Slam Dunk: 5 Leadership Lessons for CEOs from LeBron James

LeBron James is the King of Cleveland and maybe Greater Ohio, at least for the next year. Bringing home the promised NBA Championship trophy—to a city that suffered without a major sports championship for 52 years—will get you such a coronation.

But behind James’ orchestration of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ dramatic, come-from-behind, 93-89 Game 7 win over the Golden State Warriors with a Finals MVP performance, some deeper leadership lessons lurk. Here are 5.

1. Comebacks can be sweet. For the past several years, one of the most compelling story lines in professional basketball would be whether its best player of the era really would be able to keep his promise and bring a championship to his home-state Cavaliers after he returned to the team in 2014 from the Miami Heat.

And while the Cavaliers were in the finals with the Warriors last year too, it looked for all the world in 2016 as though maybe James’ opportunity to fulfill his boast had passed by him, and Cleveland. That was because a new MVP kid on the block, rainbow-shooting Steph Curry, and the Warriors, had become the league’s dominant force.

But even many long-time James haters had to give him credit for the 2016 series comeback and for making good on his promise with the performance—and leadership exercise—of a lifetime. Some CEOs could agree that the second time around can be a charm, especially when you come back to your old company with the purpose of setting things right and a vision for how to accomplish it.

Think of Bob Iger in his current second stint running Walt Disney, or Myron Ullman, who took back the helm of J.C. Penney a few years ago and made it a viable retailer again. And A.G. Lafley came out of retirement to run Procter & Gamble again, better equipping it for a more challenging future.

“Everybody made mistakes for years, but by making them everybody learned, myself, the franchise, coaches, players, LeBron, everybody,” the CEO said. “And now, here we are, only because we learned.”

2. Plan and execute over the long-term. Cavaliers owner and billionaire Rock Financial CEO Dan Gilbert rhetorically torched James for abandoning the Cavaliers and going to Miami. But whether it was always in James’ plans to return to Cleveland or not is academic.

And some argue that he learned what he needed from helping win championships in Miami in 2012 and 2013, with a strong supporting cast, to help James help the Cavaliers get over the hump after he returned. “I knew what I learned [while] I was gone, and I knew if I had to—when I came back—I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been.”

Boeing executive Alan Mulally took a similar long-term approach when he agreed 10 years ago to become CEO of a shaky Ford that was about to head into the Great Recession. But he focused on self-financing the company through the bailout era and on addressing long-term fundamentals that, today, two years after his retirement from the company, Mulally’s legacy is one of the best in the history of the auto industry.

3. Choose your best performances for the most important times. The final game was rightly billed as a showdown between James and Curry, each of whom had shined at times during the previous six games in the series. But while Curry faltered and faded a bit under the most intense spotlight of his career, James famously rose to the occasion. The tighter the game got, the more brilliantly he came through. The Block and The Freethrow now are etched in NBA lore. “I came back for a reason,” James said. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing.”

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has come through similarly successfully over the last few years, helming the company’s continued diversification and helping it negotiate the difficult better-for-you era in foods and beverages. One way Nooyi has done so is to tether the company’s future to other brands and products than the flagship Pepsi franchise, which has proven to be the right decision as sugary drinks became vilified. Yet she also heeded calls to boost marketing of the Pepsi brand when it was flagging.

4. Don’t make a promise you can’t keep. James never faltered in promising to bring a title to the championship-starved team and city. And in the end, he came through on his vow. That vaulted him from being considered simply one of the best basketball players of all time to strong consideration as the best of all time. “There will still be naysayers, but I know it doesn’t matter to him,” said Cavs teammate Kyrie Irving. “All that matters is we’re champions, and our whole team is etched in history.”

James braggadocio in advance of the title is reminiscent of the bold and far-flung promises of tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, who among other things has vowed to take over the global electric-vehicle market and to send humans to Mars within a few years. But there are two big differences between James and Musk. First, Musk still has a lot to prove when it comes to his biggest promises. And, second, Musk has been pretty bad at keeping some important promises so far, such as when he’s going to bring out new Tesla models.

5. Don’t assume a burnt bridge can’t be rebuilt. James and Gilbert went through one of sports’ messiest divorces after the star bolted the Cavs in free agency for the Heat in 2010. Gilbert responded with an incendiary email which called James’ move a “cowardly betrayal” and in which he promised the Cavaliers would win a championship before James anyway. When James wanted to return in 2013, both men knew that nothing short of a championship would completely heal such a wide rift.

So after his James-led team won its first championship, Gilbert iterated exactly that lesson. “Everybody made mistakes for years, but by making them everybody learned, myself, the franchise, coaches, players, LeBron, everybody,” the CEO said. “And now, here we are, only because we learned.”




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