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.
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July 13, 2010; 12:49 PM ET
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