Lebron James:: Understanding his decision is understanding today’s workforce

Yesterday, countless sources (read, the explosion that was my twitter feed) reported the Kevin Love / Andrew Wiggins trade. Immediate reactions – mostly from male, Gen X, white, Canadian e-pundits – talked of shortsightedness, selfishness and mistakes. People used the trade to rehash complaints about how Lebron jumped ship. He was somehow wrong for leaving for a better situation instead of paddling doggedly to keep a sinking ship afloat.

We judged him and now the Cavaliers by static criteria, despite the fact we live in a fluid world. We questioned their decision to risk an uncertain future for a chance at immediate success. We assumed both would trade happiness and fulfillment for a sense of loyalty that no longer exists and we asked organizations to sacrifice today for a future that can never be accurately forecasted.

Not to pull a Wooderson, but the reality is sports writers and leaders are getting older while athletes and employees stay the same age. The generational divide forces them to assess a decision on criteria that are foreign to the people making the choice. It’s the same struggle we face trying to motivate, inspire, develop and retain talent in today’s organizations. Organizations no longer hold all the cards, and decisions are less black and white than ever before.

As an almost 40-year old man, I’m stuck in the arranged marriage that is sports fanaticism. The teams I love fully and completely were picked through rigorous decision criteria like “he’s got a cool mustache, he’s my new favorite player” or “they are on TV a lot and green is a cool color.” Most of my favorite teams have been a part of my life longer than my wife, my closest friends and any of my jobs. I struggle through loses and celebrate wins, but the result is irrelevant. I know I’m not leaving.

I’ve always thought of sport as a microcosm of society; the dedication I put into sports is no different than the investment most people my age put into every aspect of life. Titles – much like promotions, respect, and money – are the golden watches one generation expect after a lifetime of blind loyalty and one couldn’t care less about.

YaskWhyThankfully, that is no longer the case for fans, athletes, employees or any human being. We are allowed to admit that money and prestige are not the only factors in our success and happiness. Today’s employees don’t just accept their current situation as a foregone conclusion.

The world is a mess. The decisions the next generation makes will ultimately determine the future of the human race. While that might seem hyperbolic or even catastrophic, it is also reality. After year of consumerism and poor judgment, we are asking today’s workforce to find a way to clean up our mistakes and save the world. We chastise young people for having shorter attention spans and losing sight of the benefits of traditional knowledge and memorization, but in reality, we need them to solve huge, real-world problems not just memorize curriculum. The luxury of time is not something people are given or even expect.

We ridicule today’s youth for their sense of entitlement and the audacity to demand more from life, work, and the world, without acknowledging the job market is more competitive than it’s ever been (43% of Boomers say they let their kids live at home rent-free and 23% admit to helping with groceries and rent). They are willing to struggle instead of just accepting a position they don’t want. They are willing to suffer for their morals and beliefs. It may seem (at best) idealistic or (at worst) stupid, but Thoreau once wrote that only vanity allows us to write without standing up to live, and today’s workers essentially are choosing to live instead of just existing.

As a traditional sports fan, it saddens me to know that athletes, loyalty, teams and even fanaticism will never be the same, but as an HR professional, I’m encouraged by how decisions are being made by younger employees. Lebron’s choice is a perfect example.

Hard work is not the simple answer

Gen Y is the first generation to know that fame can be attained without little effort. The proverbial fifteen minutes (which may be closer to fifteen seconds in today’s connected society) is easier to obtain. Circumstance, timing and a single good idea are often enough to get started. The idea of paying dues is a foreign concept.

Gen Y is also the first generation to realize that if the required talent and team chemistry are not in play, even the best idea may fail. While my generation and my parents generation believed that effort was the deciding factor, today’s workforce understands that we can’t succeed simply by becoming mules that move forward without evaluating our success and failures.

People see this as a lack of spirit or determination. In reality, it’s acknowledging that not every fight can be won and that sometimes it’s better to admit defeat and move on. I work with a ton of people almost half my age, and while I do sometimes find them unfocused and agree that many crave constant recognition and affirmation, I never question their willingness to work hard or demand accountability from themselves or from team members. They want to learn. They want to lead. They want for the team to succeed. They just question whether success is possible more frequently and honestly.

Lebron’s talent is undeniable and his fifteen minutes will last forever. He shouldered the load on a bad team in his home state for years but people overlook the fact that being a Cleveland Cavalier was his first job. Do you remember your first job? Do you remember the frustrations of not being noticed or the never ending work you took on hoping to impress the powers that be? Do you remember the moment when you found your first mentor? Do you remember when you realized maybe you weren’t as smart as you thought you were and maybe, just maybe you needed help?

I do. I remember moving to Pittsburgh and waiting to get fired until a caring woman helped me understand what being an employee really meant and how to make sure projects were completed on time and correctly. She saved me and helped me learn things I couldn’t pick up from textbooks and assignments.

I also remember what it was like to know you couldn’t count on people. I remember what it felt like to sleep under my desk when I was working on a contract for NASA. I remember what it felt like to be told I had to work weekends for no pay and assuming it was just what having a job meant. I remember feeling like I had no control of my life and how stuck I felt doing something I hated. I remember asking my Dad for advice and him saying, “just keep working hard and it will all work out.”

We want to be challenged and tested, but we need to be inspired and fulfilled

Lebron should have been a college freshman when he was handed wealth, fame and responsibility beyond what almost any of us can comprehend. It’s incredibly hard to fail forward when you are asked to be CEO on day one and are tasked with bringing greatness and legacy to your city. We need the freedom to learn from mistakes, find mentors and peers. For a lot of people, those questions and realizations come when we go to university. We are forced to adapt. We meet people that change how we think and we start to identify our passions, strengths and weaknesses.

Lebron never got that chance. He stayed in his comfort zone and was surrounded by his boyhood friends and family. To paraphrase Michael Dell, if you are the smartest person in the room you are in the wrong room. He was in the wrong room.

He left to play with people he respected, to face new challenges and to grow. Yes, he handled the decision poorly – again, if he wasn’t surrounded by his friends, he might have had someone he respected point out the flaws in the whole situation – but his reasons for leaving are no different than what we consider when we make major life decisions.

Lebron chose to move to a team with a star almost as bright as his own. He wanted to realize success by leveraging his talents and having peers that could mitigate his weaknesses. In any other situation, that is admirable. Today’s workers are more socially conscious and entrepreneurial than any other generation. They collaborate and partner freely, knowing that they can learn more from smart people and have a better chance of making significant impacts if they work with other smart, driven people. People aren’t focused on being the MVP anymore. The legacy of pride isn’t about your name and what you did in life, it’s about the successes the team achieves and how much you helped others. Bill Nicholson once said “it’s better to fail aiming high than to succeed by aiming low” and today’s workforce understands that better than any generation to date.

Be part of something bigger than just you

People see Lebron leaving and dismiss it as simply jumping off a sinking ship. People don’t realize that Lebron’s decision is more complex than that. No matter what city he chose, he’d be one of the biggest stars in the world. He’s an international icon, rich beyond almost anyone’s dreams but he still wasn’t happy. He missed home. He felt the sting of disappointing his city.

We’ve all wanted to move home at some point in life; we crave community and comfort. There are no guarantees in sports or in life; all we can do is chose the situation that gives us the best chance for fulfillment. Lebron moving home and instantly bringing a championship to Cleveland is far from a certainty. In fact, there are countless other scenarios that would have been smarter from basketball point of view. His last move talked of numerous titles and a legacy that would stand the test of time. This time around, he spoke of hope and trying to give something to a community that has suffered for years.

Simply put, he wanted to live in Ohio and hopefully help change the sad story of Cleveland athletics. He wanted to do right by his community.

When my wife and I lived in Vancouver, I finally found a career that challenged me, a team that I respected and a path for success. I was living in the most beautiful city in Canada but it wasn’t a perfect fit. Real estate costs were a constant stress, and I missed Halifax and wanted to be around family (and start my own). We made the decision to leave Vancouver even though we were very happy. I asked to be able to work from home, but knew if my org didn’t say “yes” I would be walking away from a great team and a great future.

But not once did people criticize me for my decision. They all agreed if that’s what makes us happy we should do it. It’s easy to forget that Lebron is a human being because of all he has, but he’s ultimately making the same decision. His decisions are based on what’s best for him, his desires, his family and his community.

Today’s workers rarely make decisions based purely on money or titles. They don’t look at their career and their family as two separate entities. The work / life balance that defined Gen X is gone; in today’s world people make decisions based on a life / work rhythm and their own personal fulfillment. If work needs the focus, it takes priority but the same is true for family, community and charity.

Success is often found in the experience, not the result

Everything about life has changed in the last 10 years. Society feels the need to share everything. We document our every action, but more importantly, our actions are consumed by strangers in search of empathy and connection. We share experiences your happiness, sadness, frustration or heartache with complete strangers, knowing eating at the same restaurant or seeing the same band is a cultural connection. People will go see a show and instead of watching the band live, they pull out a device and watch the band through a two inch screen. Instead of eating a meal and sharing conversations, people will snap photos and suffer through cold food. But make no mistake, the connection they make online with other people who have done the same thing feels real.

Lebron is going home. He’s playing basketball in his home state. He’s trying to bring glory to Cleveland. Will he win a championship? Who knows, but also, who cares? He made his decision and success is found in coming home and risking ego and legacy for fulfillment. He can connect with the people of Ohio. He can hopefully find fulfillment in his decision, but Lebron knows that if he fails or doesn’t find the happiness he hoped for, he can try again and again until he does.

He’s not left asking why his team breaks his heart year after year. Even as a dedicated fan, that hope is pretty powerful.


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