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Leadership Lessons from the 2020 NBA Finals

Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are once again on top of the basketball universe! Ten years after Kobe Bryant delivered his masterpiece over the Boston Celtics, Lakers nation has tied Boston for the most titles in NBA history and cements the franchise legacy as the most dominant franchise in modern history. They did so by conquering a global pandemic that threatened to shutdown the sport and social unrest that became more important than merely entertaining the populace. This championship, asterisk or not will go down as the most difficult to attain in NBA history.

The argument will now be where Lebron James sits in NBA history. With his fourth title and third NBA Finals MVP with three different teams, he is demanding his respect and seat at the table with the greats. James' consistency is a marvel in modern sports only rivaled by Tom Brady in the NFL. He's never missed a playoff game in his seventeen year career and owns almost every meaningful postseason record with the exception of finals wins, finals win percentage, and finals MVPs for now. I have spoken at length about Lebron's leadership acumen in a previous article, but four years removed from that discussion, he continues to raise the bar for excellence.

Lebron serves his teams and organizations better than any athlete in history. With that in mind, let's review five key lessons from this year's NBA Finals:

  1. First who, then what: After his groin injury during the 2018/19 season, Lebron James knew he needed more talent on his team to accelerate the Lakers return to prominence. Therefore, he strongly advocated for a franchise redefining trade to acquire superstar big man Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans. Once the trade was finally executed, Lebron made it his mission not only to embrace AD but to also let him know that the team would only go as far as he took them. Leadership Lesson: Many leaders make the mistake of defining a vision or mission for their organization before they have the requisite people in place to deliver on this mission. It usually doesn't work out until the right people are identified, attracted, and onboarded into the organization. A successful leader recognizes this and prioritizes filling in key team gaps before advancing toward goal setting and prioritization.

  2. Envy is an enemy of high performance: Michael Jordan defined the ego-driven superstar archetype for a generation and became the symbol of hero ball. Kobe Bryant evolved from the Jordan model to more of a team first steward by the time he won his 5th ring. Lebron James was always team first. In a post game conference after a pivotal game 4 win, Lebron was asked what made his and Anthony Davis's relationship so productive on and off the court. His simple answer was that neither he nor AD envied each other and that winning was more important than credit. This lack of professional and personal jealousy allowed them to push each other to be the best version of themselves. Leadership Lesson: Not everyone has the maturity to overcome jealousy. It is key as a leader to identify these potential conflicts and address them as early as possible. Also, hiring for maturity as a crucial behavioral competency will minimize the chance of envy destroying your team.

  3. Fail forward: The Lakers organization dealt with injury setbacks in 2018/19, the suspension of the 2019/20 season due to COVID, and a gut wrenching game 5 loss in the 2020 NBA finals. From the opening tip of game 6, however, it was clear that the team was locked in and not going to allow a game 7. Credit to Coach Vogel for making the key adjustments and setting the tone for his team. Leadership Lesson: Failure is only final if you fail to learn from losing. Fear of failure is a weakness that can stop any team from progressing. It is crucial that your team knows that failure is normal and expected but what is not acceptable is allowing losing to cripple confidence and forward progress.

  4. Rise to the occasion: The Lakers had a number of also rans and cast-offs as role players. Key among them were Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard both of whom had crucial moments during the playoffs to deliver wins for their teams. Rondo's game 6 performance will go down as one of the greatest off the bench contributions in a series clincher. On the Miami Heat side, we watched Duncan Robinson step up in game 5 to come through in the clutch. Leadership Lesson: You never know when you will be called upon to be great. Your job as a leader is to keep everyone ready and energized for their moment. Then when it comes, reinforce their talents and fill them with positive reinforcement and watch them fly!

  5. You can do well by doing good: Adam Silver, the NBPA, and key advertisers did not have to embrace the cause of social unrest due to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breyonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others over the years due to systemic racism in America, but they went all in. The level of awareness and activation to augment voter registration and participation in peaceful protest was significantly boosted by this alliance. That in addition to creating a template for returning to normalcy in the midst of a global pandemic. 6,500 employees were a part of the NBA bubble and their were zero COVID cases from mid July to early October! Leadership Lesson: It is not enough to focus merely on sales and profits for businesses anymore. The key stakeholders now include employees, customers, communities, the environment, and of course investors. Today's leaders have a higher bar than ever to clear in terms of performance and are evolving to meet these new challenges.

When the season was suspended on March 11, no one was certain how things would play out. But after three months of highly competitive and safe basketball we were able to crown a champion and that is why this season will always be remembered! I'm also so proud that the Lakers were able to deliver a title for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna post their tragic deaths in January.

Omar L. Harris is Associate Vice-President and Country Manager for Allergan PLC in Brazil. He is the author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams and The Servant Leader's Manifesto available for purchase in ebook or print on Please follow him on instagramtwitter, and/or his website for more information and engagement.

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