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What Leaders Can Admire in LeBron James’ Letter to Cleveland

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LeBron James attempts a dunk in 2009 against the Spurs in his original run with the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James attempts a dunk in 2009 against the Spurs in his original run with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Eric Gay/AP file photo

Longtime readers of this blog may have noticed that I don’t write as often as I used to about leaders in the news. There are different reasons for that. One of the biggest is the great examples seem fewer and farther between. Another is that I’m skeptical about being spun.

You may have heard about the way NBA superstar LeBron James shared the news last week that he’s returning to his hometown to play again for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Rather than staging a press conference or a media spectacle like the classless broadcast The Decision in which he announced four years ago that he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” he posted an open letter on the Sports Illustrated website.

So, yeah, I recognize that when someone as famous as LeBron James makes a big announcement that I am, to some degree, being spun. In this case, I don’t care. The points he made in the letter and the way he made them are, at their most basic level, ones that leaders can admire.

In reading through it, I identified six admirable traits that are worth reflecting on and aspiring to.

Perspective. Early on, James writes (with the help of SI writer Lee Jenkins): “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.” The best leaders take time to reflect on their decisions and what they’ve learned from them.

Graciousness. In speaking about his experience with the Miami Heat, James could not have been more gracious. He writes warmly of his teammates and management by saying,“Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.”

Clear Priorities. One of the themes in James’ letter is that there is more to life than his job. He writes, “I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown . . . The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.”

Humility. When James left Cleveland four years ago, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote a screed of a letter against him that was posted on the team’s website and was only removed a few days before James’ coming home announcement. James addresses that in his letter: “Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?” That’s a level of humility you don’t often see in people with the high profile of LeBron James.

Motivation. When he went to Miami, James held a big press conference in which he suggested that he and his mates were going to win six or seven championships together. Today, as he writes, it’s not all about the hardware: “What’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio . . . But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now.” The fact that he’s motivated by the both the process and the outcome is admirable.

Maturation. The thing that I appreciate the most about James’ letter is how much it shows someone can grow in just four years. He covered a lot of ground from “me” to “we” during that period. Toward the end of the letter, he talks about what he hopes to do back in Northeast Ohio: “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.” I love it when leaders look at the bigger picture and take accountability for helping create it.

So, in my humble opinion, it was a great letter because of the admirable human qualities it embodied. Life being what it is, the coming years will hold both ups and downs for James, the Cavaliers and the people of Northeast Ohio. Today, though, I admire the thought that went into James’ decision to go home and the way in which he explained it.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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