Note to LeBron And Others: If You Enter The Fray Be Prepared For The Unexpected


Players play, Coaches coach, General Managers manage, Owners make money, but Commissioners have to tread fine lines between them all. That well-worn mantra about professional sport all went to hell last week because the world we now live in is remarkably different than it was a few years ago.

Maybe LeBron knows more about what has gone on here, maybe, the GM of the Houston Rockets wanted to stir up the topic (from Japan). The narrative though was never agreed to and as leaders we can’t do this in a completely connected world. Still, they illustrate three very different dynamics all running at the same time that all leaders in any function and role should be increasingly aware of as they comment and or engage in social subjects.

SHENZHEN, CHINA – OCTOBER 12: LeBorn James of Los Angeles Lakers in action at Shenzhen Universiade … [+]

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We are all connected in the same world, so we need to talk about it beforehand

There are a very short set connections in the digital world we live in. One comment from a General Manager, uncomfortable looks on players’ faces, a delayed perspective from the commissioner and a comment from the league’s superstar. There is no way the GM of The Houston Rockets expected this reaction, or did the owners prepare for the reaction from their hosts or players on tour in China. But in a digital world that almost feels flat, things move at lightning speed in multiple dimensions at the same time. Even the NBA’s superstar player has been condemned for what he said for one very simple reason.

Leaders have to have the imagination to recognize these things can happen fast, and that means there needs to be an agreed pathway for communications that brings leaders from various areas together even quicker than the tsunami of backlash. We may not be able to plan for every situation, but we as leaders should have an agreed plan for how we plan and respond around an accepted core idea and how we each of us play a part in it. Basketball could be a great illustrator of the power of creativity, team play and individualism to any country, culture, or political system. Leaders understood this dynamic in 1936 and from the Olympics onwards from the 1950s, where east competed with the west.

Sports, economics and politics invariably collide. There needs to be a collective decision for strength

If you love cricket, you will be aware of this dynamic when England was off to tour South Africa in 1968/69 with a non-white player named Basil D’Oliveira. We all know what happened with the 1980 and 1984 summer Olympics. Sport and politics and frankly economics have always been connected. Think about where the next Soccer World Cup is going to be hosted.

The league needs to lean into collective learning about this so that people, players and managers understand what their roles mean now, and could mean in the future and where there are excellent opportunities for collective strength. There needs to be active engagement from all parts of the corporation to build a deep, collective position. Sport and sports leaders are as much part of our societies’ leadership group as the leaders of the world’s largest companies or government. The lack of that understanding diminished the power of the potential responses last week. It was a great moment to show how the league, it’s players, owners and management could have shinned to the world.

New decisions aren’t just about the obvious

FIFA took over a decade to find a potential solution to handling racism in and out of stadiums. Going to an international soccer game in parts of eastern Europe wasn’t just about watching or experiencing soccer. It involved a decision about seeing wholly wrong behaviors. The more globally we each experience the planet, the more multi-dimensional these experiences will become for each of us. There will be many more moments to come and many more dimensions than before. The same is true for how we think about the environment, what we eat and how we make leadership decisions generally.

China and the NBA will have a mutually very healthy long-term relationship going forward. Players, coaches, general managers, owners and other leaders need to be part of that collective future. Every group has a role, something to say and responsibilities. We live in an increasingly multi-dimensional world, near-instant and more in need of collective leadership than ever before. This is the biggest lesson from the events of last week.