In the final seconds of Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals, Cleveland Cavaliers guard JR Smith made a sizeable error. After teammate George Hill missed a go-ahead free-throw with 4.7 seconds left on the clock, Smith grabbed the rebound and dribbled the ball backwards, allowing time to expire with the scores level.
Cleveland had a chance for a game-winning shot, but Smith mistakenly thought his team was ahead, and was happy to see out time. The mental lapse was large given the high-stakes of the NBA Championship, but it wasn’t fatal. With the score tied, the game progressed into 5-minute overtime.
LeBron James, a global icon and clear leader on the team, was furious. As they walked back to the bench for a short intermission, James goaded Smith in what has now become a much-used meme.
Back on the bench, James sat by himself, staring into oblivion as Smith and the rest of the team slapped hands and tried to encourage each other. Smith looked forlorn, and snuck just one look at LeBron as the ‘captain’ of the team pouted on his own.
LeBron, the team’s leader, said nothing to any of his teammates for the entire intermission. After a short exchange with the coach, James looked anguished and put his hands over his head, as if he’d been asked to go into the brace position on an airplane. After that, he sat back, cross-armed and looked in the opposite direction from all of his teammates.
As the Cavaliers players put their hands in for the customary ‘Cavs on 3’ James’ antics continued, refusing to put his hand in as he barked at his teammates. Then, he returned to staring off into the distance, eventually returning to the court without uttering a single word.
After leading Cleveland, Miami and Cleveland (again) to eight straight NBA Finals, it is difficult to question LeBron James’ leadership — he is a study unto himself. I acknowledge that I am taking one small example and blowing it up so that we can analyze it and learn from its lessons, but I think it’s important to do because we shouldn’t only judge leadership when things are going our way.
The lesson here is that, as a leader, your team are always watching you and looking to you as an example. Cleveland were absolutely no chance to win that game in overtime after watching their leader mope around like his family pet had just died.
It is the same if you blow your top when your company’s RFP isn’t successful, or an employee’s work isn’t up to standard, or you lose a long-time client. You can have high standards and not go on a rampage because you don’t get your way.
The point is this: your behaviour always shows up somewhere along the line. From infancy, human beings mimic the people they observe the most, and at work the person they’re observing the most is the boss.
If you’re an angry, emotional mess, your team will be too.
If you’re empathetic, enthusiastic and controlled, your team will be too.