In the final seconds of Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals, Cleveland Cavaliers guard JR Smith made a sizeable error.
After teammate George Hill missed a go-ahead free-throw with 4.7 seconds left on the clock, Smith grabbed therebound and dribbled the ball backwards, allowing time to expire with the scores level.
Cleveland had a chance for a game-winning shot, but Smith mistakenly thought his team was ahead, and was happy to see out time. The mental lapse was substantial given the high-stakes of the NBA Finals, but it wasn’t fatal. With the score tied, the game progressed into 5-minute overtime.
LeBron James, a global icon and clear leader of the team, was furious. As they walked back to the bench for a short intermission, James goaded Smith in what has now become one of the world’s most frequently used memes.
Back on the bench, LeBron sat by himself, staring into oblivion as Smith and the rest of the team slapped hands and tried to encourage each other. Smith looked forlorn, and snuck just one look at LeBron as the ‘captain’ of the team pouted on his own.
James, the team’s leader, said nothing to any of his teammates for the entire intermission. After a short exchange with the coach, James looked anguished and put his hands over his head, as if he’d been asked to go into the brace position on an airplane. After that, he sat back, cross-armed and looked in theopposite direction from all of his teammates.
As the Cavaliers players put their hands in for the customary ‘Cavs on 3’ James’ antics continued, refusing to put his hand in as he barked at his teammates. Then, he returned to staring off into the distance, eventually returning to the court by himself.
After leading Cleveland, Miami, and Cleveland (again) to eight straight NBA Finals, it is difficult to question LeBron James’ overall leadership — he is a study unto himself. I acknowledge that I am taking one small example and blowing it up so that we can analyze it and learn from its lessons, but I think it’s important to do because we shouldn’t only judge leadership when things are going our way.
As a leader, your team are always watching you and looking to you as an example. Whether you like it or not, you are the beacon. If you’re an angry, emotional mess, your team will be too. If you’re empathetic, enthusiastic and controlled, your team will be too.
Given his experience in similar situations, LeBron’s message to his team needed to be: ‘5 more minutes, boys, and we walk out of here with a win in Game 1 of the NBA Finals!’
He needed to be the beacon. The example.
Instead, he moped around like he’d just received a text that his family pet had died. It was abundantly clear from his momentary petulance that his teammates were going to capitulate and the Cavs were going to fall short in overtime — and they did.
My point is this: as a leader your behaviour shows up somewhere along the line. If you don’t get it right in the good times — or you’re faking it in the good times — how do you expect to magically turn on the team-first behaviour when things get stressful, like in Game 1 of the NBA Finals?
From infancy, human beings mimic the people they observe the most. At work, and in sports, the person they’re observing the most is the leader of theteam. The boss. The coach. Or, if you’re the best player in the world, LeBron James.
Be the beacon.