Photographic Memories: Masai Ujiri on leadership

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, talks with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri as they watch kids from La Loche, Sask., practice at the Raptors practice facility in Toronto on Friday, January 13, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

I’m fascinated by the concept of leadership. What makes a good leader? How do people develop their own leadership styles? Are leaders born leader or is it something than can be taught?

I had a chance to address some of these questions earlier this year when I spent some time with the leader of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri. In some of my allotted time with Ujiri, we talked about his basketball team his Giants of Africa charity and the impact of his personal leadership style on both.

Leaders come from all walks of life, so I decided to show Ujiri photos of various leaders he has interacted with to describe what makes each of them unique.

The result was a perspective on the leadership styles of his personal hero Nelson Mandela, President of Rwanda Paul Kagame, NBA Hall-of-Famer Dikembe Mutombo, San Antonio Spurs president and general manager R.C. Buford, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Drake and last, but not least, his wife Ramatu.

How many people’s offices feature photos with themselves engaging in warm embraces with leaders of three different countries? I’d imagine that list is pretty small, particularly among sports executives.

“To know all these people that you’re putting here, I’m proud,” Ujiri admitted during a break from the rapid fire of famous names I peppered him with.

The truth is there were many more I could have presented him with.

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Below are some of this thoughts on a few of the men we discussed.

Ujiri on Drake:
“Another phenomenal person that I can actually call a friend. It doesn’t have to be in the limelight, it can be here in the gym when he is shooting with his friends. It could be on text. He’s a brother. The one thing, you know, sometimes there is a misconception with Drake. (He) has friends everywhere. Sometimes people ask me, ‘Oh he’s with Golden State, or he’s here or there.’ This guy’s heart is here. You know, like you can tell and he’s been with us, tough times, hard times, you know, like good times. Plus, I can brag around to all the youngsters that Drake is my boy. It gets me a lot of street cred.”

Toronto Raptors; Drake; Drake Night

Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, left, greets rapper Drake at Drake Night. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Ujiri on Justin Trudeau:
“The way he’s been to me, I really do appreciate it. The best thing about Trudeau to me is that he makes anybody that he talks to, or anybody that he interacts with, he makes you feel good about yourself. He makes you feel important. When that happens with a leader, he’s going to find every way to make it good for his people. He’s going to find every single way to make it good for his people, and I think that’s who he is.”

Masai Ujiri hosting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Raptors practice facility.

Masai Ujiri hosting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Raptors practice facility.

Ujiri on Barack Obama:
“That’s my guy. We don’t know how great this man was for us. It will be in a few years, we’ll start to realize it and his legacy will start to shine. What this guy did and the confidence he gave people, the hope he gave people, the life he gave people, to me is not comparable anywhere. I’m very proud to know him and be part of his era.”

President Barack Obama invited the Chicago Cubs to visit him at the White House. (Gerry Broome/AP)

President Barack Obama invited the Chicago Cubs to visit him at the White House. (Gerry Broome/AP)

If Obama isn’t President of the United States perhaps Ujiri is viewed differently and wouldn’t have been considered as a candidate to become the first African born president of a professional sports team. If his wife doesn’t implore him to apply for a Denver Nuggets job he assumed would go to someone else, perhaps he never becomes a GM.

If then NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver doesn’t convince Ujiri he has a future in the NBA, Ujiri admits he wouldn’t have stayed in North America and would have returned to Africa. If not for Mandela, perhaps Ujiri doesn’t have the inspiration to start his Giants of Africa initiative. If Buford doesn’t implore him to maintain his charity work after being named a GM, perhaps that important work goes by the wayside as his day job begins to pull on him more.

Each of these men are leaders in their own right but, all had a hand in helping Ujiri ascend to one of the most coveted leadership positions in Canadian sports.

A good motto is “have a mentor, be a mentor.”

Masai Ujiri is both.