The NBA Finals is over, and we have a new champion. Living in the San Francisco Bay area, my loyalties were firmly behind the Golden State Warriors, but the Cleveland Cavaliers earned this title and deserve our full appreciation.
In the midst of the Finals, I praised Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s leadership style, and it seems only fair now to give LeBron his due and see what lessons we can take away from his feats. If Kerr exemplifies one flavor of low-key coaching, LeBron shows how to harness the raw materials of a bold, brash and talented youth and develop them into powerful leadership qualities that command respect.
We all know LeBron’s story. A native son of Cleveland, he turned his back on his hometown in 2010 and declared his intention to join the Miami Heat in a much-criticized announcement on ESPN. He won two championships in Miami and could have ruled there as long as he wanted. Instead, King James returned to Cleveland in 2014 with a promise to bring the beleaguered city its own NBA trophy.
LeBron could have marched into town with a conqueror's bravado, but something had happened while he was away. He grew up. The braggadocio of the “man-child” had been replaced with a more focused intensity and determination to do things differently this time. In this way, LeBron reminds me a lot of tennis pro Andre Agassi, another flashy hotshot who soared early on, outgrew his immature ways, and subsequently took his talents to even greater heights later in his career.
At 31, LeBron’s been in the NBA for 13 seasons. He’s an elder statesmen among 20-somethings, using the hard lessons he’s learned to shape his younger teammates into a winning unit. And this is where we can take cues from LeBron and apply them to our careers.
1. It’s not over 'til it’s over.
After Cleveland lost Game 1 and failed to regain their form in Game 2, sports analysts told us to stick a fork in the Cavs. So, imagine the baggage they carried into Game 7: Cleveland’s drought of pro sports championships, the assumption the Warriors would cap their record-breaking season with a win and the steep climb of coming back from 1-3 that had never been done before. It would’ve been easy for LeBron to let those thoughts infect his resolve. But nothing silences critics better than success, and LeBron used what the doubters said to push harder to prove them wrong.
If your business is attracting critiques and commentary, it means you’ve achieved a certain stature. Instead of wasting energy on them, shut down the critics by sticking to your principles and following through on your plans.
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2. Tap into a personal passion.
Being a Cleveland native son infused LeBron’s return to the city and quest for a Cavs title with extra meaning. LeBron had tasted championship victory in Miami, but you can tell this win is extra-special. LeBron felt real empathy for poor Cleveland fans and their city’s “curse” of having no professional sports champs since 1964. He invited all of the attention and pressure on himself by promising Cleveland he’d bring the trophy home. In business, it’s also important to have a mission that gives your work purpose and reminds you who’s counting on you to deliver.
3. Recognize when to change your game plan.
Cleveland’s Game 7 win has been called the “most unlikely comeback the NBA has ever seen.” but they reviewed their playbook and came up with a Game 7 strategy that righted the ship. As CEO of a startup, I know first-hand how important it is to be able to solve problems, act quickly, and shift your company’s direction in response to changing conditions. Past performance is no guarantee of future success, as the Warriors found out.
4. You can’t do it alone.
No matter how dominant you are, without reliable teammates you will not reach ambitious goals. LeBron was named MVP, but “Mr. Fourth Quarter” Kyrie Irving is being widely hailed as a Game 7 hero. In fact, LeBron had Irving on his mind when he considered returning to Cleveland. he recognized Kyrie’s talent and potential, and knew he’d need to assemble a tight, productive unit if he were to make good on his promise of NBA glory. It’s the same in the workplace. Individual strengths need to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
5. Have a vision for your legacy.
Each step in your journey should ultimately align with your goal. When LeBron shared his decision to return to the Cavs, people were understandably skeptical. Some considered his motives dubious, but those Miami Heat wins weren’t enough. LeBron had a bigger vision of what he hoped to accomplish and wouldn’t be satisfied without winning it all for Cleveland.
Business leaders need a long view for themselves and their companies as well. The route may shift along the way, but without a clear North Star guiding your path, you’re unlikely to reach your ultimate destination.The Warriors, instead of winning two Finals in a row, will spend the off-season learning from this series. That’s what effective teams do after suffering a setback. They don’t blame others or look for excuses. They buckle down and get back on track. Congratulations to LeBron, the Cavaliers, and the people of Cleveland… but we’ll be back next year.