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On Leadership: Gilbert's Letter to Lebron - Leader or Looney?

By now, you know Lebron James (NBA megastar in pro basketball) has left Cleveland for Miami. This post isn't about Lebron.

It's not about how a hometown boy (Lebron grew up in Cleveland) leaves his economically depressedDan-gilbert hometown city on the side of the road, like the carcass of a raccoon that made the wrong choice when it saw the headlights come around the corner and had to make a quick decision about which way to run.

It's not even about the fact that the star in question produced a media frenzy that culminated with product placement of Vitamin Water while he claimed to be doing a incredible favor for the Boys and Girls club of America (unbelievable).

Because, after all, we live in a free agent nation from an employment perspective.

I'm obviously not bitter.

This post is about leadership.  More to the point, this post is about what you do when stars leave and your organization seems like it's reeling with self-doubt and uncertainty.

Let's define the players in this retention/leadership morality play. Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is your CEO (or manager, however you want to term it).  Lebron is the star that just left.  The employee base left reeling in self doubt is the city of Cleveland.

Gilbert had three choices to reassure his base.  He could:

1. Ignore it and hope everyone would be OK;

2. Do some soft communications to his base designed to reassure, but scrubbed by PR (or the next level manager if you're thinking about this occuring in the trenches) to make sure he didn't screw up; or

3. He could turn that mother out and push the send button, telling everyone how he really felt without any kind of filter.  Transparency rules above and all else with this option.

Which option is the right one?  As with many things in life, it depends.


Dan Glibert chose option #3 as a leader in Cleveland.  The result was one of the most bombastic letters to an employee base (really fans, but work with me) in the history of man.  Go read the letter in it's entirety here. Go read it now.  It's that good. Or bad. I'll wait for you to come back.


You're back.  Wasn't that amazing?  Whatever your reaction, the letter has elements of a playbook for reassuring your base as a leader.  You just have to decide how far you want to go.  Here's a rundown of the elements that matter in the letter, and how you could use them to reassure a team, a company, or a city once a star has decided to leave:

1. Acknowledge the specific person who's left.  Gilbert did this through the quote below.  Now, you might not want to burn the former employee like Gilbert did, I get that.  But mention the person by name. You'll get credibility points for being direct and real and not talking a bunch of PR smack that doesn't matter.  You could also wish him well instead of being crazy aka Gilbert below.

How Gilbert acknowledged the specific person leaving:  "As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his "decision" unlike anything ever "witnessed" in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment."


2. Tell your base what you think they deserve.  Doing this shows you give a damn and show's you're connected to how they feel.

How Gilbert told the fans what they deserve: "Tomorrow is a new and much brighter day.... I PROMISE you that our energy, focus, capital, knowledge and experience will be directed at one thing and one thing only:  DELIVERING YOU the championship you have long deserved and is long overdue..."


3. If you're feeling a bit chippy, and the star left to join a competitor, take a pot shot toward the competition.  Go ahead, it's good for morale.

How Gilbert acknowledged addressed the competitor: "The self-declared former "King" will be taking the "curse" with him down south. And until he does "right" by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma."

4. Close big with a statement that, regardless of the defection, you remain confident that your company is going to win, and that you'll do what it takes to provide the resources to win.

How Gilbert acknowledged the future of the company/team/fanbase: In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight: "I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE" (caps from the actual letter). You can take it to the bank."

Dan Gilbert was a leader in the face of one of the most visible employee retention issues ever.  Some of you read that letter and think Gilbert's crazy.  You might be right.  Don't forget that regardless if you think he went too far, he's a leader.

Cleveland as a city is an organization.  The employee base is down.  Gilbert took a shot at leading and went extreme. You may call him crazy.  I might agree with you. But he's a leader.  Who in Cleveland didn't on some level appreciate that Gilbert was standing up for them?


That's what leaders do.  They speak transparently from the gut and take chances.


PS - If you're really mad about something, write the Gilbert letter and then wait 24 hours.  If it still feels good after that delay, THEN you can push send... You're not a billionaire.  He is.



I think Mr. Gilbert will now have a recruiting problem though...


I agree KH. Who in their right mind would want to 'work' for a 'boss' like this? I mean, the 'employee' in this example wasn't a lack luster employee, in fact, he was the top of his game. I fail to understand how he think he can recruit any top player to his company after he treated his best employee like this. There is very little loyalty these days and as a boss he should have prepared for this. (Sidenote: If the city of Cleveland rested it's future on the shoulders of an NBA player then shame on them.)

P.S. Welcome to the Sunshine State Lebron!!!!

Go Tribe in Cleveland

Oh please people! As a Clevelander I admit to being disappointed in Lebron's decision to leave. I think he blew his chance to show his loyalty and really be a force for good in North-east Ohio and do more than just play basketball. But, he is a 25 year old man who's mother told him to do what was right for HIM. So that means give no consideration to the community that built you up to be "king." We helped create this egotistic, self centered person and all cities that pay professinal athletes huge sums of money to play a sport keep up that tradition as well.

LeBron handled the whole process poorly, hey he's 25 and has had, for years, people telling him he's "the man" that could do no wrong. I imagine Gilbert isn't an angel walking around with a halo either. All in all, it boils down to money and looking out for number 1. Isn't that what our society is all about??

Pat Wood

While I think that Gilbert is a bit crazy, I do have to admit that you're quite right when it comes to being a leader and showing your "employees" that this is a minor set back and will not be effecting the organization as a whole in a negative way. Now it'll be interesting to see if he can back up this talk next season. Also I think a lot of the craziness that comes out in this letter is more likely him (as you mentioned) writing it when he was upset on the new news and not letting it simmer.


#HRCapitalist: What the LeBron debacle can teach Leaders and HR

Eric Brinson

Although my response is untimely, here is a link to a BusinessWeek article that preceded his Miami announcement (http://www.businessweek.com/print/magazine/content/10_26/b4184007405963.htm). The article discusses the challenges of managing a superstar employee. Favorite line...."Gilbert may own the Cavaliers, but James owns Gilbert."

Best Regards,

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