Leadership Lessons from LeBron

Today, LeBron James is arguably the best basketball player in the NBA.  He is the King of Cleveland, at least for the next year for bringing home a promised NBA championship, to a city that has suffered without a major sports champ for 52 years after the Browns took the last championship in 1964.  But behind James’ architecture of the dramatic come-from-behind win over Golden State in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and also a Finals MVP, lies some leadership lessons.

Leaders cast a vision.  LeBron gave an interview to Sports Illustrated when he announced he was coming home to Cleveland.  He has already won 2 championships with the Miami Heat and had 4 MVPs under his belt.  But he cast a vision for what he would bring to his home state.  He said, “Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.” 

LeBron threw out a vision for where the team would be.  He was also very realistic in recognizing where his team was in July 2014 when he rejoined the Cavaliers.  He recognized he had a young team and young coach.  But the team will never reach the pinnacle, unless the leader is able to cast a vision and then say that he knows the way to get there.  Another example that comes to mind is Russell Wilson, the young quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, who his team believe “why can’t we be the champions?” on their way to their first Superbowl victory. 

Leaders take responsibility.  In the SI interview, James stated, “I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys.”  LeBron recognized his position as a leader and accepted the mantle.  He worked to develop those around him and poured efforts into young players like Kyrie Irving and Tristin Thompson, to develop them into stars.  He also worked with new veterans who joined the team to provide more leadership around him.

But he recognized his responsibility went beyond the court, it was also to the community.  The SI interview quoted James, “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”  Leaders not only take responsibility for their team, but they also realize their position in the industry and community. 

Leaders set the work ethic.  If you have a lazy team, you will probably have a lazy leader.  LeBron recognized the challenge by coming back to Cleveland.  He said, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.  I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”  The leader has to be willing to be the one to come in early, stay late, and work hours that may require sacrifice of personal comforts.  Additionally, those who want to be a leader need to show the same work ethic.

Leaders plan and execute over the long term.  James recognized in 2014 that they were not ready as a team to win in that year.  But he was committed to working to put the right pieces together to capture as many championships for Cleveland as possible.  James’ focus was not to have a one-trick pony that would win one and then not be able to reach the pinnacle again.   His goal was to build a base for excellent basketball year after year.  Even after their stunning victory in the finals, the Cavs are still recognized as the best team in the East and as a favorite to make it to the top again.

Leaders learn from mistakes.  John Maxwell calls this “failing forward.”  Winston Churchill once commented success was going from failure to failure with great enthusiasm.  But as you reach those failures, you learn from each of them and use those skills to be better.  Maxwell has a book titled Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn.  That attitude can make the world of difference with being successful in life.

The owner of the Cavs, billionaire Rock Financial CEO Dan Gilbert, and James had a publically vile relationship when James left for Miami.  He called his move a betrayal.  But James learned valuable skills as he helped the Heat win championships in 2012 and 2013.  Some of these lessons helped mature James into the leader that he is today.  After the nets were cut down, Gilbert said, “Everybody made mistakes for years, but by making them everybody learned, myself, the franchise, coaches, players, LeBron, everybody.  And now, here we are, only because we learned.”