What LeBron James Gets About Leading in Adversity

Both the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers and their opponents in the 2016 NBA finals, the Golden State Warriors, are extraordinary professional basketball teams. 

But on Thursday, June 16, the Cavaliers became only the third team in history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals to force a seventh game in the series. Clearly, Cavaliers star LeBron James is central to their performance. They’re one win away from taking the championship, but even if they don’t win, there are some interesting insights we can take away from how James has led his team in the midst of adversity.

Most of the time, we have little insight into what happens behind the scenes within professional sports teams. Or when we do, it might be well after the fact, from memoirs of players, coaches or confidants. 

The case of the 2016 Cavaliers is different. 

That’s because we have a compelling data point—an insider’s account—via Richard Jefferson, a 15-year NBA veteran and one of James’s teammates on the Cavaliers. It comes in the form of an essay he released just hours prior to the team defeating the Warriors in Game 6. The essay is titled, “Who We Are,” and you can read it on The Players Tribune

Jefferson’s essay contains many simple, humanizing elements about the Cavaliers. Simply thinking about a player like Jefferson going through a Starbucks drive-through or learning how to use Snapchat brings him and the team back down to earth. 

But what I found particularly compelling is Jefferson’s account of a dinner that James hosted at his home just after the season ended, as the team was getting ready to begin the playoffs. As Jefferson wrote,

The change really took off at a dinner at LeBron’s house right before the first round.

We were 15 guys sitting around his big dining room table. In the middle of the meal, he stood up and addressed each guy in the room. He pointed out something that each player brought to the team, and explained how it was going to be vital if we wanted to win a championship. And he gave each one of us a memento, a little gift. I won’t share what exactly it was because it was a team thing. But it wasn’t anything big. I think it just struck us all in that moment how special a position we were in. Bron was saying to us, ‘We can only do this if we do it together. That’s all that matters.’ He’s won championships before. We wanted to listen.

From what Jefferson describes, James clearly is more than a great basketball player in terms of individual ability and skill. He brings an element of confidence and humility to the Cavaliers that has made them come together as a team. Specifically, in this one instance in the middle of one particular dinner, he:

  • Clearly identified each person’s unique abilities and talents,
  • Made each person feel needed and appreciated, and
  • Emphasized the connection between each person and the team’s overarching goal.

Part of leading in adversity is inspiring every member of the team to contribute beyond what he or she thinks is possible. And as James illustrates in this story, one powerful way to do that is to look each person in the eye and authentically tell him or her (a) why he or she matters to the success of the team and (b) how his or her effort fits into the team’s objective.

On top of this, James generates confidence because—as Jefferson noted—regarding championships, he’s been there and done that. And he’s willing to take the risks associated with leading the team, win or lose.

In Jefferson’s words:

I don’t care if you’re a LeBron ‘fan,’ or not, I have seen it: Bron has something I’ve never seen. The way he says ‘follow me and I’ll take you there’ with actions, more than words, is like no one else I’ve ever played with. He’s the kind of leader who makes you want to carry the weight too. I feel indebted to him. We all do.

Outside of sports and various times in the military, it’s hard for me to think of more than a handful of instances in which I was fortunate to be on a team with an inspirational leader. But I think there are some simple things that leaders everywhere can do to create this type of inspiring atmosphere. These may sound like “common sense”—whatever that is—but I disagree. If they were common sense, they would be more common. 

  • First, leaders must know what their people actually do in their work.
  • Second, leaders must know what their team members care about—their values, their goals, what inspires them. 
  • Third, leaders must clearly identify the team’s objective. 
  • Fourth, leaders must look their people in the eye—frequently—and tell them specifically what they appreciate about their contributions, how they care about their well-being and how what they do fits into the bigger picture. 
  • Fifth, leaders must be humble enough to listen to their people for feedback and follow any recommendations they have that will contribute to the team’s overall success. 

Chances are that none of us will ever be on a world-class level sports team. But we all live in a world filled with adversity. And we all have the chance to exercise leadership, some sort of positive influence, on our coworkers, our friends and even within our families. 

So sometime soon—today or tomorrow, perhaps—maybe we could all take a cue from LeBron James and recognize the people around us for their gifts, their talents and their efforts. If we all actually did that, I think we’d all be a little better off in this turbulent, crazy world. 

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.