Why I am glad LeBron James left Cleveland and Dan Gilbert should shut up

By Scot Herrick | Cube Rules Commentary

Jul 09

In one of the more amazing sports spectacles in my lifetime, ESPN hosts LeBron James in prime time to announce which team LeBron has deemed appropriate to receive his special talent during the NBA basketball season. The commentary was breathtaking in its shallowness (“In Chicago, he just duped us. He was really never going to come here and just led us on,” bewailed one sports radio host). And the rest of the commentary was just as vapid; to the point you could start mimicking a stereotyped used car salesperson on the drama.

ESPN noted the announcement (called “The Decision” to highlight the earth-changing event about to happen) was supposed to be in the first ten minutes of the appointed show, but it didn’t really happen until twenty-two minutes into the program. Millions were counting the minutes, apparently. And Twitter-world erupted at the follow-on cover-up of the the time frame (“We were always going to do the news first, before The Decision,” or something close to that).


Before you start attacking me for the few times I have ever even mentioned sports and business (as someone always does…), this isn’t about sports. I have no interest in LeBron James, the basketball player, nor in Dan Gilbert, the majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the basketball team that LeBron James left to go somewhere else. (And to complete the circle, he ended up choosing the Miami Heat for his talents).

What is interesting is how the management of the team (Oh, you mean like MY team at work…) handled a superstar leaving the team for another. Business is social, I’ve often noted, and the Cleveland Cavaliers is a business. The social aspects of how the principles reacted offers all of us lessons on how to handle the loss of a superstar on a team.

As in how not to do it. Management handled this one poorly.

But first, here’s why I am glad LeBron James left Cleveland:

No one is indispensable

Seriously, no one. Sure, one person might be a superstar, but everyone has talent and that talent can be utilized in different ways depending on who is on the team at the time. Counting on the superstar to come through in the clutch means other people on the team never learn how to apply their talents to come through at the very time needed for the team.

Teamwork Counts

Phil Jackson, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, has had to deal with two superstars in his coaching career: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Yet, neither of the superstars ever won a championship until they understood that the team is what gives them the championship, not the person. When five people are playing on the floor and only one is contributing, you can concentrate on the one person and have everyone else fail.

Now, you need talent, of course. But being on a team where you don’t count and the superstar does is not the recipe for success. You can only go as far as the superstar and that is never far enough to consistently win at the game of business. You need others.

You now must win without a superstar

Finally, removing the superstar forces management to address everything else. Now you need to look at who is left and figure out how best to utilize their individual talent and not how they fit in with the superstar. Before, management was easy — here is the superstar, you support the superstar this way, you support the superstar that way — but now you have to look at people as individuals and figure out how to win with the team you have.

Management handled this one poorly

Understandably, Dan Gilbert, the majority owner of the Cavaliers, was upset. There was a lot of blood and treasure locked up in having LeBron there and they didn’t win a championship with him. And regardless of the behind the scenes negotiations (“He could have stayed!” “He would never stay!”), the fact is LeBron is a free agent — just as all of us are in the work world — and he chose to go.

The management reaction wasn’t good. Here are a few excerpts from the open letter to Cleveland fans:

As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier.

This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his “decision” unlike anything ever “witnessed” in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.

If you thought we were motivated before tonight to bring the hardware to Cleveland, I can tell you that this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our “motivation” to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels.

This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown “chosen one” sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And “who” we would want them to grow-up to become.

But the good news is that this heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called “curse” on Cleveland, Ohio.

The self-declared former “King” will be taking the “curse” with him down south. And until he does “right” by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.

This is what passes for emotional maturity at the wealthy ownership levels of our sports teams. Um…who is the narcissistic one again?

This is the wrong approach

Dan, if you want to go all bitter about how terrible this is, it shows you were wholly invested in LeBron. You were an enabler and it shows you were unable to look at the entire picture of what was needed for the team. Your choice, of course. But this is what it says about management:

  1. This emotional display shows the remaining team that they still don’t count. This was all about LeBron. None of the rest of the team was mentioned. Except that part where you are even more motivated to win, implying that you can’t with who is still there. Nice.
  2. Motivation rarely survives anger. Sure, you can be angry and have that turn to bitterness, but revenge is a dish best served cold. The motivation to win shouldn’t be about one person, it should be about the team.
  3. If the boss doesn’t like what you did, you will get publicly attacked. No one likes working for a boss that simply attacks the person, whether that person did the “right” thing or not.

The team counts

For the rest of us, put all of this in your workplace. Teams resent superstars, especially when the boss fawns all over them. The motivation to do the work drops because the superstar can handle it. Or not. And if you did save the day, no one would care because it is all about the superstar. All of that is just as true where you and I work.

Good riddance, LeBron. And Dan, here’s a hint: go build a team and forget the superstars.