Since the definition of leadership is “influence”, LeBron James was leading the Cleveland Cavaliers when he was just a sophomore or junior basketball player at St. Vincent – St. Mary High School in Akron (OH).  This is because the Cavaliers were already involved in player movement and salary cap manipulation which would position them to ultimately select the local prodigy with the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.

When James arrived as a rookie he was already a national celebrity.  He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior and several of the team’s games during his senior season were telecast on ESPN.  James had signed over $100 million in endorsement contracts with Nike and trading card companies before even being drafted.  Season ticket sales increased from 2,000 in the 2001-2002 season to 10,000 before James played his first professional game.  Reported attendance figures rose from 11,497 to 18,288 per game during his rookie season.  LeBron James was clearly the face of the franchise and everything would be built around him.

But there is a MAJOR difference between position and influence.  James had the position.  But he needed to earn the respect of the team’s veterans.

In Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst’s great book The Franchise: LeBron James and the Remaking of the Cleveland Cavaliers, they track the rise of James from growing up in a single-mother home to his first trip to the NBA Finals in 2007.  They made an interesting observation about James’s ascension to his role as team leader.

The team’s head coach at the time Paul Silas was quoted as saying, “He went from a (19-year-old) rookie who had to show everyone that he was a player…Well, he showed them (see video above).  He put up numbers.  And he started to take on leadership.”  What we learn from Silas’s quote is young leaders begin earning influence by producing results.  But more is required.

General Manager Jim Paxson said, “The only thing I thought LeBron needed to do after his rookie year was learn how the best player on the team must compete and lead every day in practice.  LeBron played hard.  But he wouldn’t always stay after practice for extra work.  He’d do his thing with the media and go home.  Other players saw that.  When your best player works extra, then the others tend to follow.

Paxson gave that feedback to James who made the immediate changes.  The rest is history.

LeBron James was the face of the franchise the moment he was drafted.  But he became the unquestioned team leader when he began leading in the areas of sacrifice, hard work, and showing his commitment to the success of others with his time and effort.

For leaders to reach their maximum level of influence, your position is not enough.  Even your production is not enough.  Motivational speeches are not enough.  For a leader to reach their maximum level of influence you must also be willing to lead in the area of sacrificing for the success of others.

What is one thing you can learn from LeBron’s rookie year which will make you a better leader?

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