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Personal Branding: What Can We Learn From LeBron?

Even if you are not a sports fan, it is highly likely that you have heard the buzz surrounding LeBron James as the NBA playoffs wrapped up earlier this month. He has been a dominant topic of conversation for several months now—and not for the reasons that he would prefer. In case you haven't heard, he made headlines last summer when he announced that he was leaving his previous team in Cleveland and heading to Miami to join the Heat. Unfortunately for him, after making his announcement and in the months to follow, he was transformed from a likeable and talented player in the public's eye to Public Enemy Number One. Where did he go wrong, and what can we learn from his mistakes as they relate to personal branding?

1) Don't always deliver bad news in public. If your press release or announcement can hurt or embarrass someone, the wise thing is to take the high road and not call attention to it yourself. Last summer, rather than informing the Cleveland Cavaliers that he would not be returning to their team, he went on live TV to publicly announce the decision. Cleveland's management was humiliated and their fans were heartbroken. Simply by handling his announcement more tactfully, LeBron may have spared himself national scorn. This principle is very relevant to business as well—whether it is laying off an employee or ending a business relationship, always do your best to spare the other party embarrassment. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also keeps you from looking bad in public.

2) Don't appear arrogant. LeBron James has been a star since high school, and has good reason to be confident. Unfortunately, thrust into the national spotlight after his decision to join Miami, his confidence began to look like arrogance. In a preseason rally he predicted multiple championships and stated that winning games would be "easy." The fact that he refers to himself as "King James" doesn't exactly scream humility, either. In America, we appreciate confidence and we love to watch talented individuals work, in sports or in business, but arrogance rubs us the wrong way. You want to be seen as an expert in your field, but there is a fine line and when you cross over from confidence to arrogant, you will lose more than you gain. You want to be considered humble, open, and teachable.

3) Don't let others define you. Perhaps the biggest single mistake LeBron made was letting the media and his critics define his brand. After his announcement on live TV that he was leaving Cleveland, LeBron could have immediately apologized for embarrassing Cleveland. After he predicted multiple championships, he could have made a statement explaining that he was excited and got carried away. Instead, he largely remained silent—allowing his critics to portray him as arrogant and out of touch. This happens often with media that control your sound bites. If what is being conveyed isn't accurate, be quick to correct it.

4) Surround yourself with talented advisors and confidants. A major factor in the fall from grace that LeBron experienced over the last year appears to be his lack of good advice. While experienced PR professionals could have stopped LeBron before it was too late, he prefers to surround himself with personal friends and family members. There's nothing wrong with involving friends and family in important decisions, of course, but it's essential to seek out experienced professionals before making big decisions—in any line of work.

In the scheme of things, LeBron James will be just fine. He's incredibly talented, not to mention wealthy. However, the level of public criticism he received this year had to take a painful toll on him. While very few of us will ever command his level of attention, we can all learn from his mistakes and apply them to our own branding efforts.

JW Dicks (@jwdicks) & Nick Nanton (@nicknanton) are best-selling authors that consult for small- and medium-sized businesses on how to build their business through Personality Driven Marketing, Personal Brand Positioning, Guaranteed Media, and Mining Hidden Business Assets. They offer free articles, white papers, and case studies at their Web site. Jack and Nick have been featured inThe New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Newsweek,, and many more media outlets.