Lessons in Presence from LeBron, Kobe and the Zen Master

Posted 06.12.2009

Lebron1 As the NBA Finals continue between the Lakers and the Magic, both committed and casual hoops fans are longing over what might have been – a finals matchup between the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James. You can tell Nike was counting on it because they’ve gone ahead and run the Kobe and LeBron puppets campaign that they had shot in anticipation of the Finals they were hoping for.

Still, the playoffs have yielded some pretty exciting moments and some great performances.  One of my clients and his leadership team were lucky enough to see LeBron and the Cavs beat the Atlanta Hawks in game 3 of their series in Cleveland. And, being the brilliant guy that he is, my client used the game as an opportunity for a coachable moment about leadership.

My client is named George and he and his team were in Cleveland for a planning retreat.  A member of the team who lives in Cleveland scored tickets for the group.  In the midst of a challenging economy, George’s organization is having a great year.  Their challenge is keeping up with what’s in front of them on a day to day basis while preparing themselves and the organization for future opportunities.  During the offsite, George’s team spent a lot of time talking about one of my all time favorite HBR articles, “The Work of Leadership” by Ron Heifetz and Donald Laurie.

The article is about the art of adaptive leadership and the idea that the work of leaders is to tap the intelligence and talent of everyone on the team.  Before heading out to the Cavs game, George highlighted for his team this quote from the article:

“Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson’s greatness in leading his basketball team came in part from his ability to play hard while keeping the whole game situation in mind, as if he stood in a press box or on a balcony above the field of play.”

George made a request of the group which was go to the game with two purposes in mind.  One was to have fun. The other was to watch LeBron James  to see how he played the game while also observing the game. Sure enough, LeBron delivered that night with what was almost a triple double – 42 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists. George told me that LeBron elevated not only his own play but everyone else’s on the team in their 97-82 win.

So, as you may have noticed, the Cavs aren’t in the finals.  In their next series,  they lost to the Orlando Magic in six games.  As the pressure mounted, LeBron took more and more on himself and wasn’t the same player he had been all season.  He even stirred up a mini-controversy when, after losing game six, he bolted from the arena without congratulating the Magic players or talking to the press.

Tiger1 What happened?  You could argue that the pressure got to him and he lost the presence and focus that had served him so well all year.  The same thing might have happened to Kobe Bryant in game three against the Magic. One of the fans regularly sitting courtside in Orlando is maybe the greatest athlete in the world, Tiger Woods.  Kobe came out on fire in the first quarter of game 3 scoring 18 points and, after one basket, looked over at Woods as if to say, “Did you see that?  What do you think of me now?”  The only problem was  that Kobe ran out of gas in the 4th quarter and his coach, Phil Jackson, had to rest him more than usual. The Lakers lost.

Philjackson1 Back when Phil Jackson was coaching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles, he was known as the Zen Master because he always seemed to know how to handle the unique personalities of the stars on his team – especially the biggest one, number 23.  In the first few years of Jordan’s career, he was scoring outrageous amounts of points but the Bulls were losing.  As Jackson explains in one of my favorite books, Sacred Hoops, when he took over as coach of the Bulls he installed a very complex offense, the triangle, to solve that problem.  With its constant motion, the triangle requires every player on the team to be aware of where the other nine players on the court are at all times.  The problem that Jackson recognized early on was that the other players were so in awe of Jordan’s skills that they sort of just watched him rather than working the whole floor. The triangle offense required every member of the Bulls to be fully present and the Bulls eventually went on to win six championships.

So,  what leadership lessons (good and bad) can we learn from LeBron, Kobe and the Zen Master?  Here are a few hitting my radar screen:

1.  Even if, as the leader, you’re the best player on the court, don’t do all the work yourself.  Look for ways to get everyone involved.

2.  Remember what you’re there to do and don’t get distracted by what’s happening on the sidelines.

3.  Set up a process for helping the team see and participate in the bigger picture.

What would you add to the list?