Inside LeBron James' Evolved and Evolving Leadership Philosophy

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Inside LeBron James' Evolved and Evolving Leadership Philosophy
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MIAMI — Three minutes.

That was all Toney Douglas had played in his two weeks since joining the Heat, acquired to fill the roster spot previously occupied by the popular Joel Anthony. Now, on Feb. 11 in Phoenix, the journeyman guard would be starting for the two-time defending champions against the upstart Suns, pressed into action because Dwyane Wade had suffered a midday migraine. 

He was anxious to make an impression.

The Heat's leader sensed he needed some validation, so he offered three words:

"Be you, Toney." 

That's what it took to settle Douglas' stomach. 

That's not where LeBron James stopped. 

Every time Douglas played, over the final few weeks of the season, James made sure to make him feel comfortable and valuable. Douglas quickly got a handle on James' leadership style, which was largely "by example every day, in practice, in the locker room, on and off the court; he doesn't cheat the game."

But it was also, at times, more spoken and specific, directed to every player on the roster, whatever their résumé or role. Including him. 

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"No matter what, if he passes you the ball and you miss a shot, he doesn't get mad," Douglas said. "He's like, 'It's alright, OK, shoot the next one, have confidence.' The best player in the world saying that to you, that's a great feeling. Knowing that he believes in you, and he has confidence in you."

That played out on March 31, in a tight game against Toronto, when James passed to Douglas and the latter swished a three. That played out on other occasions, when James took Douglas' advice on the court. 

"I believed in him from watching him in practice," James told Bleacher Report in an extended interview Friday afternoon. "And once he got the nod, I said, 'Listen, you're in the game in the fourth quarter, I'm going to come to you at some point, because the team doesn't believe you should be out here at this point and time. And I do.' So that's what it's about."

That's how James leads. 

That's how he will continue to lead his team throughout the playoffs. 

"If you're a part of this culture, I believe you're here for a reason," James said. "Part of being a leader is making people also believe that sometimes they can do more than they actually can do. Giving them a sense of belief and confidence. And for me, I've always kind of done that. And I'm not downgrading what that individual can do. I'm just letting them know that they can do more than what they even thought they can do, and bring more to the game, and bring more to who they are as an individual than they thought they could." 

In doing so, he's become so much more of a leader than many thought he'd be. 


Erik Spoelstra preferred not to push it early.

And he appreciated that James didn't push too hard. 

"Our first year, quite naturally, he had great respect," Spoelstra said. "And because of that respect, he didn't come in here trying to impose his leadership right away. And I thought that was admirable and also important for that first year. But since then, every year, a little bit more, not only by his actions but by his voice."

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As James' comfort with the organization increased over the past two seasons, so did his leadership role. Still, Spoelstra didn't see that evolution as quite sufficient, not in light of the challenges he expected in 2013-14. Spoelstra couldn't anticipate everything that happened—Wade missing 28 games, numerous losses to lousy teams, the long stretches of defensive strugglesbut the coach did correctly identify one potential complication.

"He believed that our team was a lot different than the past three years," James said. "We lost a few guys that were staples on our team."

Though one mattered most.

"Mike Miller," James said. "And he knew that would be maybe a little bit of a turnaround for our team. And people don't understand how instrumental Mike Miller was to our team."

Miller had been amnestied due to luxury-tax concerns.

His absence left a huge hole in the locker room. 

"Yeah, he was just that stable guy," James said. "I mean, Mike, everything that he went through, both injuries and being in and out of the lineups, and not one day did he ever come to work with an 'I don't want to be here' attitude. Like never. And we all respected that. And for a guy like that who's done so much in his career, to come in with that mindset every day, we all saw that."

So Spoelstra saw James as the person to pull everyone together.  

"He came to me before the year, and he said he needed me to be more of a vocal leader, especially with us going to three straight Finals and winning back-to-back Finals," James said. "It's just a lot of wear and tear on people mentally. So I took that responsibility."

Spoelstra needed James to take that "vocal leader" role for the length of the season.

"Particularly for us when it's tough," Spoelstra said. "Him playing at the highest level in the league, that's needed, yes, that goes without saying. But him also leading us more, with this group, as the season went on, that has become more of a necessity." 

That's been due to volatility and adversity.

"It's much different than last year," Spoelstra said. "Last year, you knew the rotation, you knew who was playing, and there was an evenness to it, where the veterans could all contribute to keeping the ship right. This year, we've had to deal with a lot more waves. It's not bad, but that's what we've been dealt with. To deal with that, to keep everything straight, your best player has to be involved more in the leadership." 

To a man, James' teammates say he has.

Chris Bosh views James as "a bit more vocal; I think he's seen situations to kind of pull or push guys, what to say, what not to say, when to say it. I think before, we were all trying to figure it out and we didn't want to step on anybody's toes, but now he just demands excellence from anybody."

Shane Battier thinks James is "more self-aware" of the "eyeballs around him. As he's gotten more mature, especially here, he's more aware of how his teammates look at him. I don't know how he was in Cleveland. But the change from my first year here (2011-12), he's just more aware of what he says around teammates. And how he portrays himself, especially in the locker room."

In terms of shaping James' leadership style, no teammate has trumped Ray Allen.


With all due respect to a creaky Shaquille O'Neal, and Dwyane Wade—whose age makes him more of a peer—Ray Allen ranks as the most accomplished veteran influence of James' career. 

It has been common, since Allen's arrival in the summer of 2012, to spot James sitting with the 38-year-old before or after games, listening more than speaking. Last season, after Chicago snapped the Heat's 27-game winning streak, and James was openly affected by the Bulls' physical play, Allen pulled him aside and told him he needed to be more careful. He needed to always set the most even-keeled example. 

Allen has continued to counsel James this season. 

Remember when James told Douglas to "be you, Toney"?

Well, LeBron needs to be LeBron.

And that means always being in the vortex. 

"For me, leadership, being a leader, you can't pick and choose when you want to lead," Allen said. "That's the one thing that I've always tried to instill in him over the course of the year. That no matter what happens out there on the floor, his body language can't change. And he's always got to fight the good fight. And as much as you don't like it, you're held to a different standard. And I was, when I was the leading scorer on a team."

That was the case for nine seasons, in Milwaukee and Seattle. 

"And I had to understand the 'greater than me' perspective that I had to take," Allen said. "It was bigger than me. It was bigger than the team. It's the legacy of a team or a person. He's in a world that he goes back and forth. When you say, 'Well, what about me?' I (would) always tell myself, as much as it's about you, you can't worry about if you got fouled, and then a referee doesn't give you a call and we all know you got fouled. And you want to be mad and say 'what about me,' but you just have to get back on defense. And that's where your greatness is going to show even more, when you don't let those things affect you. Because when it affects you, it affects the team. And you lose a possession here or two, and the other team goes on a run."

Allen said he's had those talks with James quite often.

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"Because now his leadership is going to be tested, not when he's great, but when he's not great, and when the team is not great. People watch him now more than ever. I always want him to understand, to see that. Because we all see it. And we follow him, and he's the guy who's gonna lead us. And the great thing about this locker room is you have a multitude of veterans in here that are leaders, that at any given time can win a game, we could be a voice in this locker room. But ultimately he's the guy that, this is his team. I tell him, hey, we take cues from you, in all facets of the game, off the floor or on the floor. So you know, you don't have a break. You don't."

Just like Allen didn't, way back when.

Just like Wade and Bosh didn't, when they had to carry that burden, for Miami and Toronto, respectively. 

"I remember, I used to get hit with so many things," Allen said. "And people used to always say, have Ray do it. When there are times when I was clearly not in the wrong, but it was my fault. Somebody was blaming me for something. And I'd come in, and I'd be getting stabbed in the back from some angle. And I'd be like, what did I do? What happened? Why is it my fault? Why are you blaming me? And when I left those situations, I always learned after the fact that it didn't matter what the people were saying, as much as I had to confront whatever was being said and I had to lead the team. And I had to make sure that I stood up, and not rolled in the dirt with them, but rose above it and made sure that we moved forward from whatever muck that we were in."

So has James learned that?

Has he reached that level of understanding?

His first reply of the interview—when asked to define leadership—indicates he has. 

"I think the biggest thing of being a leader is owning the mistakes that you make," James said. "When you came come to grips with yourself, and say, OK, well, you haven't done everything correctly, you need to improve—both in your respective sport and off the floor—then it's easier to lead others."

Then, when given the snapshot synopsis of Allen's comments, related to the difficulty in taking responsibility for what is not your fault, James nods. 

"It is," James said. "It is. But it's something that I'm starting to get more and more comfortable with every single day. And I'm very comfortable with it, where you have to take responsibility for things that don't have anything to do with you. But that's what it's about. I mean, I think people are born into this position, some people learn it over the years, but you have to want to it, and you have to be, I guess, passionate about it. To want to lead a bunch of guys that are older than you, may have accomplished more than you, and some that are younger than you at the same time. And all different personalities, too. And then to come home and be able to do the same thing in your household."

The latter—as a husband, father, son and so on—can be even trickier. 

"Exactly, exactly," James said, smiling. "But I use basketball as a huge tool for how I lead at home, too. Different personalities in my household. And you have to communicate to people differently."

As in the locker room.

"Some guys you can go on a screaming match with," James said. "Some guys you can't. And you have to understand that. You have to understand the personalities of people."


There's another tool that James uses to better understand, and operate in, his environment:

A good book.

We saw that during the 2012 playoffs, when he started with Jerry West's biography and moved on to "The Hunger Games" series, as a way to tune out the media and relax after practices and prior to games.

J Pat Carter/Associated Press

During this postseason, he's been reading "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" by management guru John C. Maxwell.

Well, he was reading it. 

"Yeah, I'm done," James said proudly. "All done. All done. You know what's crazy. I like books like that. I didn't go through each chapter. I went to the index, and I kind of just picked which chapter I wanted to read and I just jumped chapters." 

So which laws resonated most with him?  

"It would be the Law of Victory and the Law of Influence," James said. "The Law of Influence, to be able to influence a group of people around you to want to be better in their craft or do things better. To have them follow you. That, that's huge. To be able to influence a group of guys to do all the same thing, to have the same common goal."

And the Law of Victory?

"By any means necessary," James said. "I will not accept losing. You know, and obviously, in your sport, you're going to lose at times. But I think what I got out of that Law of Victory is, in life, or in whatever, I may lose but I will never be defeated. I will never be defeated. No matter if I lose a game, no matter if I lose in the Finals, no matter if I lose whatever the case may be, I will never be defeated. I will always be able to pick myself back up and come back at it again."

While he couldn't recall the associated "law," he was affected by an anecdote. 

"There was a story about Theodore Roosevelt," James said. "And he had a speech that he had to do."

That was in 1912. Roosevelt was a former President at that point, running to reclaim the post as a Progressive Party candidate. 

"And someone actually tried to assassinate him, where he got shot," James said.

That someone was an unemployed saloonkeeper, who shot Roosevelt in the chest outside of a Milwaukee hotel. 

"And they wanted to take him to the hospital, and he actually was like, 'No, I need to give this speech,'" James said.

As the story goes, Roosevelt unbuttoned his vest to show the audience his blood-soaked shirt, then pulled out the 50-page speech had impeded the bullet's progress.  

It's easy to see how James—whose favorite film is Gladiator—could identify with that sort of leadership strength. But he identified with other aspects, too, also relayed in Maxwell's book. 

"When (Roosevelt) was born, he was scrawny and skinny and his Dad and people around him told him he needed to become a man," James said. "So he started working out and everything. They said he was one of the strongest, masculine Presidents...And when they found him dead in his bed, there was a book underneath his pillow. That said one thing about him, he never stopped wanting to learn, ever, ever.  I thought that was pretty cool. I've always seen pictures of him, but you don't know about the story."

Eight years after Roosevelt died, his face was carved with three other Presidents on Mount Rushmore.

You remember Mount Rushmore, right?

That created a bit of controversy around the All-Star break.

"Right," James said, laughing. "Yeah, right. Oh, the Mount Rushmore story again."

Then, as he walked away, he turned back, still smiling.

This time, he offered four words, "Put me on there." 

Lead the way. 

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