Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Like last eNewsletter, we begin with a nod to the world of sports. We promise that this won’t be a pattern. But how can we not highlight some of the unforgettable leadership lessons from the world of sports over the last month? In this month’s eNewsletter, we call attention to leadership lessons from examining some iconic sports figures along with some recent memorable events from the world of sports.

We begin with the icon of all icons—Muhammad Ali. Few public figures, sports or otherwise, can command more media attention than the Brexit vote. Ali was one such figure. Bombastic and controversial, Muhammad Ali shocked the world when, on religious grounds, he refused entry into the Armed Services and a possible rotation to Vietnam. At ELP, we aren’t going to debate whether this was or wasn’t appropriate. With that said, we can all agree that Muhammad Ali was unafraid both within and outside the ring. More than one commentator noted that Ali spoke truth to power regardless of the consequences. And here’s our first lesson. Especially in high-hazard/high-risk organizations, every individual—from the proverbial wrench turner to the custodial staff—must be willing to raise or confront leadership when they see something that just isn’t right or that’s possibly unsafe. In high-hazard/high-risk organizations, we must all speak truth to power, regardless of rank differences, to protect the safety and health of the workforce and surrounding public. So, we’re not sure Muhammad Ali was right or wrong in his refusal to go to Vietnam; we would lean to the position that he was wrong. However, we can all agree that Muhammad Ali was a man of courage—physically, politically, spiritually, and morally.

And then there’s the story of LeBron James. We’re convinced that there’s a group at Harvard right now working on the next Case Study of which LeBron James is the focus. What LeBron James pulled off in the summer of 2016 may go down as the single most memorable performance in modern sports history. There really is no comparable experience; in other words, it is an event without equal. Much of the leadership world celebrates the notion of collaborative leadership—getting everyone involved. While it is tough to discount the importance of collaboration and teamwork, there’s a time, especially when the organization’s back is against the wall, that decisive leadership in necessary—if not essential. There’s a time when the leader must take over, make strong decisions, and act with authority. And that’s exactly what LeBron did. He, literally, put the team on his back in the face of elimination to win it all.

His Cleveland Cavaliers are the only team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship. To get there, LeBron had back-to-back 41 point games and led the team in EVERY major category (points, rebounds, steals, blocks, and assists!)—standing alone in NBA history! In a preponderance of organizational life, collaborative and deliberative leadership should rule the day. But not all the time. Sometimes, leaders should ‘demand the ball’ and lead. That’s what LeBron did—and, to be sure, when he ‘took over the game’, his team didn’t suffer. Just the opposite. They responded, and it is clear that they wanted LeBron to take charge. Collaborative leadership was not going to carry the day, and the team knew that. Especially in times of crisis—strong, forceful, command leadership is needed. Do you have the confidence and the cred to pull that off?

Let’s wrap it up here. We’ve argued that speaking truth to power is part and parcel of a safe operating environment, especially in high-hazard/high-risk organizations. We can all model the courage of Muhammad Ali. Lastly, we can debunk the myth that collaborative leadership styles should ALWAYS be used. Just not true. Especially in times of organizational distress, a strong leader must emerge and take charge. Want evidence? Look to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

We invite you to email ELP Principal and Co-Founder Robin Bichy for a professional consultation at