The NBA Finals are proving to be an epic battle. On the surface, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers match-up appears to be a showdown between Stephen Curry and LeBron James. David and Goliath, anyone?
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LeBron, at 6’8” and 250 pounds, is the best player in basketball. He is awesome to behold: smart, confident and dominant. Curry is a smaller, quick player with extraordinary agility and shooting accuracy, not unlike the shepherd boy who slew the giant.
Beyond David and Goliath
Unlike the Biblical confrontation that came down to the performance of each side’s representative, the winner in this battle is likely to be the team that plays better together, a calculus that favors Golden State. The duo of Stephen Curry and Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr gives the Warriors an edge.
Curry blends high competence and character. What’s not to like about him? He’s hard-working, humble, and unselfish -- a combination that facilitates team success. As a leader, Curry doesn't have to be the center of attention. He is soft-spoken and modest. He likes to shine the spotlight of attention and praise on his teammates. He lifts everyone’s performance.
Steve Kerr, in his first year as an NBA head coach, is following in the footsteps of coaching greats Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, whom Kerr played for in Chicago and San Antonio, respectively. Jackson and Popovich are consummate team builders and you can see signs in Kerr of what made them great.
As soon as he was named the Warriors’ head coach, Kerr traveled to meet his players wherever they were. In these meetings, he complimented them and their former coach Mark Jackson for what they had achieved. He was candid about what he had in mind to make the team better, even if it required a player to leave the starting line-up.
In practices, Kerr shows his passion for hard work and excellence, balanced with making practice enjoyable. Stephen Curry observed this about Kerr:
“He’s just brought a flow and a chemistry and a joy-ness about the game and how we were going to win… making the practice environment, the locker-room environment, the environment on the bench inspiring to all the players… we love coming in to work and practice...”
That’s a very positive sign. It says connection -- a sense of community and unity among team members -- is extraordinarily high because you don't consistently experience joy on any team absent a connection culture among team members.
Prodigal Son Brings It Home
While this NBA Finals evokes a David versus Goliath story, a different narrative may play out in this series.
LeBron broke the hearts of Cleveland fans when he chose to leave in 2010 to play for the Miami Heat. Although he won two NBA championships in Miami, all the glitter didn't necessarily turn out to be gold.
Now LeBron is back home. Like most people, he has grown wiser and more mature with life experience. The ultimate question is whether LeBron has learned, as Phil Jackson once asked of Michael Jordan, “to surrender the me for the we.” If LeBron has made that leap, the Cavs will play together as one. However, if LeBron’s teammates feel like King James’ supporting cast, they are likely to lose.
If I were advising LeBron about his role as a team leader, especially in this critical period, I would impress upon him the competitive advantage of connection. Below are three ways LeBron could increase connection among the Cavs.
1. Bring Greater Meaning to the NBA Final
LeBron could remind his teammates that they are playing for a cause greater than themselves and their own glory, they are playing for the people of Cleveland and northern Ohio. Winning a championship unites a community and gives them something to celebrate. Times are tough and an NBA title would lift the spirits of people in the region at a time when they could use it.
2. Appreciate Each Teammate
LeBron could take time to personally connect with each player. In meetings and telephone calls he could say what he appreciates about each individual and how glad he is that they are teammates.
3. Show You Care
Finally, LeBron could ask each player how he is doing and let him know if there is anything he could do to be of help to them, not to hesitate to let him know. In other words, he could let his teammates know he has their backs.
These actions apply to any leader when it comes to connecting with colleagues. The words and actions have to be genuine, of course. As they say in the South, it has to be the real sugar (and can't be the fake artificial sweetener stuff).
I’m optimistic that we are going to see LeBron rise to new heights as a leader in this NBA final. By being intentional about connecting with each teammate, LeBron, as the Cavs’ leader, could elevate the team’s performance and bring an NBA title to Cleveland.
That will make it a homecoming to remember.
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