LeBron James is good for the NBA and the game of basketball. With style, sizzle and a lunch-bucket work ethic, LeBron of the Cleveland Cavaliers is an upbeat spokesman for the league. He plays hard on the court, but disappears off it except when he’s serving as a celebrity pitchman. For a twenty-two year old he leads a quiet life – away from the glitterati.
That quietness is reflected in his play; he is an unselfish player who is willing to dish the ball to teammates so they can score. In game one of the Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons, he passed to an open player for the game winning shot. The player missed and LeBron took the heat. Four games later, LeBron let his play doing the talking. He score 25 consecutive points and 29 of the Cavs’ last thirty. In those two plays, you saw the two sides. In dishing, he is Magic Johnson. In scoring, he is Michael Jordan. In fact, Magic Johnson himself said as much to the New York Times. “He’s much like me when he controls the game… He’s more like Jordan when he goes into the scoring mode and takes it to the basket with all the fantastic moves… He’s more into controlling the game than he is dominating it with scoring.” Author John Feinstein perhaps put it better by saying on NPR’s Morning Editionthat LeBron James is the first LeBron James.
LeBron is also something else – a role model for managers. What can a kid who plays a game teach a manager who rides a desk? Plenty. Here are three lessons.
Lead by example. LeBron plays basketball as a team game. He knows what must be done, but he is a playmaker. In high school, LeBron revealed something about his character that is not often seen at that level. He shared the ball. So often, it is said, that when a teammate came off the bench, LeBron would give him the ball. One, to get him into the flow of the game. Two, to let him score. The net result is that LeBron makes the players on his team better. That seems to be a lost art in today’s NBA celebrity-thon. LeBron is team. A manager’s real job is to enable people to succeed, that is, to give them the resources and authority they need to do the job. Supervise, yes, but not micromanage. Let them score themselves.
Do what it takes. By nature, LeBron is a team first guy. But, as he revealed in the Eastern Conference Finals, he can step up to the challenge and take over the game. He exerted his abilities. With his big body, he muscled himself to the basket and scored basket after basket. His teammates stood back and let him do the work. They knew, as LeBron did, that if they were to win, LeBron had to be the man. Same applies to managers. While managers are hired to put people and systems together, sometimes they need to get their hands dirty and do the heavy lifting.
Live your values. As a teenager, LeBron James became a multi-millionaire, signing a deal with Nike that would eventually earn him over 100 million dollars. Yet money does not seem to matter that much, and that is remarkable given his less than privileged background. His father abandoned him and his mother was not always a constant presence. It seems, however, lessons learned in Catholic high school rubbed off. He had a good coach and a strong academic counselor. No scandals. No dust-ups. No fouls. He’s building a mega-mansion, sure, but he’s not clubbing the night away, dissipating his talents the way that superstars going back to Babe Ruth have done. Managerial temptations may not rival the NBA-style titillations, but managers still must keep their heads screwed on straight when it comes to sharing the limelight. Managers who acknowledge the efforts of their team are those that build a winning organization.
If, as expected the San Antonio Spurs beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, it will not be a loss for LeBron. It will simply mark the next step in his progression. Eventually, when Cleveland’s management surrounds him with better players, LeBron will win a title, maybe more. But don’t expect titles to change his style; he will earn the championship ring the way he does everything on the court. As a team. And that’s not a bad lesson for any manager!
Howard Beck “Ready for N.B.A. Throne, but Not Like Mike” New York Times 6.06.07; Interview with John Feinstein Morning Edition NPR 6.07.07