This week, I spent my first night in a hotel room since moving to NYC nine years ago. ESPN held its first-ever, and seemingly first-annual, women’s leadership conference at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. For a day and a half, I sat with appproximately 400 women (four of whom were my co-workers at The Magazine) and listened to lectures on how to be a better, more effective leader. I found a couple of the speakers compelling, interesting and useful. The others, I felt, were doing little more than promoting whatever book or theory they had published recently.
While drifting off during one of these lectures, I started thinking about whether or not a person can become a leader simply by putting these tools and theories into practice. Of course, I believe anyone can improve their leadership ability with practice and hard work. But I can’t remember meeting someone in a position of leadership (which I believe is distinctly different from being in a position of power) who says they haven’t been a leader all their life. Usually, these were the same folks leading their Pop Warner football team to a state title, running for student council or playing social coordinator for their friends as adults. So is it possible, then, for leaders to be bred, and not born, into the role? (Sorry for the Carrie Bradshaw moment. Guess I’m psyched about the movie.)
At the end of the lecture, I had to duck out of the conference for an interview. I was meeting NBA star Emeka Okafor, who is spending the summer in NYC, for a piece that will run in mid-June, in our annual Athlete’s Issue. Emeka’s parents are natives of Nigeria and came to the U.S. after high school. At 8, his parents took him on his first trip to visit their home country. He traveled to Nigeria again in high school and, most recently, he visited last summer. He says each time, as he matured, the visits changed. What he saw was the same, but what he understood was much greater.
Emeka is now working with an organization called One Million African Lives, which hopes to distribute one million testing kits, at $15 a piece, to test the blood supply for HIV before transfusing it to the sick. He has donated his own money, convinced other professional athletes to do the same, and is hoping his affiliation with the organization will increase awareness of this devastating problem killing hundreds of thousands of Africans each year.
In college, Emeka was a leader in the classroom, graduating in three years, and a leader on the court, as a star player for UConn’s basketball team. That title followed him to the NBA, where he was voted the 2004-2005 Rookie of the Year. And it is the first adjective that comes to my mind upon meeting him. So I asked him at what point in his life he felt compelled to be a leader. When did he begin developing his leadership skills and what does he do to improve upon them?
He had a hard time answering the question. At first, I think, out of modesty. And then, I think, because the question was worded in a way that made it difficult for him to answer—I’d asked him when he learned to be a leader. “I don’t know,” he said, finally. “I think it’s just who I am.”
I think so, too.