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Published on: Monday, July 12, 2010

LeBron’s Leaving


By the time anyone sees this, it will likely be buried in the millions of posts that have something to say about the LeBron move to Miami. It will be interesting to see the results of the many polls that will inevitably be taken on how people (sports fans or not, basketball fanatics or not) feel about what transpired. Not so much around the marketing and PR hype that led up to the ESPN circus, but how they feel about the message his decision delivered on a number of levels.

Clearly strong arguments can and have been made on both sides: It speaks to the few of us left who actually think loyalty should mean something and those who feel that loyalty has nothing to do with it. He has the right to do what he wants; he put in seven years in Cleveland, worked hard both on and off the court, etc. All true.

It is also true that many look at what he decided to do and said that it only demonstrated once again that money and ego (maybe it's just ego this time since he took less money by signing with Miami) wins yet again in a world that often seems to be driven by both.

For me, while I certainly do believe in loyalty (my generation thought it a big deal) I really can't get too excited about it all in terms of the loyalty vs. money/ego or whatever. What bothers me is not the WHAT, but The HOW — How LeBron handled it and how his boss handled it. A plague on both their houses, as they say.

When it comes to smart career management, hell not just career management, but simply how one handles difficult situations in life, people usually either take the high road, or they let their emotions take over. It was easy to see and hear which of those roads Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert was on. In many respects, you can't blame him, but it was obvious, at least to me, that he wasn't angry because LeBron decided to leave so much as he was deeply hurt on a personal level by how LeBron handled his leaving. When kids get hurt feelings, they lash out. Gilbert is certainly no kid, but he certainly behaved like one. Don't get mad, Dan, get even. Build a team (your business) that will out-compete your former employee's team (his business).

I know it's a business, but instead of Lebron quietly reaching out to his boss and meeting with him 1:1 and thanking him for all that the club had done for him and making sure that his boss knew of both his appreciation and decision before the rest of the world, he elected to pander to the media and make a spectacle out of something that could have and should have been handled much differently.

People leave organizations daily. How they choose to handle that departure has more far-reaching effects than sometimes people imagine. Not only does the person leave, but the reputation perception people had of them prior to the parting leaves with them; how they manage the departure can change that reputation faster than they ever imagined.

I wonder if LeBron or his handlers really thought about that?

He may or may not get his multiple rings by going to the Heat, but my guess is that when it comes to his legacy in terms of how he is perceived people, they will always respect his God-given talent but not so much his character and value system.

Other views are welcomed.

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Dave Opton's avatarDave Opton
Dave Opton founded ExecuNet in 1988 to provide a trusted environment where senior-level executives could build career opportunities by facilitating connections to other executives, experts and key market insights. Dave has drawn upon his 35 years of experience in human resources to develop and grow what has become the leading business and career membership network for executives and senior managers. A widely recognized executive career management expert, Dave is regularly quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Business Week, Fortune, Fast Company, and other leading business publications. Mr. Opton received his BA from Indiana University.

Posted by Justin A Woodhouse
07/20 @ 02:11 PM

My take on the LeBron situation is short and simple. First, we (the public) tend to hold gifted athletes to a higher standard because of their physical prowess. We often forget that physical maturity does not equate to sound judgement or decision making. LeBron simply did what many entitled individuals do when faced with decisions that expand beyond thier field of endevour; he made a huge mistake in communications. Will he ever be forgiven in the eyes of the public. All we need do is look at Kobe for the answer to that. If you did not know his history you would never know he should be a convicted felon. If/when LeBron wins his first ring we will have a new target to focus on. For his sake, I hope that LeBron has learned a lesson to ensure he does not repeat this grave error in communication.
Posted by Mike
07/20 @ 12:52 PM
When one is still in their mid twenties and already has what some consider an incredible NBA career in the history books, it is easy to forget that King James is still yet a boy. From the outside he appears to be a very mature young man making his own business decisions. However, like that of a troubled youth, I tend to look to the parents as the source for where the trouble began. Having said that, I wonder if LeBron's handlers might have more influence on him that we think and are the ones pushing their agendas on him in ways we are not privy to?
Posted by Rob Silbiger
07/20 @ 12:05 PM
Dear Dave,

This is the first comment or post of any kind from myself to you and Execunet. This article is spot on in my own and many people's sentiments nationwide and beyond.

Being from the Northern Ohio area for many years, born in Cleveland, raised in Akron most of my life, I recall LeBron's early years playing for his school St. Vincent-St. Mary, and having to move to NBA and college arenas to accomodate the huge crowds to see who this kid is. Even Shaq showed up one time after he played the Cavs when with the Lakers, he had to check him out.

My point to writing this article also though that some people get, but most don't is this. Yes, LeBron was free do do as he chooses, and gave Cleveland 7 years to try and take home a championship. However, what alot people don't understand is that when LeBron re-signed a short term 3 year contract, so he can have the specticle that he had on national T.V., he made the Cavs do all they could to win now, with whatever attractive free-agents and trades they could make at various times. The management team made unprecidented moves, more than any other team in recent memory to remain competive, and to please LeBron. However, because LeBron wouldn't sign for a longer term, there were attractive free agents that wouldn't come to Cleveland because they didn't know what LeBron was going to do, or because he was short term, nd didn't want to take a chance. That being said, his departure is hard for Ohioan's to take because he gave his new team the Heat 6 years from the get-go, so and now everyone wants to get on their bandwagon to bring home a ring, not to mention, the embarassment to an area starving for a championship since their last one in 1964. He is a home grown boy, not a transplant, so it hurts even more.

I agree, Dan Gilbert should have taken a couple of deep breaths and make a more appropriate comment and response the next day or two after he calms himself down and thinks rationally. However,I think he was also comforting his fans more than lashing out at James, and the fans appreciated his words, and temporarilly made them feel a little better.

I have been living in S. Florida for the last 8 years, so some may wonder if I would support LeBron now being that he is in my own backyard. The answer to that is absolutely not. Sure, I will watch some games on T.V. as many will, however, my team is my team, the Cavaliers. I casually watch the Heat because that is the local team in my area, but my loyalty as a fan will always be with my home team.

Michael Jordon couldn't resist but to disagree with LeBron's "decision" because of his competitiveness to beat the best around the league, not join them with the exception of the Olympics.

LeBron will always be a great talent, but his legacy no matter how many rings he may get in the future, will forever be tarnished, and not as much appreciated. It is almost like the baseball players who have admitted and those that are accused of doing steroids to achieve better results, albeit personal. Those hall of famers are not looked upon with the same respect and admiration anymore with the public because they cheated. LeBron didn't technically cheat, but it is the closest thing to it with their collaboration to all play together. I feel this will have a trickle down effect also on the star players such as Duane Wade and Chris Bosh, not to mention Pat Riley. Why Pat? Because he defied tradition, and was the guy who put the deal together and artificially creating a "super-team" and thus having an unfair advantage upon smaller markets. Some teams will clearly suffer in the near future if all future signings follow the lead of how this free-agency went. it is also bad for the NBA as the fans are the supporters and pay everyone's paychecks. If they stop watching becasue of the disgust of the league, then maybe someone will pay attention to what is wrong with how all was handled. LeBron made history alright, just the wrong side of history.
Posted by Umesh Kumar Gupta
07/20 @ 04:59 AM
I totally go against Lebron's move. At time of his exit, He should have discussed his problems internally and could have changed his decision if he is convinced that there is a workable solution. His move of going to media and making it a big hue & cry was in my opinion professionally unethical and this is not expected from a person of his calibre.
Posted by Craig Meis
07/20 @ 02:29 AM
Good article Dave. I'm glad you pointed out that Dan Gilbert's rant was not a very good display of emotional intelligence.

Posted by Tom Graham
07/19 @ 11:31 PM
It's interesting to see so many people came down on the side of the Cavaliers against Lebron's decision and the way he handled it. However, there is another side to this equation, how often do companies, institutions, organizations and yes, even the Government unceremoniously dismiss professionals without as much as a thank you. It's not as if the Cavaliers did a whole lot for Lebron and he just took his pay and left. Lebron's history with the team brought renewed interest in the Cavaliers Franchise and the City of Cleveland literally putting both on the map. Perhaps now the City and the Franchise should just grow up and prove that the Lebron factor was not just a fluke but the establishment of a much higher vision that can be sustained with good management and execution. Prove that the Franchise can survive by recruiting new Lebron's (and they're available) and hiring coaches with vision like the coaches in Los Angeles, Boston and Miami to name a few.

Spend the money, create a sustainable plan and execute now that the motivation steeped in renvenge is there.
Posted by Dave Opton
07/19 @ 10:27 PM

Appreciate your taking the time to chime in, and as hard as it is sometimes, for sure I would drink to the notion that burning bridges is not the way to go no matter how you feel.

Reminds me of advice that my mother used to give me (and I don't know where this comes from) when she would say "...just remember, 'time wounds all heels.'
Posted by Karen Swim
07/19 @ 09:25 PM
Dave, as a basketball fan and someone who helps professionals gracefully manage career transitions your thoughtful post made me want to wave a big foam finger of support. Excellent analogy to work place issues. Treating your employer with dignity and exiting gracefully is never a bad way to leave a company. There may have been issues, there may have been dissatisfaction but the high road will never fail you. Conversely, even when a former team member chooses the low road, an organization should check their emotions at the door and react with grace. At the end of the day both employer and employee have reputations and brands to preserve and as we know life has a funny way of letting paths cross again. It is far better not to burn bridges along the way.
Posted by wany joseph
07/19 @ 08:18 PM
it is
Posted by Carl & Casey - How to leave a company - Words of w
07/19 @ 08:11 PM
Dear Carl:

Picture this if you can: It's late on a Friday afternoon, at the end of a short week, and I am rushing to finish all the projects that were delayed by the July 4th holiday when a colleague — let's call him "David T" because that's his name — shows up in my office to talk about LeBron James.

"I think there's a story for you here," David tells me, as he recounts the tale of a hometown basketball hero who just announced his desire for warm, sandy beaches. I feign interest until I start picking up some parallels between the James situation and what can happen when organizations aren't "talent balanced."

What I got from David, essentially, is this: James' career path led him close to a championship, but his team lacked a strong enough workforce plan to support that endeavor. Without a well-developed talent recruitment and acquisition strategy, Cleveland heavily relied on their high-performer. I don't know if the team even had a retention plan, but it ultimately didn't save their A-player when he finally became disengaged.

From this perspective, it looks like management's to blame, but David also talked about that implicit loyalty contract many fans expect to be respected and honored. How could someone who plays for a team not be a team player, they wonder?

Whether your sympathy falls with those in suits or jerseys, many seem to agree that LeBron's exit interview didn't go very well. Read the reaction from ExecuNet CEO and founder — and very knowledgeable sports fan — Dave Opton on exiting gracefully, or, as ExecuNet CMO Tony Vlahos titles it, "Cavalier Career Management" and share your opinion.
Posted by Mike Elliott
07/19 @ 07:23 PM
Charactor is something you have and it always shows. It is something that grows from an early age for those who care and love people.

I've met with Lee Iococa several times, and although in the media he sometimes comes off as pushy. In real life he is gentle and considerate.

I feel the real man came to lite when he started a charity with his own money to help the less fortunate.

If he makes a commitment he sticks with it, as he did on the Federal bailout of Chrysler.
Posted by Dave Opton
07/19 @ 07:00 PM

Very well said indeed, and you are also right in suggesting that we have much bigger issues to address.

Thanks for the input.
Posted by Steven Harns
07/19 @ 06:47 PM

The old addage "Treat others as you yourself would want to be treated" would have served well in this case and in most situations. I say old because in today's hip and slick world the basic human values like integrity, honesty and honor seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate. Loyalty? Not even in the mindset of most employees or business owners today. These events are unfortunately a product of the times where greed, power and personal gratification prevail.

The 'brand' idea discussed to portray any individual is interesting. However, there's both good and bad brands just like individuals. Sometimes even 'good' brands make mistakes; it's realizing and recognizing the need to change and preventing these errors from taking place again that make good brands - great brands!

High profile public figures should have a leadership position to reflect on - they are perhaps a brand as defined by what they highly represent to others. When they commit an action not in keeping with expectations their own fall from grace can be both swift and judgemental.

Would the central characters here choose to do the same thing again? It's in their individual nature; unlike traditional brands or products that are manufactured and manipulated by others.

Now let's discuss the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill....
Posted by Dave Opton
07/16 @ 05:43 PM

Not to worry about the name, we just appreciate your dropping by and sharing your take.
Posted by Mary Schumacher
07/16 @ 01:51 PM
Sorry - I meant "Dave", not "Dan".
Posted by Mary Schumacher
07/16 @ 01:46 PM
Great article, Dan. Here's my take: LeBron is not like most employees. He is a brand.

People may not have liked the way he handled his departure, but clearly he has succeeded in propelling himself to the forefront of the media's and the public's attention. He has very skillfully managed to manipulate a lot of people in talking about him.

So what if his reputation suffers a bit now? Will his brand be hurt? Not if he plays well.

Most people won't emulate LeBron's style of departure because they work under very different conditions, and will not be richly rewarded for such an approach.
Posted by Jay
07/16 @ 04:37 AM
Good article and I was thinking about the whole situation as well. What would I do I if were Lebron or Dan...

There is no perfect world here and definitely Lebron is still young to handle situation like this. With his wealth & fame, ego might be on his higher side. Not mature enough yet?

What about Dan lashing out the kid like he is a total betrayer? A grown successful man reacting this way...

Just like every organization, boss pay you to do a job and you exceed your target. GREAT!!... promotion & increment might be on the way. What if you did way beyond expectation and the company is not doing well? They are willing to pay you but you are not going anywhere... What will be your deal here then?

Posted by Dave Opton
07/15 @ 06:51 PM
One of the things that I like about the ease with which ideas can be shared on the net is that often you can get several different takes on the same subject.

The power of these perspectives for me is that it often helps me to think about a subject somewhat differently that I might have otherwise - and from that, I learn, and the "learnings" come from the fact that while the subjecgt matter might be the same, how people express a point of view is expressed differently.

To that end, a shout out to Tom, Pete, Krish, Michael and Ernest for taking the time to contribute to this post.
Posted by Krish
07/15 @ 02:59 PM
When you climb up the ladder, each time you take a step upward, more pressure and force is put on the step below. Success is the same way, as you climb the ladder of success, you need to make sure you have enough strength and power in the lower step to make you climb up.

LeBron wants to win and he believes that his best chances of getting multiple championship is with Miami. However the issue is not that he went to the Heat, the issue is how he did it.

As a leader you want to set examples, and LeBron did not set a good example, he just choose to go without thanking the team that worshiped him. Had he been open and really focused leader, he would have convinced Wade and Bosh to join him in Cleveland.

The leader in Miami is clearly Wade, he made sure he got the guys he wanted to make Miami better. More than business it shows the leadership abilities and hats off to Pat and Wade, they showed clear leadership and direction and attracted the best talent.

Posted by Michael Reid
07/15 @ 02:01 PM
He should have made his boss know that his decision may or may not be favorable. At that point it becomes business. As my first boss told me never fall in love with an inanimate object (meaning company or its name). If the company has to make a decision it will do it in behalf of the company regardless of your loyalty. No different in Lebron's case - If he was a high profile player and they wanted to shop around to open the cap and get a few more players with talent for the price of one the team would do so (I have seen it too many times).

So was it a bad move for Lebron? Only time will tell. But many of us have taken steps back to plunge ahead. So he lost money? Really? What he does not get from the team, he may get in increased endorsements if the team flourishes. Plus lets look at living location Miami vs Cleveland - come on you pick. His family maybe better entertained vs in Cleveland, but how many times we have changed careers-Because of location and your family's extended needs.

Yes it was business with just a lot of hype - but look at it the same way. In a mid-management course they explicitly stated the days of job security is long gone, but career security has taken root. Where the company you are with gives you extensive training, so that if the axe does fall you are viable for any company. Same in LJ's case - he took career security in winning a ring, and being in a market place to make greater career decisions is key.

That is my two cents, and a cup of coffee
Posted by Dave Opton
07/15 @ 11:02 AM

Thanks so much for your very thoughtful comments. Your points are very well taken and you will get no argument from me.

For sure, the implicit contract between corporations and employees has long since "left the room" and the results of which can be measured in many ways, but for sure, I think most of us certainly understand that no matter if the economy is up or down, we are all very much in charge of our own careers.

Indeed, more than 50% of ExecuNet membership is made up of executives who are currently employed and much of the reason for that is the result of what you point out.

And, if you don’t think companies are seeing the impact of the changes, look at how frequently people change companies today versus twenty years ago, something we have tracked in our Executive Job Market Intelligence Reports for the past 18 years.
Posted by Ernest Edmond
07/15 @ 04:40 AM
The full story is not out on Lebrun. We have media, Cleveland owners words of frustration and fans, and Lebrun's obvious decision to leave Cleveland and join forces with Miami Heat.

Leaving a company or a loosing team is not a new idea. We just have new players. Having a commitment to a company or a team is a professional, and yet very personal decision. Mr. Lebrun sought out counsel and made a wise decision for himself, family, and for the Cleveland Cavaliers. When you have reached you're ceiling of progress, accessing the next step is vital to a vision and plan for your life's success.
Posted by Tom P
07/15 @ 03:20 AM
Lebron's actions are not wrong because he left Cleveland. We live in a free market. He was wrong in the way he handled the departure. Employees leave companies every day. Most try to do it the "right" way by giving sufficient notice and directly notify someone within the company (management or HR). The way he chose to leave was immature. It would be the same as a 25 year old leaving your company and posting it on their blog.

If we remove the emotions (which is tough for those very close to the situation), then we can see that there is right and wrong way to do things. In this case he turned his back on a team that paid him "X" millions for 7 years. Instead of handling it with class, he turned it into a circus. This is the lesson we should learn. If you leave a company the "wrong" way, then all people will remember is how you left and not the contribution that you made while you were there.
Posted by Pete Dowling
07/15 @ 01:24 AM
Some applicable concepts are pretty simple:

- We can't control what others do ... we can only control what we do, and how we react to what they do.

- Common courtesy used to be common. It's not so common anymore.

- I don't follow basketball, and until a week ago I'd never heard of Lebron James. From what I understand, he's pretty good at basketball, and more than one team wants to employ him. What I observed on the news videos was an employee who didn't demonstrate the courtesy -- the humanity -- to resign from his team with some class -- and communicate his intentions with some humility.

- Obviously, the guy has no class. And he has no understanding of how his actions affect others -- especially young kids who look up to gifted athletes as examples of how to behave. While he should be ashamed of his behavior, he is likely not -- either because he doesn't know any better, or behaving differently never occured to him. I honestly don't know which is worse. A shameful and a terrible example in any case.
Posted by Chris Bianco
07/14 @ 11:37 PM
I certainly understand the arguments already presented in the blog, however should one consider actions a little earlier in history concerning "loyalty". Consider the days before unions and how the employer treated employees. Next consider, the eighties and nineties when employers embarked on substantial layoffs when business environments changed. The massive loyalist companies such as AT&T;& IBM broke the unspoken contract between loyal company and loyal employee in the name of shareholder profit. This led to the significant overuse of consultants and contractors to bolster the firm's workforce in order to handle the flexibility of workload, avoid paying benefits, and dismiss the guilt when workers needed to be dismissed. Consequently, employee and contractor worked side by side trying to achieve goals but for perhaps completely different personal and professional reasons. Some consultants receiving substantially higher pay rates than employees for doing the same or even substantially less important work and responsibility.

Has the sports world really saved itself from the same dysfunction in the corporate world? I think not, the sports business imitates the corporate world or vice-versa.

Thus, the chicken and the egg metaphor arises out of this situation. Was it the employer or employee that started the distrust between the two parties that eventually led to lack of loyalty? Is Lebron really just following the lead of what is already the norm. In my opinion, loyalty is the exception. A truly exceptional individual will shun the norm and uphold the antiquated moral virtue of loyalty.
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