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Five leadership lessons from Lebron James' LeBacle

Recently, NBA's free agent period began, where athletes whose contracts had expired were free to explore their options with other teams. This year's free agent crop was arguably the best in the history of the league and has been widely discussed for the past three years. Household names such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amare Staudemire all shopped for new employers, and enjoyed being wined by the teams that desperately wanted their services.

The manner in which events played out were, in some ways, shocking. The fiasco also provided unexpected insight into leadership from both the athletes and the owners and general managers that were recruiting them. To follow are five of the most salient lessons:

1) Know your audience

Pat Riley, GM for the Miami Heat, deserves a lot of credit for netting the top three free agents on the market in Wade, Bosh, and James. He convinced each of these superstars to take less money than he could have made in other cities. But how did he do it? The New York Knicks presentation to James focused largely on James' brand and potential earnings. The Nets sold James on being a billionaire. It appears that only Riley found out what James really wanted - to play with his friends and win championships. And Riley was successful in selling that vision to James.

2) Treat your former employees well

Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cavaliers, was understandably frustrated once James made his announcement to play for the Miami Heat. After all, the Cleveland franchise lost roughly $200 million in value with James' departure. Shortly after James went public with his decision, Gilbert blasted his former employee in a personal letter to Cleveland fans calling James' actions "narcissistic," "cowardly," "heartless," and "callous." In interviews, Gilbert called out James for quitting in the playoffs. To top it all off, Gilbert, also the owner of online retailer Fathead.com, dropped the price of a LeBron James Fathead from $100 to $17.41, which happens to be the year that Benedict Arnold was born. While this may have been emotionally satisfying, Gilbert may find it more difficult in the future to recruit players to the small-market Cavaliers.

3) What's your plan for success? Build vs. Buy

At 21, Kevin Durant is the youngest player in league history with a scoring title. Going largely unnoticed in the free-agent signing frenzy, Durant re-signed with the small-market Oklahoma City Thunder. His announcement was sent via twitter, a grammatically incorrect short burst of thanks for the opportunity to keep growing with his team. Where the Miami Heat are looking to buy a title with players in their prime, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a study in contrast, as they are going through the long process of building a championship caliber team through developing young players like Durant. While neither method is necessarily better, it will be interesting to see which approach is more effective.

4) Talent and leadership are different

While LeBron is the player who is most recognizable and has the highest ceiling as a player, Dwyane Wade emerged from the free agent frenzy as the leader. He managed to convince his two friends, Chris Bosh and LeBron James, to join him in South Beach to form the core of a potentially dominant team for years to come. Wade is a unique talent and already has a championship ring, but no one would argue that James is more talented. The mistake is to assume that because LeBron has more basketball talent, he is the leader. A similar error is commonly made in business: we promote the person who is best at her job to manager, only to find that the talents that led to her success are much different than the talents required to lead others. In this new Heat trio, both past performances and the fact that James and Bosh uprooted their lives for Miami indicate that Wade is the leader.

5) Yes-men are damaging

Lebron James orchestrated an hour-long special on ESPN entitled 'The Decision.' James was trying to increase his own brand exposure and promote his marketing company. However, the production came off as narcissistic - and James even spoke in the third person five times. While his business team may have planned the event, the buck stops with LeBron. The way he announced his decision revealed that James has surrounded himself with people that tell him what he wants to hear. He has insulated himself from the truth. Someone in his inner circle should have told James how a production like this was going to be perceived - by both his hometown of Cleveland and other NBA fans. Even though over 10 million people watched, ESPN's Bill Simmons called the whole production a "Lebacle." The irony is that James damaged his brand and his appeal to NBA fans outside of South Beach.

It will be interesting to see how these recent decisions alter the NBA landscape in the years to come. Time will tell whether Miami's gamble pays off, if LeBron can rebuild his image, and whether the league will become stronger as a result of these moves.

Have idea for what we should write about next? Be in touch at info@menoconsulting.com or visit us at Meno Consulting.

By Joe Frontiera  |  July 13, 2010; 12:49 PM ET  | Category:  Pop Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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What did the ownership in Cleveland do to help Lebron? After 7 years they bring in an aging dinosaur, SHAQ!! Name two other players on Clevelands team? Betcha can't? They are totally sub-par and insignificant players. Lebron made this franchise, owner, and it's City, tons of money. He got nothing in return. He was a model citizen and sportsman. Some of you smucks are full of yourselves and arrogant enough to think you have the high ground on character. But you're just pompous and un-objective with short memories.

Posted by: minco_007 | July 13, 2010 9:01 PM

If this were a standard business, this article is on point. But this is the sports world, and drama sells just as big here as it does in Hollywood. PBS did a piece on the Lebron James’ “brand” in the Nightly Business Report on July 9th. This is what Tom Zara says from Interbrand

"Of all the analysis we have done in this area, the single most important increment in his brand value will be his ability to win a championship. It has dogged him for the last seven years; he has not achieved that in Cleveland. His expectation is that moving to Miami will bring that sooner than later, and his brand has now created an expectation that it will happen."

Lebron thinks he has a better chance of winning a title in Miami. By winning a championship, his brand value will increase at least 40%. I know some people don't think he will win, but if he does, it's a big boon to his brand image.

People criticize his "Decision 2010," but the fact is it created TONS of press. Everyone who didn't already know the Lebron James name now knows it. And even though the press is negative in the short term, if the sports world has taught us anything, it's that Championships makes everything A-OK. Kobe Bryant? Sexual Assault is forgotten with a Championship. Ben Rothesburger? Sexual Assault is forgotten with a Championship (of course he has to win another one now because he's been accused of sexual assault TWICE!). Alex Rodriguez? All trangressions are forgotten with a ring. In sports, your legacy is Championships. Lebron knows it.

The whole world knows his name; his brand will skyrocket if he wins a championship, and eveyone will forget the negative things they once said.

Posted by: FastLane619 | July 13, 2010 4:03 PM

You've made a common error, but being early in this new LeBron era, it's forgivable. That is, the notion that Wade is the leader. Make no mistake, it ceased to be Wade's team last Thursday night. The largest, most gifted, charismatic basketball talent on the planet is LeBron James. Oh, he'll be inclusive, generous, at times even deferential to Dwyane, but even he couldn't prevent the transference of leadership to himself if he wanted to. LeBron dominates whatever room he is in, be it the locker room or whatever arena he is in. You'll know this to be true when the Heat jump from 47 to 60+ wins, and at least an Eastern Conference Championship, to say nothing of whom the players look to, and the city falls all over itself in hero-worship. Ticket sales will jump in price, and from 90% capacity to sold out overnite. Stars will show up in the front row nightly. And LeBron will do his best to share the limelight with Dwyane and Chris, and even the Dolphins, Marlins and 'Canes. But fear not, his will be a benevolent reign. Miami, have fun. LeBron James is your new king.

Posted by: rayj1 | July 13, 2010 3:28 PM

Right on with this article. Bravo! But Lebron and crew/court better slow down on expectations. The last person to do that has been abused and abandoned and I think his name is Obama. I feel like people are think that LeBron should have done what was good for them, rather than LeBron, almost as if LeBron is a computer-simulated player which follows every command my joystick gives. Dan Gilbert's letter was revealing too, check this story out


Posted by: republicanblack | July 13, 2010 1:50 PM

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