This article was originally posted in Forbes.
I want to congratulate LeBron James, Germany and the San Antonio Spurs on their recent wins -- before they fade from our minds -- and for demonstrating to the world, and each other, how inspirational leadership works and what it takes to build a winning organization -- any organization. This lesson goes far beyond sports; it is, in fact, directly analogous to the journey on which all leaders need to take their organizations to truly compete in today's hyper-connected world as it reshapes our collective operating environment.
It's fitting that LeBron attended the World Cup Final because he seems less intent on playing like the world's greatest player, Lionel Messi, and more like one of the world's greatest teams, the German national soccer team. The humility and respect with which LeBron has recently conducted himself, and the integrity and trust in collaborative discipline with which Germany created its winning soccer culture, have much in common -- and much in common with contemporary business culture.
Both provide powerful examples of how today -- where basic business excellence is more or less a given -- it is ultimately the systematic application of core human values that truly lead to the highest quality teamwork, and which will spell the difference between champions and also-rans in our culture at large. The fact is, good teams have always beaten less good teams. The real lesson is about how, today, adherence to core values is causing teams, and businesses, to excel in ways that are both successful and fundamentally sustainable.
With an assist from sportswriter Lee Jenkins, LeBron explained to the world in a Sports Illustrated manifesto why he -- the greatest living basketball player, the NBA's most valuable free agent and an Ohio native -- was going home, in more ways than one, to northwest Ohio and the Cleveland Cavaliers. His explanation (though no doubt partly based on his assessment of the unlikelihood of winning further championships in Miami) exemplified the inspirational leadership all organizations need today to thrive. Perhaps most important, it showed a leader in his chosen field making a new beginning based on a return to the values of trust, respect, truth and humility that define him. It's a lesson worth noting and well worth imitating by today's business leaders.
Make no mistake about it: LeBron was making an all-important "pivot" move. To pivot, in basketball, is to quite literally plant one's foot on the ground, to make a physical statement of one's presence in a specific location, while at the same time rotating in a new direction to achieve a specific goal. In a sense, this is precisely what LeBron has done; and it is also what today's innovative and successful organizations find themselves forced to do in order to compete at the very highest levels. It is to ground one's self in one's beliefs, convictions and values while re-imagining a new direction that adapts to an ever-changing world. And it entails the sort of risk-taking that is always involved in moving in a radically new direction; after all, we only have the freedom to pivot when we allow ourselves to embark on a true journey. Thus, LeBron has metaphorically grounded one foot in core values that evince themselves in disciplined teamwork and elevated on-court collaboration, while turning his gaze in a new direction, to his next challenge -- a move toward home along with the concomitant goal of bringing a long-awaited championship to Cleveland. Will LeBron succeed in this attempt? Can he bring to the Cleveland Cavaliers the same kind of leadership that led Germany to its resounding victory? Only time will tell. But, with his pivot, LeBron has definitely laid the all-important groundwork for success.
LeBron, Germany and the Spurs
I was thinking about LeBron's second momentous "decision" recently in the context of the World Cup Final as well as this past year's NBA Finals. Interestingly, the winning teams in both -- Germany and the San Antonio Spurs -- exemplify a notion of excellence founded on a true, collaborative team ethos and less on a culture of superstars. For both teams, how they do what they do is more crucial than simply what they do. In short, their behaviors are really their core values manifested in action.
Interestingly, LeBron attended the World Cup Final, and one suspects he may have done so to take notes on the German system -- an "overnight" success that was more than a decade in the making. After all, LeBron's Heat lost the NBA Finals to a team, the San Antonio Spurs, whose own carefully built organizational culture has thrived over the long term (and rewarded the city with five championships since 1999). LeBron must have seen himself in Lionel Messi -- the world's best player -- whose Argentina team lost to a better team with a better system. It was notable that the two German players responsible for the winning goal were substitutes, not superstars, on a team that prizes passing and collaboration over individual talent.
Germany's semifinal victory over Brazil, and our collective reaction to it, strikes me as even more noteworthy. Quick, name the score of that contest. We all know it was lopsided, but the actual score -- and even its historic magnitude -- are quickly fading from our awareness. The seven to one result represented the largest margin of victory in the history of a World Cup semifinal game. While the Germans made history with the biggest "how much" measure of semifinal soccer performance ever, guess what the majority of us were talking and writing about? The German system. Sports pundits praised Germany for its qualitative performance on the field, its beautiful teamwork and execution, and a number of articles saw it as a metaphor for Germany's robust economy.
It turns out that a newspaper in one of Germany's biggest rival countries was onto the team's organizational system before it translated into a World Cup victory. The U.K.'s The Guardian published an article in 2013 that detailed Germany's approach to building a team culture of homegrown, technically skilled, collaborative players, launched more than a decade ago after the team's disappointing bottom-of-their-bracket finish in the 2000 European Football Championships.
To make good on its talent-culture-building mission, the German Football Association (DFB), built a development program that has since trained tens of thousands of elementary, middle school and high school students through hundreds of "training base camps" throughout the country. Those students included Andre Schürrle, Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos -- each of whom played key roles in the 2014 World Cup victory over Argentina.
Skill training is the biggest demarcation between American and German youth soccer development. In the German system, flair and ingenuity, which depend on fostering innate creativity, are primary values rather than the sheer athleticism Americans emphasize. The German youth soccer system stresses the development of essential skills and techniques first and foremost, aimed at improving young players' abilities to always control the ball in every situation. Second, but equally important, is a focus on discipline and tactics. The underlying assumption is that technique is crucial, and that, from it, tactics will follow. The result, as evidenced at the World Cup, was a group of supremely trained players that have helped redefine the very notion of "team" for a world audience. As a result, soccer fans worldwide witnessed something that transcended mere sports; they became the audience for an exquisite performance of aesthetic integrity, a virtually balletic display of unison that reminded millions just why soccer has been dubbed "the beautiful game."
Learning from the journey
At the outset I said LeBron was going home "in more ways than one," and I do think that he is not only returning to Cleveland, but, as his own words suggest, to a different, more fundamental notion of a sport that he has come to dominate, a notion based around core values of collaboration and trust -- the HOW of true basketball excellence. Four years ago, LeBron clumsily announced his departure from his home-state Cavaliers for the sunnier, talent-rich climate of the Miami Heat, where the all-star players Heat management surrounded LeBron with helped him deliver two NBA championships. LeBron's ill-advised, nationally televised special culminated in his statement that he was "taking my talents to South Beach." Those words suggested that the decision was an out-of-body experience -- that LeBron's otherworldly skills were somehow separate from his core being. Those words also crushed the hopes of long-suffering Cleveland fans and enraged team owner, Dan Gilbert. LeBron murals in Cleveland were defaced, fans burned LeBron jerseys, and Gilbert penned and posted his own ill-advised response: an angry open letter to fans regarding LeBron's decision.
This time, LeBron chose a more humble, effective medium for his 2014 free agency announcement. "I'm excited to lead," LeBron wrote. His words made clear that he knew going home to the Cavs put him on a scrappy team with much less talent (although getting more talented as LeBron has managed to attract superstar Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love to his side) than he might have played with elsewhere. In 952 thoughtful words, LeBron executed a precise "pivot" move -- relevant in both basketball as in life -- homeward to his true nature, while also showing that succeeding as an inspirational leader requires:
A Mission: Make no mistake, LeBron intends to win more NBA championships; however, that's a goal. LeBron also asserted that he is engaged in a larger mission that goes beyond sports. "I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously," LeBron wrote. That leadership includes teaching younger teammates how to become champions and showing Akron elementary school students, who LeBron sponsors through his foundation, "that there's no better place to grow up" and to "come home after college and start a family or open a business."
A Journey: LeBron's decision to return to Cleveland was so shocking because of all the acrimony that erupted after his departure in 2010. Yet, LeBron never lost sight of his attachment to Ohio. Today, he is reclaiming his home, his purpose and his character. He admitted it was a difficult journey: "It was easy to say, 'OK, I don't want to deal with these people ever again.' But then you think of the other side." That other side is his loyalty to his home state. Sitting down with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert "face-to-face, man-to-man" and talking honestly about their past was a painful, necessary stretch of his journey. Journeys come with big risks, like the risk of not bringing the championship millions of Cleveland fans so desperately want from LeBron.
Humility: LeBron admitted that how he left Cleveland in 2010 was wrong: "I'd obviously do things differently." How many multi-millionaire MVPs or CEOs come clean about their mistakes in public? What's more, LeBron credited his now former team, the Heat, with providing a culture that "helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go."
What LeBron, the San Antonio Spurs and the German national soccer team share in common is the sort of humility and flexibility that allowed them to enact meaningful positive change based on human values -- collaboration, integrity, respect -- along with the willingness to embark on the journey of self-discovery that living such values entails. It is a lesson that our business culture at large is only beginning to learn, but one which it must adopt in order to create truly sustainable business models.
The Spurs achieved this by creating a collaborative framework that relies less on superstars and more on how they execute (not to be ignored is their recent, landmark hiring of Becky Hammon as the first woman NBA assistant coach, a move that attests to the team's ability to continually stretch boundaries even when they are so firmly grounded in an already proven winning formula); the Germans embarked on a journey of self-reflection (their own version of a transformative pivot move) aimed at building a winning formula from within its borders by establishing a culture geared to playing winning soccer as a true team and not merely fostering individual examples of exceptional talent; and LeBron matured from a brash young superstar to a leader who integrated his "talents" with his true self, a man willing to apologize to his Cleveland fan base -- elevated behavior that speaks directly to how he wants to be perceived and act in the future -- and a leader dedicated to trust, respect and humility, values that lead to teamwork and, ultimately, championships. It is the same kind of informed, values-driven leadership that will help power all organizations throughout the world to sustainable success over the coming years.
Now, LeBron is going home to build another championship team, and this time it's not about the narcissism of finding himself a bigger, brighter stage or carrying with him his disembodied "talents" as though they were mere luggage, separate from himself. Today, he is returning as a man in full; his all-important pivot created a fruitful fusion between the disparate parts of himself, allowing him the opportunity to achieve his full potential. In LeBron's own words, "Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get." In the wake of a glorious period for global sports, we ought to take these insights to heart and apply them to our own leadership and culture-building activities. After all, as LeBron wrote: "It's time get to work."
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