THE BLOG

In Returning to the Cavaliers, LeBron James Exemplifies Two Rare Leadership Qualities

07/24/2014 04:36 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2014

When LeBron James left Cleveland four years ago, he was lambasted for being selfish and out for his own glory. When he and the Miami Heat lost the NBA finals the next year, he was called a choker. When he opted out of his contract in Miami last month, the rumor mill churned with where he would go next in pursuit of more titles.

Instead, LeBron returned to Cleveland, demonstrating two rarely found leadership qualities:

Personal Mastery

LeBron says in Sports Illustrated:

"The letter from [Cavaliers owner] Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned.... It was easy to say, "OK, I don't want to deal with these people ever again." But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I've met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We've talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I've made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?"

This is more remarkable than it seems. NBA fans, Dan Gilbert, and countless pundits heaped a lot of blame on LeBron when he left. There was gleeful vindication when he and the Heat lost to the Mavericks in 2011. I don't know LeBron nor how he felt, but as humans, we tend to feel alienated, hurt, rejected, etc. when aggressively criticized. We don't respond to blame with, "Oh, you're right, thank you for the input" (except sarcastically). We blame back, because our ego cannot be at fault. We discredit others so their criticisms don't matter.

It's rare that leaders possess what I call "Personal Mastery" - the kind of emotional maturity to empathize with their detractors. To sense that behind their blame is pain. To honestly search for their own contribution to the situation.

In many organizations, conflicts and blow-ups lead to long-standing distrust where neither side is willing to recognize their own part, nor empathize with the legitimacy of the others side's issues or even reactions. This lack of trust reinforces silos as people avoid or undermine their perceived wrongdoers - but do not do what LeBron did with Dan Gilbert.

Practice: De-escalate the blame. When you're in a conflict, be the first to acknowledge your part. This will create a safer atmosphere for the other person to do the same. Maybe they will or won't meet you halfway - but remember, blame is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. Taking responsibility gives us back our peace of mind.

Noble Goal

One of the debates about LeBron is whether he is the "Greatest of All Time". Many argue that as long as LeBron has fewer NBA championship rings than Michael Jordan (current count: two to six), he comes up short. To hear it, LeBron's career will practically be a disappointment if he doesn't surpass Michael.

This is symptomatic of our cultural obsession with being the best. But for our ego, not being the best means not being good enough. Our very self-worth feels at stake, and so we play out a zero-sum game of unconscious competition in our organizations, families and politics. We are caught in - and perpetuate - a "Me First" syndrome.

This attitude appeared to drive LeBron from Cleveland to Miami four years ago. Last month, we waited for him to skip to the next team that would win him titles.

"I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I'm from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there's no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get."

This time, he turned his back on this "Me First" obsession - to focus on what he can contribute, particularly for young people in need. As amazing as he is as a basketball player, his focus seems to have grown beyond winning titles to making a difference for the larger whole. A "Noble Goal". His high-stakes decision was guided by his Noble Goal instead of his personal success agenda. How many of us can say that?

Reflection: Be aware of your "Me First" tendencies. What is the personal success agenda you're chasing after? If you've had those moments of doubt where you wonder, "Is this all there is?" perhaps you sense that this won't really fulfill you. Instead, ask yourself where and how can your presence make a meaningful contribution? How are you inspired to support the larger whole?

Most powerful in LeBron's actions was the integration of his Noble Goal and his Personal Mastery. Many leaders seem committed to a larger cause, but pursue it in a mindset of blame and righteousness. LeBron rose above both his personal hurt and his personal success to act for the larger whole.

If we had more leaders embodying this leadership mindset, we'd be well on our way to creating a better future.

For more in-depth work on leadership, teams and organizational culture challenges, Learning as Leadership offers unrivaled seminars: http://www.learnaslead.com.