Changing Our Views

I have a confession to make: I was wrong about LeBron James.

I thought that he would never win an NBA Championship.  While possessing other-worldly talent, I didn’t think he had the depth of character to lead his team to the mountaintop.  Yet, somehow, there he was last month, celebrating a championship with his teammates—one that he had largely willed them toward.  I was wrong.

Of course, many mis-judgments of talent are made in sports—and business—every day.  The question is, what do we do when the facts change and we recognize that we’ve under- (or over-) evaluated someone on our team?

LeBron’s Story

As brief background for non-basketball fans, LeBron James has been regarded as one of the most talented basketball players in the world since he was in high school.  When he was drafted by his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, he made an immediate impact as a player, and as a worldwide brand. They built the team around him, to complement his talents.  However, despite increasing success on the court, he was never able to lead them all the way to a championship.

In the summer of 2010, James was eligible for free agency. Breaking the hearts of a city, he chose to “take his talents to South Beach.” He signed with the Miami Heat, along with another star (Chris Bosh).  Forming a triumvirate with the Heat’s reigning star, Dwayne Wade, the “Big Three” was certain to win multiple championships—or so it seemed.

I took his signing with the Heat as a tacit admission that he could never lead a team on his own—that he needed to be “one of three,” not “one of one.” When the Heat lost in the NBA Finals the next season—with LeBron largely becoming invisible in key moments—I took it as confirmation.  He just wasn’t “the guy.”

What Changed

James responded to the  loss by re-committing himself and his talents to their ultimate expression.  He maintained extreme focus.  Entering this year’s playoffs, he turned his cell phone off for the duration (surely an exercise in self-discipline for someone who’s been a worldwide celebrity since the age of 16) and started to devour self-help books and inspirational biographies.  He worked harder than he’d ever worked on his game, and he exhorted teammates to do the same—to push past the cramps and the exhaustion.

He led by example. As Sports Illustrated put it, “He punctuated one of the best regular seasons in the modern era with one of the best playoffs.” In the end, he was a champion.

Lessons for Leadership

So often, impressions of an employee’s talent, contributions, and potential are set early in their tenure—and once fixed, are slow to change, despite contrary evidence (in either direction).  It’s not uncommon to hear about a high-potential, “Jerry’s terrific,” even if it’s been quite some time since Jerry has demonstrated performance that’s all that terrific.  The contrary is equally true: If Jerry has been judged to have middle management as the limit of his talents, it’s very hard to shake that designation—even if his performance has started to rise to new heights.

What mis-judgments of talent might we be holding to, even though the facts have changed?  Is it time to re-evaluate past opinions? Sometimes, a fresh look reveals fresh talent … even where we were sure it wouldn’t ever emerge.

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