The Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in last year’s NBA Finals.

That oh-so-common refrain is still amazing. It’s amazing because it had never been done before. No team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. But Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have. No player has ever led both teams in every major statistical category. Lebron James has. And this is (in large part) because Lebron James is (arguably) the best player in the history of basketball.

To be fair, my unabashed fandom for Lebron James is longstanding and well-documented. And anyone who knows me will attest that I am consistent in this one thing; that Lebron is the best. Period. But don’t mind me. I make such statements like that on a regular basis. Consider the following tweet from over three years ago.

The fact is, I still stand by this statement. If they ever gave me an MVP vote, I don’t think I’d want to wait. I’d try to cast my vote for Lebron before the season even starts. Why? Because he’s the best player that the NBA has to offer. I’m a fan. I’m guilty. Arrest me.

But this is not about Lebron’s basketball skill. I think the thing that makes Lebron a basketball unicorn is not simply his command and control of the court, but I believe it’s off the court and in the locker room where he shines brightest.

We recently published an article about Barack Obama and transitioning well as a leader. However, if you will be gracious and patient enough to lend me your ear for a few minutes, I will explain to you why I believe that Lebron James is the Barack Obama of the NBA and what ministry leaders can learn from him.

Lebron cherishes his family.

Recently I saw a headline about Lebron’s response to the outspoken Lavar Ball who challenged Lebron and needled Lebron Jr. in comparison to the Ball brothers. I like that Lebron spoke simply and sternly. With just a few words he made it crystal clear that he takes serious his responsibility as protector of his family. That’s just plain honorable.

And then you have to respect how he talks about his wife, Savannah; his high school sweetheart, whom he married in 2013. It’s notable that unlike most NBA stars, throughout his thirteen-year career, you have not once heard of a salacious story concerning Lebron. And though we don’t know every detail about his marriage, he maintains a sterling reputation in that arena.

Right now I’m reading Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Leader, and in it, Scazzero talks about the importance of leading from your marriage. It means that marriage and family never take a backseat to ministry and church work. The church is stronger when they see you making your family first. You are much better prepared to lead when your family is healthy and secure.

Lebron is a pass-first player.

He has always been criticized for this, but it’s one of the things that I appreciate most about him. Someone pointed out to me some time ago that basketball is the one team sport where players get the most accolades for individual achievement. We talk team, but celebrate Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points and Kobe’s 81, and excuse the fact that Kobe only had two assists that night.

Lebron is currently 13th on the NBA’s all-time assist leaders list. At 6-8, 250 pounds, He is the ONLY forward on that list. The rest are point guards. He’s also currently, sixth on the list of assist leaders this season. The only other forward on the top-ten list is Golden State’s Draymond Green (tied for eighth).

Throughout his career, he has consistently looked for the open man and passed up the big game-winning shot to make the smartest play. He has been criticized for doing it, but he’s done it consistently. And when you think about it, it’s actually kind of twisted because we’re supposed to celebrate selflessness, but we’d rather see players determine to take matters into their own hands, and do it themselves. Not Lebron. He gives up the rock regularly.

In church, and leadership in general, you never want to find yourself doing it all. Because if you’re doing it all, you’re probably doing it all alone. Hand off responsibility to others and watch them thrive and grow as they step up to the challenge.

Lebron is generous.

This is well-documented so I won’t spend much time here. Nevertheless, it should be noted that while most athletes have foundations, Lebron has become a leading philanthropist among his peers while he’s still at the height of his career.

This one is simple, but so important. A leader that is unwilling to invest in others or his/her own company is not a leader at all. Significant, substantive investment is sure-fire proof of commitment. Whether, it’s a major gift in a capital campaign or with consistent small offerings, the leader(s) must be willing to demonstrate the value that they place on the church building, ministry, project, goal, etc. In the words of the late, great Dr. Frank W. Hale Jr., “Commitment without cash is counterfeit.”

Lebron sets an example.

I alluded to this earlier, but it deserves to stand alone. Never has there been a major scandal, a substantive salacious story or an occasion of gross impropriety. Lebron keeps his nose clean. People find things about him that they dislike, but he’s kept his nose clean.

He made news recently when he sounded off in rebuttal to Charles Barkley’s criticism after he openly spoke about his hopes that the Cavaliers’ office staff were planning to make some significant moves to prepare for the upcoming championship run. Barkley criticized Lebron’s heart and will to win, to which Lebron replied that he’s always given his best on and off the court. He spoke openly about his commitment and respect for the game, in contrast to Barkley’s constant discipline issues during and after his career.

The indiscretions of a leader too easily and too often become the distraction that can derail the progress of any church or corporation. A leader must always be mindful that personal actions and decisions not only affect not only his/her own life, but also the lives of colleagues, subordinates and loved ones.

Lebron promotes collaboration.

It’s probably the one reason why people hate him the most, but to me it’s one of the things the demonstrates his genius. Lebron is a team-first, pass-first, synergy guy. He spent seven years at the start of his career building bricks without straw and then decided to extend his career, win some championships, raise money for a charity, get some more assists, and spend some time with friends…all in one fell swoop!…simply genius. Then, if you thought you had seen enough, he did it again. He shocked the world, moved back to Cleveland, and teamed up with some gifted partners to tackle the ultimate task.

Some argue that he’s weak because he “couldn’t do it on his own,” but Lebron clearly understands the first thing they teach you about T.E.A.M. – Together Everyone Accomplishes More. And here’s another one, “Things work better when we work together.” One more for good measure; “teamwork makes the dream work.”

I’ve been preaching this for several years now. Patrick Lencioni, wrote the classic book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, and in it, he tackles the temptation leaders have to compartmentalize themselves and their work. Local churches and grass-roots organizations are working hard, treading water, to create a name for themselves, when maybe it’d be better to collaborate with like-minded folks who share your passions and challenges. Pastors must collaborate more to meet the needs of the community and be more effective in reaching people. Together everyone accomplishes more.

Lebron develops those around him.

Lebron said that when he met Rich Paul he was selling throwback jerseys out of the trunk of his car. When J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert came to the Cavs they were throwaways from a terrible team. When Chris Andersen joined Lebron in Miami it was on the heels of drug issues and some sordid legal trouble. Richard Jefferson was a half step away from retirement. The list is long, but Lebron breeds success. Each one those players got their first championship ring with Lebron. And now Rich Paul has his own sports agency. He represents Lebron and several other stars and negotiates contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars on their behalf.

He’s such a high achiever, that he inspires those around him to do just as well as he’s doing. It’s been said that Lebron engages in little contests with Iman Shumpert to spark defensive stops and fastbreaks. Just one little way that he can motivate a teammate to perfect his craft. And it’s working. Despite injuries and roster changes, the Cavs are again, one of the favorites to win another championship this year.

The best leaders are great equippers. They shower opportunities, resources, information, and encouragement into those who follow them to prepare them for the task at hand. And leaders are careful to empower those who follow them that they would increase their own capacity for leadership. Leaders teach a man to fish, and then make him promise to teach someone else.

Lebron takes the heat.

In 2010, when Lebron decided to “take his talents to South Beach” the Miami Heat got booed in just about every away game they played. It seemed like booing away teams became an epidemic that year because my wife and I went to Cleveland to see the Cavs play the Knicks, and the Cavs were booing Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks. I sat there thinking, what did Carmelo do to them? It wasn’t Carmelo though. It was the post-Lebron bitterness effect that still hadn’t subsided.

Nevertheless, despite the constant media onslaught, despite the booing, despite the burnt jerseys, Lebron and the Heat continued to improve and win. Lebron steadily improved his shooting percentage, his three-point shooting percentage and in several other categories. And most importantly, the Heat went to three straight championships and won two championship rings.

Recently, when he clamored for playmakers to be added to the roster, he took the heat again. However, it should be noted that the Cavs’ front office went out and found a couple of legitimate playmakers. That’s the effect that leadership has.

If you want to be liked, you don’t want to be a leader. And if you want to be liked, you most certainly don’t want to be a pastor. As a leader, some people will like you, but others will like to cause you grief. Get used to it. Se la vie. Se la leadership.

Despite all this praise, Lebron is far from perfect. He’s given to complaining. He often takes ill-advised shots. He’s been known to upstage the coach a time, or two. And he often fails to get back on defense. But no leader is perfect. No earthly leader, that is.

The reality is, Jesus is our standard; for ministry, leadership and life. Lebron is called King James because that’s his nickname. Jesus is called King because that’s who He is. He is the King of all Kings. He is author and finisher of our faith. He takes up any season of our lives that we have all but decimated, and he gives to us the championship of his own flawless character for our salvation. He steps in when we are too weak to perform and stand strong, and he delivers us from all evil. And by his Spirit, He leads us into all truth. I look forward to the day that He will lead us in that glorious triumphant procession into the heavenly city. He is our leader, and we will follow the Lamb wherever He goes.

Christopher C. Thompson

Christopher C.
Thompson

Dr. Christopher C. Thompson currently serves as Communication Director for the Southeastern Conference of SDA. As a pastor, author, teacher and church resource developer who is passionate about the spiritual growth process, he works tirelessly to develop tools to aid pastors and parishioners alike. Click below to follow him on twitter or visit his website.

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