Watching the confetti fall over Cleveland this week, I couldn’t get the image of burning LeBron jerseys out of my mind. It was, after all, a very short time ago that LeBron James was the most hated man in sports. Not just in Cleveland, but everywhere outside of South Beach. Watching the celebration, it’s tempting to just use the cliche that winning cures all, but I believe that the celebration was just the culmination of one of the greatest PR turnarounds in American history and it all started with a letter.
There are numerous lessons to be gleaned from LeBron James’ 2014 Sports Illustrated letter announcing his return to Cleveland but if you look closely you will see a blueprint for charismatic leadership.
Step One: Own Your Problem
It would have been tempting I’m sure for LeBron to have another TV special live from Cleveland announcing his return. There are probably people in Cleveland that would love for Miami fans to feel that kind of pain, but he wouldn’t have won the hearts of America by doing that. Instead, he chose to, as Robert Kennedy once famously said, hang a lantern on his problem. He owned his mistakes, not the leaving, but the manner. He apologized for it first before he gave his reasons. Owning his problem before anyone else could point it out allowed him to control the message which was “I’m coming Home.” not look how I’m coming home.
Step Two: Make It Personal
By comparing his time in Miami to college, even his hardcore detractors could relate to his reasons for leaving. By talking about his family’s ties to Northeast Ohio, he reminded us that this wasn’t a business decision, it was personal. By framing his argument in the most personal way, he diminished the belief that he was chasing money or power or titles. Everyone had to respect that he was sincere and making his new decision based on something bigger than himself.
Step Three: Manage Expectations
“Not one, not two, not three…” It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, but statements like that do little to inspire. In his letter, he avoided this mistake and talked about the work that it was going to take to bring a championship to Northeast Ohio. He managed our expectations so that when the Cavs came within a game of doing it in his first year, without one of their best players, the city was even more energized. There wasn’t a letdown. Leaders manage expectations, not to make themselves look better, but to keep their teams inspired.
Step Four: Grind to Deliver
Yes, game seven was magical, but that’s not where the Championship was won. It was won in the kitchen, in the weight room and in the empty gym with no one watching. The man is possibly the greatest athlete that has ever played the game, yet he has put in more work, watched more film, prepared harder than anyone else. Why go to the effort? Because without the results he delivered, his words were meaningless. The world is full of people that talk a great game but can’t deliver. There’s also a ton of people that have the talent but can’t get their chance because they miss the other steps too. Once you state your vision the way LeBron did, you’ve got to deliver or no one will remember it to begin with.
The story of the Cleveland Cavaliers is far from a fairytale. The story of LeBron Jame’s redemption is far from a soap opera. It’s cliche to say that winning cures all, but by laying the groundwork to soften the public by owning his problem, making it personal and managing expectations, it left the whole world smiling with him when the confetti finally fell.