Anyone can look like a leader when the shots are falling, when the team looks unbeatable, when you're holding up the trophy. A real leader steps up when things are at their worst.
I remember in my first year in Miami we lost six of seven games after the All‑Star break—our first as the Big Three—to begin the stretch run toward the playoffs. We were getting killed in the media. It's like we couldn't do anything right. Things were out of whack. We had the right attitude, but it just seemed like we were in a funk.
It all came to a head in a one-point Sunday afternoon home loss to the Chicago Bulls, when we gave up a game we had in the bag with two consecutive bad fouls up two with 25 seconds on the clock and Chicago out of timeouts.
The thing is, it wasn't just a bad loss on its own. The Bulls had beaten us 10 days earlier, and this win on our home floor gave them the season series sweep and propelled them to a 24-4 finish. It also meant they took the No. 1 seed from us. Needless to say, it was a low point, and the media was loving it.
The next day at practice, I remember Bron coming in—and you could see it on his face. It wasn't that he wasn't happy. No one was. There was something about him that just embodied bouncing back. That he was back on track and we just needed to get on his energy.
The intensity that he brought to that practice was inspiring. To see the best player on the court sprinting full speed and leading the team with intensity and effort was what we all needed. We were all diving on the court for loose balls, taking charges, bringing that same intensity to the seemingly mundane drills. Getting back to the basics.
That's what a leader does. It's not just hyping the team up when you're winning and everything is comfortable. A leader shows composure when others would fall apart. LeBron didn't need to say anything to get us fired up—he just needed to set the example and trust that we would follow him. And we did.
Two months later, we met the Bulls again, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals, and we were a different team. We had no trouble going 4-1, including the clincher on their home floor, where LeBron, D‑Wade and I all went for 20-plus.
Leading by example is a hugely underrated thing. Leading by example is being on time. Demanding that your guys be on time not with nagging or commands but with the power of your presence. I always liked to be dressed and ready to go before practice, so that when the coach blew the whistle, I'd be the first one out on the court, ready to work on my craft.
Leading by example means taking care of yourself, eating right and getting the sleep you need to perform at your peak. Leading by example means setting the level of work ethic you want your teammates to emulate. Leading by example starts with little things like that, repeated day in and day out.
To lead by example, you don't have to bust out a "win one for the Gipper" speech every day. That's a misconception. That's the movies. Communication matters, but not more than showing up and putting in the hours, every damn day. And if you're a quiet personality like me, the few times you really do open your mouth can have a huge impact.
I really like something Coach Spoelstra said about me once: "CB knows when to talk, and it's not often. He knows when to push the button."
That really made me feel like he got me. I wanted my words to have an impact—and that meant saving them for the right moments. That's the "button" Spo was talking about. If I needed to get in a teammate's face when things were going wrong, I knew that he was going to listen to me, because I only spoke up loudly when there was something really important to say.
But just as not all leaders are the vocal, dominant players, not all leaders are the quiet, lead-by-example types either. There are the ones who eat tape and absorb playbooks, who can tell you exactly which offensive set is coming in which game situation, who understand your and your opponent's strategy like an extra coach on the floor.
There are the QBs, despite a huge contract and a couple of rings, who will call their backup at 2 a.m. to discuss some obscure play buried deep in the playbook. Because they are that committed to winning, because they are still learning. Because they are showing what leadership and dedication look like.
There are the ones who are deeply attuned to the emotional ups and downs of the game—the first ones to pick you up when you've had a bad moment or a bad night, the first ones to celebrate with you when you've hit a personal milestone.
There are the veterans who have been around the block so many times that nothing surprises them—and who pass that calm and wisdom on to the people around them.
And sometimes teams have more than one leader—they have a core of players who each know when it's their turn to step up. In fact, provided that you have a team full of people who are able to tame their egos, I'd say you can never have too many leaders on a team.
Being a leader can be as simple as hosting a party for your teammates, creating time to bond off the court. On the Heat, one of our team rituals was making sure that, on the road, we'd have at least one dinner or breakfast together every day. It didn't matter if we landed at 3 a.m.—we were getting our asses out of bed for breakfast at 10 a.m. Sometimes being a leader can be as simple as being down in the hotel lobby, ready to grab breakfast with the team, even when you'd rather be in bed.
Those are the intangibles that matter so much, even if you don't see them as a fan. But I promise you, you know what a team looks like when it's missing them—dysfunctional, listless, confused. You'd be surprised how common it is when teams don't have that bond—when guys haven't been to each other's houses, don't know the names of each other's kids, don't exchange a word outside the locker room.
Sure, you could say: "It's a business. You're supposed to be co-workers, not friends." And that attitude can work for a while—when things are going well. But when they aren't, when you need to level with one another about what's going wrong and how to fix it, you'll find that teams with that attitude don't have what it takes.
From Letters to a Young Athlete by Chris Bosh, available now on Amazon. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Chris Bosh, 2021.