Phil Knight, Shoe Dog

4. Focus On Innovation

Real success comes by being Bowerman. Bill Bowerman was the University of Oregon’sTrack and Field coach and Knight’s business partner. He was constantly improvising the shoes and making innovations in the designs. Nike constantly innovated and created new products to become a market leader.

The key takeaway here is not to follow the tried and tested path. You need to have a lab, you need to spend on research, you need to innovate and create new products, get them patented and sell worldwide.

5. Sit down and strategize

Knight talks about the Buttface meetings which were invaluable for setting strategic direction for the company. Some of the major company decisions stemmed directly from those meetings that includes whether or not the company would go public. Similarly Knight faced a tricky situation with his supplier, Onitsuka. But he prepared in advance to take them down at the right time.

Every leader has to face challenges. So rather than panicking during thin moments, it is important to think long term and find an appropriate solution.


6. Culture is Crucial

One of the biggest keys to Nike’s success was the company’s culture. As I mentioned earlier, Knight hired people who believed in and loved shoes. They identified with the company’s vision and this sense of collective purpose helped drive the company to new heights.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to build a winning culture in your organization- the right values, the right work atmosphere and the right management style.

Life is growth. You grow or you die.

— Phil Knight, Shoe Dog

Scroll to Continue

7. Don’t Micromanage

Knight had an unconventional leadership approach. He was averse to micromanaging his employees. He shared his vision with his team, explained what he wanted to achieve, and gave general instructions but he also gave them freedom to do their jobs in their own way. His employees thrived with this management style and they often surprised Knight with their results.

The key takeaway here is that micromanagement often results in demoralized and frustrated employees. Supervision is necessary but only to a certain limit. If someone has strong skill sets and the right attitude then trust them to get the job done.

8. Don't be afraid of a fight

Nike is wildly successful today but it wasn’t an overnight success. Its journey is full of ups and downs. Nike battled with lawsuits and financial struggles for decades. It was on the brink of bankruptcy for nearly two decades. Knight recounts his legal battles with Japanese suppliers, his banks, and even the government. The Nike team never shied away from a fight that they had to win.

Every business has to go through such challenges. There will be good times and there will be tough times too. But the mark of a great leader is his ability to navigate seemingly impossible situations. They are not afraid of the challenges and tackle the issues head on.


9. Competition is healthy

Nike was in constant competition with an already established brand, Adidas. In his memoir, Knight talks about how Adidas kept him on his toes and he was constantly striving to be better than his counterparts.

The key takeaway here is not to be afraid of competition. Competition is a great motivator to succeed. Market competition often leads to innovation and new ideas. It makes you step out of your comfort zone and forces you to step up your game.

10. Ask for help

Knight took a loan from his father to start Blue Ribbon Sports. At a later stage, Nike employee Bob Woodell and his parents lent $8000 to Knight to keep the company afloat in 1970. Knight was not hesitant to ask for help when needed. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs think of asking for help as a sign of defeat.

The valuable lesson here is that enlisting the help of others can help you in growing your network, getting valuable advice and even getting through difficult situations.

The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.

— Phil Knight, Shoe Dog

11. Understand your shortcomings

In his memoir, Knight not only talks about his successes but also of his failures. He talks about his constant struggle to find work-life balance. He acknowledges being an absentee father to his children. He talks about how he would refrain from appreciating his employees or how he wasn’t consistent in responding to his employees’ letters.

The key takeaway here is to accept and understand your shortcomings. We can’t be perfect. We can’t be good at everything. As a leader, it’s important to recognize where you have gaps and subsequently give someone else the opportunity to contribute.

Phil Knight Discusses His New Book 'Shoe Dog'

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Shaloo Walia


Shaloo Walia (author) from India on August 10, 2021:

Do give this book a try...You won't be disappointed.

Shaloo Walia (author) from India on August 10, 2021:

Shoe Dog is definitely worth a read.

Shaloo Walia (author) from India on August 10, 2021:

Glad you enjoyed the videos :)

Shaloo Walia (author) from India on August 10, 2021:

Thank you :)

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on July 28, 2021:

A great review and your review has made me want to read this book. Thank you for sharing the highlights of this book, I enjoyed reading it.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 27, 2021:

Sounds like an interesting read. I just might read this book. Thank you for the excerpts. I appreciate the recommendation about a local man.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 27, 2021:

Thank you for extracting these lessons from Phil Knight's book.I even listened to the two videos in your article. So glad I did. thanks again. You've made my day.

manatita44 from london on July 27, 2021:

Sweet! The competition aspect reminds me of Renaldo and Messi in football. They both need each other.

Glad to see you're back. It looked like Emge had taken over for a while and he is doing a great Job!

Love the qualities you chose and how you expressed them. Peace.

Related Articles