3 Things the LeBron James Flameout Shows Us About Workplace Dynamics

You don’t need to be a basketball fan to be fascinated by the Fall of LeBron James.

A year ago, James was a charismatic young superstar who had spent his entire career leading his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Today, he’s seen as arrogant, petulant, and under performing, a guy who somehow managed to turn himself, and his Miami Heat team, into villains that millions not only rooted against, but took a perverse glee in seeing lose.

But the Fall of LeBron James is about more than a basketball superstar who fell on his face and publicly got his comeuppance. It’s really about the larger issue of workplace dynamics and how much impact each of us — and those we manage — have on how we handle our job, and ultimately, on our ability to succeed in the workplace.

In other words, don’t think of LeBron James as an NBA star, but rather, a highly paid employee who needs to learn a few things about the dynamics behind how he does his job and the impact it has on the paying customers.

Here are three things James could do to start fixing this right now.

1. Start practicing humility both on and off the job

Highly paid megastars aren’t known for being humble, but over-the-top arrogance is a sure-fire way of turning off co-workers and fans alike.

For example, witness the reaction to James’ hour-long televised “Decision” when he announced he would leave poor Cleveland and “take my talents to South Beach.” Not only was this statement seen as incredibly egocentric, but it was so over-the-top arrogant that it has now entered the urban lexicon as a crude euphemism for some sexual and excretory functions.

Arrogance doesn’t play well in any workplace, even if it’s on an NBA basketball court. People will tolerate it — barely — as long as you win and perform at the highest level. But, it’s hardly the way to win friends and influence people.

Michael Wilbon had this great observation about James and humility over at ESPN.com:

Losing almost always brings about greater humility, and humility almost always leads to the kind of introspection that is rare for megastars, especially ones who go by the name of “King” and have been told they are special since the age of 12, told they aren’t subject to the same rules as the rest of us. Sometimes, losing publicly and to great ridicule is the only thing that serves as a stop sign.”

2. Be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat

The Irish say that “a gentleman is magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat,” and it’s great advice we could all take to heart. Learning to win, and lose, with grace and humility is a hard thing to do in our fist-pumping, high-five loving culture.

LeBron James started his Miami Heat career last summer by gushing that his new team would win “not five, not six, not seven…!” but some unheard of number of championships. He was bragging before he even had played a game or won anything with his new team.

And then, as The Wall Street Journal noted, “James did himself no favors after Sunday’s (NBA Finals) loss, when he said that those rooting for him to fail ‘got to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before.’ ”

That’s bad on both sides — a braying braggart in the beginning and a surly, churlish loser in the end. That’s as hard to fathom in a big-time NBA player as it is in the hot-shot in your own company who always manages to get too much credit for the good and then sulks when something insignificant doesn’t go their way.

My pal Kris Dunn over at the HR Capitalist hit this point square on the head when he wrote this about graciousness and the James situation:

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When I catch myself judging people and feeling good as a result in my thoughts, I’m quick to note that it could all turn around on me as well. When I catch myself saying or almost saying something self-serving regarding my performance or state in life, I cringe. And god help me if I put something self-serving in print to be forwarded at the will of those who received a wayward email of questionable intent.

You and I are far from perfect. But most of us have at least some self-awareness.”

3. Learn to set the bar and manage expectations

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen blow up or melt down in the workplace because they couldn’t manage expectations.

Everyone wants to be lauded and loved, but all too often, people allow those undue expectations to run away from them. They’re held to a standard they can’t possibly meet, and it’s because they bought into the hype and failed to work at setting the expectation bar at a level they could comfortably reach.

You know what I’m talking about: The would-be superstar the company just hired who starts their new job with over-the-top expectations they can’t possibly meet. When they eventually fall on their face — as they so often do — no one feels sorry for them because it’s their own damn fault for not more carefully managing their own life and career.

So it was for James, as Bruce Arthur pointed out in Canada’s National Post:

As the NBA Finals ended, the most remarkable aspect was, that in the span of a little more than a year, LeBron James managed to transform himself from Nike’s solid gold chosen son and the unquestioned best player in basketball into … perhaps the most polarizing athlete in sports…

LeBron pulled back the public-relations curtain and revealed himself to be just plain unlikeable; a hollow blend of soaring narcissism without self awareness. It is not a crime, but try ignoring it.”

What you hope happens, whether you’re managing a group of employees or watching LeBron James, is that somebody wakes up and finally has a glimmer of understanding that how we behave around others in the course of doing our job speaks volumes about the content of our character.

Maybe LeBron James will finally get it, although I wonder if he will when you read, like I did last night in The Miami Herald, that he’s still saying things like, “Why would I change at this point?”

But columnist Israel Gutierrez also wrote that he thought James showed “the sign of humility we have looked for,” so perhaps there is some hope for him yet.

I pray that’s so, because when famous people like LeBron James have such a spectacular flameout, it leaves us looking — and hoping — for some lessons we can learn from and apply as we struggle to manage both our lives, and, our own careers.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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1 Comment on “3 Things the LeBron James Flameout Shows Us About Workplace Dynamics

  1. I love this, John, because we’ve all done at least one of these things at some point in our lives 🙂 Whether it’s the ‘schadenfreude’ (taking pleasure in others’ mistakes) or the over-the-top arrogance that we have no need to change and that everyone around us needs an attitude adjustment, none of it is right. As humans, we have to accept the fact that none of us are perfect but also make certain that we include ourselves in the “us.” One could make excuses all day long for James — he was never told differently, he’s a professional athlete and thus leads a different lifestyle than the rest of us, he’s a gifted athlete, etc. — but at the end of the day his immature character has been revealed in the heat of battle over the last 12 months — where it counts the most.

    Amybeth Hale, Editor — staging.sourcecon.com & http://www.fordyceletter.com

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