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LeBron Lessons

The NBA Finals have now concluded and the water cooler conversations offering post-mortems have begun.  The Miami Heat had acquired LeBron James during the off-season and then added Chris Bosh as well to their long-tenured star – Dwayne Wade and there were those that were prepared to call off the season before it even began and just annoint the Heat as the winners of the Championship.  As we now know – it did not quite happen as planned.

The Dallas Mavericks, a skilled and highly respected team in fact managed to win the championship in a series of closely contested games that came down to players needing to perform at their best as the minutes dwindled down to the last few precious moments.  While the pundits on the sports pages will dissect; strategy, game decisions, personal contributions and accountabilities, there are important business lessons that can be learned by examining how the two teams approached the season and the playoffs.


LeBron James, for better or worse, is recognized as “the best” player in the NBA by many fans.  While it is not unanimous, even those that do not see him as the best, would not quibble with his name being mentioned in the conversation.  As an elite player, and one brought onto the team to form a triumvirate of superstars, he was expected to lead the team to a championship. Anything less than that would be a failure.  Unfortunately, for the Heat, that did not happen.  Similarly, in business there are high profile, elite executives who are brought into companies with the expectations that they will change the prospects of the business for the better.  General Electric has become a developmental ground for senior executives – not always with the best of results.  Robert Nardelli  famously flamed out at Home Depot – even though he had been seen as a successor to Jack Welch by some at GE.  Larry Johnston, of Albertson’s fame was also a GE alum.  Both of these highly regarded executives were unable to take their success at one company and apply it with another.

Lebron James and Dwayne Wade trying to figure out what happened to their chance at a championship.

On the other hand, Dallas has one superstar (Dirk Nowitzki) and sourrounded him with highly competent players who all were willing to contribute to the team’s success.  In this instance, the lesser-skilled players were able to defeat the higher-skilled players because they all played a contributory role and did not compete with each other to be the “star.”   One researcher refers to the ability to create this “oneness” or focus to an outcome as “Flow.”  By becoming so dedicated and immersed in the task at hand and losing one’s own sense of self, the outcome takes on an increased importance

 It brings to the fore – how well does your business integrate the role players within your organization?  How successfully do the “elite members” of management cooperate with each other to improve the team/business result over their own personal contributions?

Clutch Play

This series also pointed out the importance of performing at the most critical or “clutch” moments.  LeBron James was widely criticized for not performing as well in the 4th quarter as he had in the first three quarters of each game.  The time when the game was being decided was when the “best” player came up ineffectual.  In business, we can argue as to what the analogy is to the clock in the game (is it the customer service interacting with existing customers looking to overcome an issue? The sales team or retail store employees having to explain the benefits of a product to a customer?  The quality control folks who ensure that products are safe?  etc.).  Regardless of which (or all) that are used as the example – when the requirement for performance is at the highest – do your employees “become invisible” or do they “step up and meet the challenge?”

Using sports as an analogy for business is trite, overused, and often feels forced to make a point.  However, in this example, the relevancy is so apparent that to not acknowledge it would be an injustice.  The Heat are comprised of the “better players.”  However, the game is won or lost on the efforts of the “team.”  Without question, the Mavericks were and are the better team and proved it over the course of a best of seven series.  How would your business fare if viewed in a similar light?

David Zahn