Culture matters. Culture can change the world. Stephen Curry and his Golden State Warriors teammates prove this point, just like Joe Montana and Buster Posey proved it with the San Francisco 49ers and the San Francisco Giants. They are three exceptional leaders who changed the cultures of their teams and made them champions.
Stephen Curry electrifies crowds with his unparalleled ability to shoot a basketball from distances few players ever attempted before him. The Warriors won the Golden Ticket when they drafted this undersized guard from Davidson University. As a lifelong fan of college basketball, I watched Curry take his Davidson team to the brink of the Final Four with outside shooting comparable to David bringing down Goliath. When Steph has the ball, anything can happen and it often does.
As a 49ers season ticket holder for over 25 years, I watched Joe Montana electrify 60,000-plus fans at Candlestick Park on a regular basis. He brought home four Super Bowl trophies to a franchise that had never even played in a Super Bowl before Joe changed their destiny. You were never out of a game when Joe Cool was your quarterback.
I also was fortunate, as an overall sports fanatic, to watch the entire baseball career of Buster Posey, whose quiet leadership, intelligence, and timely hitting brought home three World Series trophies. When he assessed a batter in the batter’s box and called the next pitch, he was almost always right on the mark. Buster’s abilities shined most brightly in the playoffs, just like Steph and Joe.
Between the three of them, they have won 11 world championships. And counting. Because Steph is not done yet. From my perspective, here’s how their championship DNA changed the cultures of their teams.
Steph, Joe, and Buster play the game with joy. They welcome the pressure of win or go home games. They love to compete at the highest level. All three are unselfish. They make everyone around them better, both by supporting them and holding them accountable. They have had the benefit of stellar leadership from their head coaches or managers: Steve Kerr, Bill Walsh, and Bruce Bochy. They have talented teammates who complement their skills: Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner.
But most importantly, all three of these champions set the tone and built the culture around them. In doing so, each one took teams that had rarely even competed in the playoffs into the stratosphere of multiple titles.
Steve Kerr says the culture of the Warriors starts with Steph. He shifts the gravity in every game he plays because defenders have to commit to stopping him first. But as shown in this year’s playoffs, Steph can find different ways to beat you if you try to take away his shot. He will pass to teammates for uncontested shots, he will rebound like a 6’8” forward, he will defend tenaciously and turn you over. Steph has reached the highest pinnacle in his sport by improving every year in every phase of the game.
Bill Walsh brought out the best in Joe Montana and vice-versa. Joe learned to read the field and pass the ball in stride to teammates who could maximize yardage on every play. His ball fakes consistently froze defenses and got his guys open. His ability to scramble, either to buy time for his receivers or dash for a first down, continually kept drives alive and resulted in touchdowns. He could bring his team back from any deficit and he never threw an interception in a Super Bowl.
No catcher ever managed a postseason pitching staff better than Buster. Statistics support this fact. Giants pitchers threw shutouts in nearly 25% of postseason games when Buster was calling the pitches. The next highest percentage for any other postseason catcher is about 10% for Yogi Berra and Yadier Molina. In addition, if Buster came up to the plate with the game on the line, he repeatedly came through with a home run, a hit, a sacrifice. Whatever it took to win.
I believe in karma. You reap what you sow. Steph plays with killer instincts and joy. Joe played with precision and joy. Buster exuded confidence and joy. All three welcomed the challenge of competition at the highest level and climbed to the mountaintop time after time, reaping the joy they sowed.
They did not do so with physically dominant athleticism (although each of them has exceptional athletic skills). They did so with unselfish play, making their teammates better, and humility. In post-game interviews, they always share credit with their coaches, teammates, owners. They each have a great sense of humor and appreciation for their opponents. They love the game. They endured and overcame the heartbreak of postseason lessons (and difficult injuries) to become better than ever.
What does all of this mean to our lives, to how we live, to the people we work with? It means we can all change the culture in our lives. We can lead with humility. We can strive to excel and work hard to hone our craft. We can love and support the people around us, to make them better. We can keep calm when storm clouds thunder on the horizon. We can play the game, knowing you do not always win. But you always play with integrity, and you always welcome the challenge.
The Bay Area has been blessed to experience culture-changing leadership from Steph, Joe, and Buster. They are more than athletes who come through in the clutch. They are people who work hard and show us that championship DNA comes from the way you live, the way you treat other people, the way you respect the game.
Thank you, Steph. Thank you, Joe. Thank you, Buster. For being true to yourselves, for showing us the way to lead, for living your lives with joy. For showing us how one person can change the culture.