It all started in 1917. Charles Hollis Taylor bought a new pair of basketball shoes for his games at Columbus High School. They were called Converse All Stars, and he was in love. Chuck wore them at every practice and every game. And he kept wearing them when he joined the Firestone Non-Skids in 1920, a local industrial basketball team.
Chuck Taylor was mediocre at best. He didn’t see much playing time and his stats were low. But there was one game against Goodyear. It was the Akron Industrial League Championship, and there were two seconds left on the clock. Chuck had the ball behind the half court line, and with no other option, he launched it as hard as he could. Somehow, it went in.
Those were Chuck Taylor’s only points that game.
The local papers profiled the game-winning shot and the Firestone Newsletter even published a picture. But those would be Chuck’s last clippings from the court. He left the team at the end of the season, and tried to play in Detroit with little luck. So Chuck moved to Chicago.
When he got there, he walked into the Converse sales office with press clippings in hand. Chuck claimed that he was a sports celebrity, and that he could take the company to the next level. Converse hired him that day, and he hit the road in a white Cadillac with a trunk full of shoes. Chuck's idea was to personally connect with coaches and players across America to eventually drive sales. Boy did it.
Chuck Taylor single-handedly made a bad basketball shoe the most famous sneaker in the world.
It’s an incredible story, but what does it mean for us? The real lesson here is not how Chuck Taylor leveraged the power of personal relationships to transform a company, it’s what Converse did in response.
It’s about heroes.
You see, if you’re lucky enough to have a Chuck Taylor on your team—someone who will take your mission to the ends of the earth—it’s important to celebrate them. We know this. Whether it’s a handwritten note from a leader, kudos in a meeting, or a spot bonus, much has been written on how employee recognition increases morale, engagement, and retention (read more on that here). But if we just think about employee recognition in these transactional terms—as something only leaders should do—we are missing a key point.
When we celebrate others, we elevate ourselves.
Every culture in history has its heroes. And whether it’s Franklin, Lincoln, Warhol, Austen, Parks, Dylan, Kennedy, King, Churchill, Gandhi, Springsteen, Earhart, or Aristotle, we celebrate our heroes with words and artifacts. We don’t do it to raise their morale, engagement, or retention. We do it because they represent the best of what we can be.
In fact, our brains actually change when we celebrate heroes. There is a growing body of research in psychology on how the inspiration, meaning, and context that we get from our heroes actually heals, transforms, and connects us (you can read more here). That is, celebrating others make us a better version of ourselves.
Why does this matter for work? Because it means that employee recognition is so much more than just another buzzworthy idea for HR-types. It’s more than something leaders should do to keep their best people happy. It's something that every member of every team should do. Because when we all celebrate the best of what we can be, we become it.
Converse added Chuck Taylor’s signature to the side of the All Star in 1934. It was the only product endorsement for a salesman in history. He was also the only salesman to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. And even though Converse closed the factory in Lumberton, North Carolina, went bankrupt in 2001, and eventually sold to Nike, that signature remains. A tribute to the greatest American salesman. A hero for us all.
We’ll never forget the heroes like you, Chuck Taylor. Thank you.