Over the last few weeks, fans of the NBA, and sports fans in general, have been eagerly awaiting the news of where LeBron James will be playing basketball next season. He chose to opt-out of his contract with the Miami Heat at the conclusion of this past season, and speculation has run rampant about whether he would stay in Miami or return to the Cleveland Cavaliers where he began his career 11 years ago, drafted #1 into the NBA as a 19 year-old kid just out of high school. Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few days, you know the decision: LeBron is going home to Cleveland.
James’ decision to return to Cleveland, presumably where he will finish his career, presents some interesting leadership lessons:
1. Move from success to significance – LeBron James left Cleveland 4 years ago in pursuit of success and he found it in Miami, winning 2 NBA titles and 2 league MVP’s. Despite that success, something was missing: significance. In his book, Halftime: Moving From Success to Significance, Bob Buford says at some point in life (often around middle age) you will have to transition from the struggle for success to the quest for significance. We spend the first half of our life striving to earn more money, get a better title, or gain more possessions. Despite our success, we begin to question the lasting value of our accomplishments and our desires turn toward wanting to leave a lasting legacy. James recognizes this is his opportunity for significance. It’s his chance to influence other players, the city, and the state. James said, “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.” The transition from success to significance also involves the identification of what brings you true joy and happiness. James said it simply about why he is returning to Cleveland: “This is what makes me happy.”
2. Serve others and something greater than yourself – Part of moving from leadership success to significance is realizing leadership is not about you; it’s about the people you influence. LeBron James has grown to realize this truth. He said, “I know that 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.” Leadership is more than a job; it’s a calling. It’s a sacred opportunity to help other people grow into their full potential and achieve more than they could on their own. James said, “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.”
3. Leadership wisdom involves learning the lessons of past experiences – When LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland four years ago, he made the announcement in an over-hyped ESPN television special called “The Decision.” He announced that he was “taking his talents” to South Beach to play for the Miami Heat. People in Cleveland burned his jersey in effigy, called him a traitor (and much worse), and the owner of the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, wrote a scathing letter to the public where he described James as “narcissistic” and his decision to leave a “cowardly betrayal.” James has learned from his experiences and grown as a person and a leader. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently,” he said. “These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. Without the experiences I had there (Miami), I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.” LeBron has also learned that leadership wisdom involves recognizing the mistakes you make and working to repair them. Regarding his relationship with Gilbert he said, “I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
LeBron James entered the NBA with ridiculously high expectations, as evidenced by the moniker assigned him: The Chosen One. Being born in Akron, OH, he was Cleveland’s native son, the savior of the franchise, and heir-apparent to Michael Jordan as the world’s greatest basketball player. In spite of the unreal expectations placed on him and the inevitable bumps in the road he’s experienced, James has seemed to grow into a more self-assured leader who has gained clarity on his purpose on and off the court. That’s a worthy goal for leaders everywhere.