Following the King’s Lead
Early in the morning post the Cleveland Cavaliers’ epic triumph in the NBA Finals, I was awoken by my deliriously giddy 9-year-old son, a fellow startup addict and Cleveland sports fanatic. Together we relived the conclusion of Game 7, which punctuated one of the most implausible comebacks in sports history, orchestrated by one of the greatest leaders to ever step on a basketball court.
Love him or hate him, LeBron James embodies the qualities of a great founder. While sports metaphors are overused in the business world, I think LeBron’s story is a worthy fable for any founder.
Prior to being dubbed The Chosen One, LeBron James was raised on welfare by a young, single mother who was constantly on the move, desperate to establish a solid foundation for her son. He slept on borrowed couches and skipped school with frequency. LeBron’s life was transformed in the fourth grade, when his unique athleticism opened the door to stability and thereafter a rapid ascent to stardom. Despite gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated by the time he was a junior in high school, LeBron’s early childhood established a drive and sense of appreciation that made him the greatest basketball player of his generation.
While many professional athletes come from humble beginnings, precious few emerge as perennial champions. Many of these athletes have exceptional careers given immense raw talent and a nothing-to-lose mentality. They are willing to run through walls because they have no other way in. They have the audacity to believe they can succeed, when no one has greater expectations for them than themselves. These dynamics are reminiscent of the best founders, people that break the mold with seemingly crazy ideas that become the status quo.
As in basketball, great companies are built with teams. Every founder needs a supporting cast, and LeBron James has an unparalleled ability to conduct his team. He has been to the NBA Finals six years in a row across two teams with some of the worst supporting casts in league history.
How does LeBron get the most out of his team? The night before Game 6, Richard Jefferson, veteran Cleveland Cavaliers guard, penned a candid post about the evolution of the team’s culture over a tumultuous year. 16 seasons into the NBA, the 36-year-old Jefferson is the startup equivalent of an experienced COO or VP Engineering that was recruited to help stabilize the culture of an organization. A quote from his post exemplifies LeBron’s leadership:
I don’t care if you’re a LeBron “fan,” or not, I have seen it: Bron has something I’ve never seen. The way he says “follow me and I’ll take you there” with actions, more than words, is like no one else I’ve ever played with. He’s the kind of leader who makes you want to carry the weight too. I feel indebted to him. We all do.
Great NBA free agents like Richard Jefferson have many options, and though I love the place, I know that Cleveland is not the most desirable destination. Nonetheless, LeBron has the ability to recruit grizzled veterans to join him in #TheLand. These players bring with them stories of success and failure that teach and inspire younger teammates. In my own career, great partners and entrepreneurs have inspired me to raise the bar, elevating our mutual game with shared wisdom and a healthy dose of pressure to keep up.
LeBron also has the ability to instill discipline in emerging stars, like the brash young sales executive or diva programmer. When he returned to Cleveland from Miami, LeBron brought with him the militaristic approach that was impressed upon him by coaching legend Pat Riley. He demanded focus, dedication, punctuality, and accountability. During the offseason, LeBron called his teammates together for an intense workout in Miami, an equivalent of the team offsite. Throughout the season, he frequently brought the team together for dinners at his home to strengthen their camaraderie.
While many will never forgive the way he initially departed Cleveland, you never hear about LeBron getting in trouble off the court. Quite the opposite, you hear about his dedication to his wife and children, and to his charitable endeavors, where his accomplishments are at a level that matches his on court performance. A key reason for his return home was to provide greater support to his charities in Akron, where he has committed to donating $42 million to send 1,100 underprivileged children to college.
LeBron is the type of leader that successful people want to follow and emulate. Like any great CEO, he can lead by example, taking complete control of his team and carrying them on his back. When necessary, he does the equivalent of closing the big sale or a marathon coding session to get a product out the door.
However, LeBron understands that he and his team are at their best when he distributes responsibilities on the court to trusted teammates, enabling a higher degree of success as a collective. A great CEO’s job is to shine the spotlight, not stand under it. The lights are drawn to LeBron, but he’s the first one to deflect that glow to those around him. That strategy brought gold to his kingdom. Hail to the King!
*Thanks to @marissa for her shared respect for LeBron and inspiration to put out this post