I want to congratulate LeBron James, Germany and the San Antonio Spurs on their recent wins — before they fade from our minds — and for demonstrating to the world, and each other, how inspirational leadership works and what it takes to build a winning organization – any organization. This lesson goes far beyond sports; it is, in fact, directly analogous to the journey on which all leaders need to take their organizations to truly compete in today’s hyperconnected world as it reshapes our collective operating environment.
It’s fitting that LeBron attended the World Cup Final because he seems less intent on playing like the world’s greatest player, Lionel Messi, and more like one of the world’s greatest teams, the German national soccer team. The humility and respect with which LeBron has recently conducted himself, and the integrity and trust in collaborative discipline with which Germany created its winning soccer culture, have much in common – and much in common with contemporary business culture.
Both provide powerful examples of how today — where basic business excellence is more or less a given — it is ultimately the systematic application of core human values that truly lead to the highest quality teamwork, and which will spell the difference between champions and also-rans in our culture at large. The fact is, good teams have always beaten less good teams. The real lesson is about how, today, adherence to core values is causing teams, and businesses, to excel in ways that are both successful and fundamentally sustainable.
With an assist from sportswriter Lee Jenkins, LeBron explained to the world in a Sports Illustrated manifesto why he — the greatest living basketball player, the NBA’s most valuable free agent and an Ohio native – was going home, in more ways than one, to northwest Ohio and the Cleveland Cavaliers. His explanation (though no doubt partly based on his assessment of the unlikelihood of winning further championships in Miami) exemplified the inspirational leadership all organizations need today to thrive. Perhaps most important, it showed a leader in his chosen field making a new beginning based on a return to the values of trust, respect, truth and humility that define him. It’s a lesson worth noting and well worth imitating by today’s business leaders.
Make no mistake about it; LeBron was making an all-important “pivot” move. To pivot, in basketball, is to quite literally plant one’s foot on the ground, to make a physical statement of one’s presence in a specific location, while at the same time rotating in a new direction to achieve a specific goal. In a sense, this is precisely what LeBron has done; and it is also what today’s innovative and successful organizations find themselves forced to do in order to compete at the very highest levels. It is to ground one’s self in one’s beliefs, convictions and values while re-imagining a new direction that adapts to an ever-changing world. And it entails the sort of risk-taking that is always involved in moving in a radically new direction; after all, we only have the freedom to pivot when we allow ourselves to embark on a true journey. Thus, LeBron has metaphorically grounded one foot in core values that evince themselves in disciplined teamwork and elevated on-court collaboration, while turning his gaze in a new direction, to his next challenge – a move toward home along with the concomitant goal of bringing a long-awaited championship to Cleveland. Will LeBron succeed in this attempt? Can he bring to the Cleveland Cavaliers the same kind of leadership that led Germany to its resounding victory? Only time will tell. But, with his pivot, LeBron has definitely laid the all-important groundwork for success.
LeBron, Germany and the Spurs
I was thinking about LeBron’s second momentous “decision” recently in the context of the World Cup Final as well as this past year’s NBA Finals. Interestingly, the winning teams in both – Germany and the San Antonio Spurs – exemplify a notion of excellence founded on a true, collaborative team ethos and less on a culture of superstars. For both teams, how they do what they do is more crucial than simply what they do. In short, their behaviors are really their core values manifested in action.
Interestingly, LeBron attended the World Cup Final, and one suspects he may have done so to take notes on the German system – an “overnight” success that was more than a decade in the making. After all, LeBron’s Heat lost the NBA Finals to a team, the San Antonio Spurs, whose own carefully built organizational culture has thrived over the long term (and rewarded the city with five championships since 1999). LeBron must have seen himself in Lionel Messi – the world’s best player – whose Argentina team lost to a better teamwith a better system. It was notable that the two German players responsible for the winning goal were substitutes, not superstars, on a team that prizes passing and collaboration over individual talent.
Germany’s semifinal victory over Brazil, and our collective reaction to it, strikes me as even more noteworthy. Quick, name the score of that contest. We all know it was lopsided, but the actual score – and even its historic magnitude – are quickly fading from our awareness. The 7-1 result represented the largest margin of victory in the history of a World Cup semifinal game. While the Germans made history with the biggest “how much” measure of semifinal soccer performance ever, guess what the majority of us were talking and writing about? The German system. Sports pundits praised Germany for its qualitative performance on the field, its beautiful teamwork and execution, and a number of articles saw it as a metaphor for Germany’s robust economy.
It turns out that a newspaper in one of Germany’s biggest rival countries was onto the team’s organizational system before it translated into a World Cup victory. The U.K.’s The Guardian published an article in 2013 that detailed Germany’s approach to building a team culture of homegrown, technically skilled, collaborative players, launched more than a decade ago after the team’s disappointing bottom-of-their-bracket finish in the 2000 European Football Championships.
To make good on its talent-culture-building mission, the German Football Association (DFB), built a development program that has since trained tens of thousands of elementary, middle school and high school students through hundreds of “training base camps” throughout the country. Those students included Andre Schürrle, Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos – each of whom played key roles in the 2014 World Cup victory over Argentina.
Skill training is the biggest demarcation between American and German youth soccer development. In the German system, flair and ingenuity, which depend on fostering innate creativity, are primary values rather than the sheer athleticism Americans emphasize. The German youth soccer system stresses the development of essential skills and techniques first and foremost, aimed at improving young players’ abilities to always control the ball in every situation. Second, but equally important, is a focus on discipline and tactics. The underlying assumption is that technique is crucial, and that, from it, tactics will follow. The result, as evidenced at the World Cup, was a group of supremely trained players that have helped redefine the very notion of “team” for a world audience. As a result, soccer fans worldwide witnessed something that transcended mere sports; they became the audience for an exquisite performance of aesthetic integrity, a virtually balletic display of unison that reminded millions just why soccer has been dubbed “the beautiful game.”
Learning from the journey
At the outset I said LeBron was going home “in more ways than one,” and I do think that he is not only returning to Cleveland, but, as his own words suggest, to a different, more fundamental notion of a sport that he has come to dominate, a notion based around core values of collaboration and trust – the HOW of true basketball excellence. Four years ago, LeBron clumsily announced his departure from his home-state Cavaliers for the sunnier, talent-rich climate of the Miami Heat, where the all-star players Heat management surrounded LeBron with helped him deliver two NBA championships. LeBron’s ill-advised, nationally televised special culminated in his statement that he was “taking my talents to South Beach.” Those words suggested that the decision was an out-of-body experience – that LeBron’s otherworldly skills were somehow separate from his core being. Those words also crushed the hopes of long-suffering Cleveland fans and enraged team owner, Dan Gilbert. LeBron murals in Cleveland were defaced, fans burned LeBron jerseys, and Gilbert penned and posted his own ill-advised response: an angry open letter to fans regarding LeBron’s decision.
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