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Think you can do it alone? I hope you like losing.
Before I begin, let me offer a disclaimer: I’m a Philadelphia sports fan, for better or worse, and we love and hate our teams at the same time. It’s a contentious relationship. Another thing of certainty about us: we disdain the success of other teams even more than we usually do when we are succeeding. Now, I have my all-time hated teams: the Mets, the Cowboys, the Devils, and the Celtics. But I also generally hate most other teams that post a danger to my own. Philadelphia, in general, joins me in that fact. Before this playoff season, because the Sixers were relevant again, before the process came to fruition, I was a LeBron James fan. I think he’s one of the best players to ever live. Up until this postseason, I would have even put him second to only His Airness. But now that the Sixers path to the Finals may end up facing LeBron, I’m starting to have second thoughts about my love and respect for LBJ.
And only a cursory overview of what I’ve written about the man shows my wishy-washiness on him: in this post I declare myself a LeBron lover; whereas in this one, “I’m not the biggest fan.” OK, I’m not very consistent on my LBJ love. And admittedly, since one big-time Cavs fan has joined our congregation, my disdain for LeBron has grown. This is all a disclaimer because I want to acknowledge that the assessment that follows is being done through that lens.
King James with his kingly beard
Even a broken Whitlock is right twice a day
Now, I caused a little fury on Twitter when I shared Jason Whitlock’s video that lampooned LeBron James’ leadership and playing ability. Little did I know that Whitlock is not well-loved among the sports media consuming demographic, but I did think the point Whitlock was making was relevant (if not apparently inconsistent).
Whitlock, a much-maligned sports commentator
His idea that I valued was that a leader or a star athlete will limit the success they experience if the entire system is based on his or her talent and capacity alone. Whitlock says Lebron fails to elevate his teammates, and thus denudes them (in LBJ's defense, this Cavs' squad is quite denudable). LeBron James has the capacity to play basketball better than any player before him; that is at least an arguable point. And his immense talent has led him to six Finals appearances in the last seven years. He’s lost four and won two. That is impressive, no matter which way you cut it, but there’s a lot of meat on the bone there. We can debate why that’s the case for myriad reasons.
Whitlock, above, has his argument and it’s based around LeBron’s inability to make others on his team better. He fails to empower them, even if he learns how to use them. He relegates them to tools to his system, as opposed to bringing out their strengths and using them for the greater good. I am not trying to moralize LeBron too much here, but I do think Whitlock’s point, whether it is with merit or not, teaches us something about leadership.
You alone aren’t enough
No matter how charismatic you are. No matter how threatening you are. No matter how talented you are. No matter how capacious you are. Some of us are so talented, we’ll win two out of six Finals by ourselves, essentially. But that kind of single-minded leadership has its limits. You will reach a limit not just in your success, but also in your joy, doing a job that way. That includes playing basketball, but also following Jesus.
You can’t do it alone. This applies to disciples and disciple-makers. You need a team to do it. That’s why we constantly say that leadership is a team effort. We should be working on improving our game as much as possible, getting the basics down, improving on our fundamentals. But we don’t have to be a ball-hogging know-it-all to lead well.
We need to have a team and we need to learn the team’s strengths. We need to know what we can do, and what others can do. We need to know when to shoot and when to pass. And we also need to develop or enter into a scheme that works for the whole.
It’s easy to blame but hard to ask for help
LeBron James knows that it takes the whole, at least in part. The other day he got snippy with the media when they asked him to throw his under-performing teammates under the bus (like many of his apologists do). LBJ would have none of it. He knows his immense talent isn’t enough, he knows he needs a team. And at this stage in his career, with so many chances at winning, but only doing it twice, I think LBJ is reflecting on that. His posture is humble enough to learn and grow and I think he will, personally.
The best duo of all time
It’s too easy to blame your teammates for your shortcomings. It is easy to distribute blame so that it is everyone else’s fault but your own. And that happens too much. Leaders that do that will pay for it in their own capacity and in their results. And for many, that tiny life is enough. It’s manageable and controllable and it puts them at minimal risk for harm or for criticism. Keep it tiny if you only want to protect yourself (that is not to say big is always better, on the contrary, Circle of Hope has found a way to be both small and growing).
But it’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to admit a deficiency. It’s humbling to do that. But if we did it regularly, it might be easier. I like teaming up because it increases accountability and mutuality. In fact, with the help of a teammate, we automatically have more buy-in and collaboration. It’s better for the whole process. That’s why we remember those great NBA duos. It’s fun to do it together.
Faced with this option, don’t go the angry and critical way
What does LeBron have that Kobe Bryant (he went to the finals seven times and won five times) and Michael Jordan (he went to the Finals six times and won six times) didn’t have (here's my all-time favorite on that issue, by the way)? Kindness. Humility. Compassion. Sensitivity. I really think those are gifts he has in stride. The limitations that he has on the court are not related to his character. In fact, Kobe and Michael’s killer instinct and competitiveness resulted in their great success, but it also resulted in much more negativity. The two of them are not known to be kind, decent, or compassionate. They didn’t play well with others, and isolated many.
Jobs famously advised us to be jerks.
They were the kind of, excuse me, asshole leaders that lead most of the nation’s most successful corporations. But you don’t need to be a jerk to be a leader. But it is sometimes easier to exert power, criticize others, and frighten them into following you. A brutal leader can even call out the best in his or her people, just in an unkind and fear-mongering way.
But I think there is a better way. It’s how Jesus did it. Lead according to a mutually agreed-upon vision (and cast that vision everyday). Love your teammates, your comrades, into fullness. Be humble enough to receive feedback and growth from the people around you. Learn to endure and learn from criticism, to take it with stride, but also to offer it back kindly. Build mutuality and trust. Don’t collect power because of our lack of trust. Lose your defensiveness, and in fact, defend them! Don’t rely on yourself, rely on Jesus, and the community he has given you. Listen to everyone, and listen to the ones who make love and disciples happen the most.