A Lesson from LeBron in Emotional Intelligence

Cavaliers Owner Dan Gilbert's response to James' exercising control over his NBA career amounts to a flagrant foul

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James made an educated and experienced decision, not an emotionally mismanaged one.

In business, there is absolutely no substitute for intelligence. For entrepreneurs, the best way to build and brand a business is to “start with smart.” Traditionally, however, when we think about “intelligence” we think about education and experience. There is another “E” consistently missing from that equation: emotion. No matter how much education and experience you possess, if you cannot manage your emotions, your hard-earned smarts start to sound silly.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage yourself and your emotions, and to understand and strategically adapt to the emotions and actions of others. Read that again just so it seeps in! In my book, SKIRTS in the Boardroom, I dedicate an entire chapter to this topic, because I think it is completely under-appreciated in the marketplace–and, apparently in professional basketball.

The sports-saga that continues to unfold regarding LeBron James’ “Miami-bound” decision and the subsequent “me-bound” response from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert exemplifies this concept precisely.

Recently on ESPN Sports Center (you can see the video excerpt here) and Twitter, I shared some pretty critical views of Dan Gilbert’s response. I think it is utterly unbecoming of an owner in the National Basketball Association to attack a player’s character in the manner that he chose. I, like most people, can understand Gilbert’s disappointment at the loss of a superstar player like LeBron–possibly one of the best to ever play the game. But at the end of the day, it is just that–a game. You win some. You lose some.

LeBron enabled the city of Cleveland to win a heck of a lot more than they ever experienced in franchise history. Plus, he brought more than wins. Over the past seven years, he attracted increased enterprise, more jobs, and philanthropic partnerships to the city like never before. Personally, I think LeBron more than fulfilled his obligation and commitment to the city, the fans, and the franchise. He was undoubtedly the free agent of free agents this year. To me, free agency is like entrepreneurship in action. The key for all entrepreneurs and business owners (Gilbert included) is to act with quality emotional management. Here are a few emotional management lessons that will help you in business and in life:

– Number One: Think Long Term.
Any financial adviser will tell you the importance of diversifying your investments. Gilbert should have never placed all of his eggs in one basket. Furthermore, his remarks show the consequences of a short-sighted emotional reaction. LeBron clearly thought about the long-term implications of making an informed business decision. Short-sighted decisions almost always have a negative impact on your credibility. Rebounding from that will be an uphill battle. You will never, ever make a situation better by being bitter.

– Number Two: Make Decisions as C-E-O of Y-O-U.
Many sound business decisions still come with backlash. Sure, LeBron could have made the announcement in another way, but would it have really made a difference? More people watched the announcement than watched LeBron in the NBA Finals. Nobody had a problem with the announcement format until after they heard the results. “Operation Recruit King James” became a larger-than-life process due to the fans, not due to LeBron.

Make no mistake about it, this was and is about m-o-n-e-y. An insane amount of money and future earnings will follow LeBron wherever he goes. Owners know it. Marketers know it. And the fans know it. We are not accustomed to seeing a professional athlete with this much power and influence–not just over the game, but over his own career.

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  • Great article and yes, its great to see top athletes take charge of their brand and career. Can you imagine how much Pat Riley and the Heat (front and back office) will be making from this monster deal?

  • Latisha

    No one could have said it any better!

  • dee

    Marshawn, You hit the nail right on the head, plus I really enjoyed you on “Trump”. You and I are thinking along the same vain, so that’s why I’m selling LebronLesson.com for $50,000,000 (cash) because this is a pivotal turning point for the black athlete. Look how Tiger and Vick were decimated and now they want to bring down Lebron…WHY??? Thanks for asking :), simply because the NBA
    and other sports are the “new plantations” and the owners hate when Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Tobe, Reggie Lewis, Ron Brown and Stanley O’Neal leave the plantation …without their PERMISSION…LET’S KEEP IT REAL…EVEN DAVID STERN TOOK A LITTLE KICK AT LEBRON…A 25 YEAR OLD “KID” (as the official unbiased media called his team) IS NOT SUPPOSE TO HAVE THIS POWER…UNLESS HE OWNS FACEBOOK, TWITTER, SKYPE OR TESLA…YOU SEE…CLEVELAND AND ARIZONA ARE NOT THAT FAR APART..ARE THEY…WHERE IS LEBRON’S “PURSUIT OF “LIFE, LIBERTY AND HAPPINESS ” WAKE-UP PEOPLE!!!

    • Dee – you want $50 million cash for LebronLesson.com?

      You do raise a good point in noting that anyone can be brought down. I’ve had to deal with several crisis management issues with my pro athlete clients. The best thing any ball player can do is surround himself with the right people and make sure to stay out of sticky situations – “stuff” happens pretty easily and quickly. Tiger and Vick made bad choices and put themselves in harms way. This situation is very different. I do think this situation is about power and money.

      • dee

        Marshawn, thanks for responding…$50mm sounds right. Remember, this is a pivotal event in history for espn, t.v. in general, boys & girls club(2.5mm raised), nba and business (can anyone say…antitrust or collusion). Listen, I am not even going to mention the “official media’s” involvement to stir the pot, create racial division and sell papers, ad space and continue the campaign that most educated blacks (remember Lebron only finished high school…nothing against that) are arrogant, uppity and not team players??? Example, look at Mel Gibson, why is he not arrogant, Larry Ellison is he arrogant, Dick Chaney, George Bush, Ben Roghlesberger is he arrogant, Simon Cowell is he arrogant just to name a few where it is OKAY to be Aggressive!!! HOW THE HELL EVER, why is it ALWAYS said for the BLACK MAN TOO BE HUMBLE…WHAT’S THAT ALL ABOUT!!! Think about it, “they said all of our leaders are…ARROGANT…MARTIN LUTHER KING, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, REV. AL SHARPTON, MICHAEL JACKSON, NEW ORLEANS MAYOR RAY NAGIN, DR. HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.,STOKELY CARMICHAEL, MAXINE WATERS, PRINCIPAL JOE CLARK, OPRAH, DENZEL WASHINGTON, HARRY BELAFOUNTE, MELVIN VAN PEEBLES, L.DOUGLAS WILDER, SPIKE LEE, TYLER PERRY, DR. BILL COSBY, JUDGE LEAH SEARS, ATTORNEY GENERAL THUBERT BAKER , PRINCE, DIDDY, BARRY GORDY, VALLERY JARRETT, KOBE, MICHAEL JORDAN, MAJIC JOHNSON, FIGHTER FLOYD MAYWHETHER, RNC’S MICHAEL STEELE, BRYANT GUMBEL AND EVEN AL ROKER…NOW COME…EVEN AL ROKER(OH YEA..HE HAVE HIS OWN PRODUCTION COMPANY…SORRY TO CALL YOU OUT AL!!!).. Marshawn…now you worked for “the Donald”..remember..HE’S A SAVVY, SMART AND INSIGHTFUL BUSINESS MAN…NOT AN ARROGANT ONE…WAKE-UP PEOPLE!!! ***NOTE TO HATERS: I’M BLOGGING BABY…ALL GRAMMAR…ALLOWED…PEACE!!

  • hmazard@poly.edu

    It is important to remember that the Lebron James free agency in 2010 was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Most players don’t have his clout and, as we’ve seen with many a sports stars, “anyone can get got.” Just ask Kobe, Michael Vick & countless others. I would have preferred a more quiet exit from Cleveland in much the same uneventful tone as Kevin Garnett’s parting from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    As an intern at Goldman Sachs, I was instructed to “make money but not talk about it.” In American Gangster, Denzel’s character proclaimed, “The loudest man in the room is usually the weakest man in the room.” The common thread is that there is a responsibility associated with the privileges of wealth. The sustainability of success depends on a mutual respect between the producers of value and the consumers of value. The media spectacle was more than a tad bit over the top. I deplore Dan Gilbert’s response; it was primal, ill-advised and unbecoming. Stealing a line from Chris Rock, “while I don’t condone Dan Gilbert’s comments… I unner-stand.”

    The Lebron James I respect is the one who can talk with crowds and keep his virtue or walk with kings yet not lose the common touch. As restrictions on prestige, wealth, power and generational prosperity are lifted for a greater proportion of African Americans, we need to show a newfound respect for the responsibility associated with newfound privileges. We built this country and are starting to reap the rewards of our ancestor’s labor, sacrifice, struggles and strife. In honor or their contributions to our well being, lets act like we belong here. #imjustsayin

    • Very valid points. Humilty is a great brand asset and life tenant.

      I agree that a courtesy call to the Cav’s would have been appropriate, but I don’t think it was required either. Gilbert showed that there are more challenges in playing for his team than we might realize at first. We don’t know what tempers were like behind the scenes. It is important to maintain solid relationships whenever possible. But the magnitude of this recruiting process was larger than life and hindsight is 20/20.

      We all need a change at some point in our careers. You do not have to ask permission from anyone to make a change in your life that is best for Y-O-U. Too often we get stuck in the mire of expectations and trying to please others.

      If anyone is that upset over someone making a choice in his own way for his own reasons, they need to re-evaluate why it’s that big of a deal. Argue the economic consequences to the city of Cleveland – I can get with that. But, he’s a traitor and completely unprofessional? C’mon! We should be this outraged when an athlete gets in trouble for rape or murder. This was just a decision to make a career change. It says a lot of priorities.

      But I agree that staying humble is important and a key asset in being able to make sound decisions.

  • kennon hughes

    All contracted people are not created equal.Wow, is it all about money from the viewers prospective? Are people not held to the words and commitments they make? The relationship between a franchise player and an owner are closer to a marriage than an owner employee relationship. I’d put it at 51 for an owner and 49 for the franchise player. Real quick before I forget, in the NBA you can not have a active player owning a team as it would interfere with the labor agreement. If there is a dispute which side is the player owner on?Here are some finer points not explored by the less informed about the situation we, nba/Cleveland Cavs fans are experiencing. 1LBJ was a contracted employee of the Cavs, and so was Zydrunas Ilgauskas who has played his whole career in Cleveland and was well liked. But to imply that they both affect the franchise equally is a skewed perspective. If you were the owner you would give more weight to the demands of LBJ who is generating a high return on capital than Z. Since LBJ was the engine the team has to be designed around him to compete and to keep him happy. This has been an ongoing work in progress since his arrival in Cleveland but let’s focus on the last 3 years. 2. If LBJ really wanted to bring a championship home to Cleveland the Cavs could have created cap space just as the Heat did if the vision was to bring big time free agents here. Weather or not LBJ’s vision and Dan Gilbert and GM Danny Ferry were in accord, we will never really know. Letting the behavior of both men cancel each other out you’d have to admit something doesn’t smell right when the GM leaves/is fired and the franchise player walks after seemingly getting everything they asked for.

  • John Talat Karim

    Great article!

  • sharon zimmerman

    Great article!  I have read the comments and some very valid points have been made. 

    From an org. development point, Lebron was absolutely right to leave such a toxic organization. Ego-maniacal disloyal owner, cheating teammates, no commitment to give more support.  etc.   Given Gilbert’s antics, it is clear that any “courtesy or advance notice to him or team members would have given Gilbert more opportunity to villianize him.  

      I am definitely in the “let another man praise thee” camp.  But in sports that is so hard because the media hypes them up so much – THEY crowned him King James – now they are mad because he is using it!   Nobody gets mad at “the Donald” for making the most out of his hype – he probably earns more now in books, shows, licencing,  and seminars than real estate these days.  . 

    That being said, Lebron could have controlled the messaging of his departure more effectively. He left too many people questioning why he chose the venue, the place, the charity, the announcement  instead of controlling the message — crafting it so they they know all these things up front.   The outrage could have been foreseen and planned for.  Who knows that the charity got over $2MM or how much he has given to Cleveland??  Missed opportunities here.  At this point, Gilbert has controlled the messaging when his actions are 10 times more egregious than  LB.     When ever I have seen LB talk or give an interview, he doesn’t come off as a showboat so there was a mis- alignment with the execution of the show and his brand.   The actual show was not well execute to me and some of that airtime could have been used to highlight LB’s life in Cleveland giving back etc. and then transitioning to the future.   But ESPN smelled $$$ and they obviously took over the show.      

    And we have to take another look at “humility” too.   I think that the media always reacts badly when a black man doesn’t stay in that safe zone.  Think about how Obama had to walk that tightrope, because studies have shown that the reaction to black males is at a primal irrational level.  Too much flava and they get quickly marginalized as radical, arrogant etc.   Even given Obama’s very careful image control, dissenters still use those words and imagery.   This is because they want to silence him when he has something to say.  

    Prudent planning, clarifying his goals should be in Lebron’s cards now -everything should align with that.  I’m sure winning games and moving forward is on that list.   

    So I think that   

  • I love many of the comments. And most important I can relate to the article posted by our sister and teacher. Being the cousin of Muhammad Ali, the boxer, i witnessed Don King and other promoters taking advantage of Ali and many other athletes who didn’t have the marketing or financial knowledge to make intelligent business decisions. In the end what you don’t know will and can hurt you. I’m proud of Lebron in making the decision to think about himself and to be responsible and accountable for his own happiness and well-being long term.
    Thanks again my sister for having the courage to speak so clearly and wonderfully on ESPN. May the Most High continue to bless you with wisdom, knowledge and understanding.
    Peace, from Nboya

  • Miss Evans, what an outstanding article. I personally have not taken the time to read any other articles (I’ve only read tidbits or have discussed among close friends/family). Thank you for the insight on Emotional Management.


  • I love this article. You were able to talk about Emotional Intelligence, a skill that most never develop and relate it directly to Lebron and business owners. (excellent piece)

    What is interesting is that many still believe that he “should” have had a quiet exit, and spoke with “masa” Gilbert. To me this exemplifies the “worker” mentality. Dan Gilbert and the other five teams all knew the deal, they all knew that he would make a decision on live TV- if he would have said he was going to Cleveland, “masa,” would have dubbed it a spectacular event. (I could go on)

    Which brings me back to the main point of the article EQ (Emotional Intelliegence), most important factor has to do with a self -awareness, identifying ones needs and identifying strategies to meet those needs effectively. If you ask the average person what they need, they’d respond by saying, I dont know or I don’t need anything. LeBron, needed to feel success. He developed a strategy in which he could meet his needs. Beyond those things, I was impressed by LeBron and how he capitalized on the moment, he created a brand, we were all eagerly watching and listening for his decision which was dramatic, entertaining and ingenious. All business owners wish they could do what LeBron did, have the attention of millions of viewers at one time. Great business sense!

    As for gilbert and his shenanigans- this so-called letter that he penned with frustration and love of his team, is a total distraction. Had he not released the letter many would have never thought about LeBron as one that “betrayed, let down etc,” however we would all be talking about how NBA history was made-three franchise NBA players came together and decided to play on the same team, with the same goal in mind, a championship. His letter, was ready and penned before the decision aired, it was a total distraction and a scheme to use LeBron as a scapegoat for his EPIC failure as a businessman, and majority owner of a team to develop the franchise and acquire quality players. He whipped his hands clean. When the city economics fail, he will get to blame LeBron, when the team fails, he will blame LeBron- all buying himself time to develop another game plan.

    Race, Business and Economics are all very interesting- Great piece!

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