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Leading like LeBron James

Preparation, mindfulness and acknowledging the need for recovery are three traits of high performance and leadership that we can adopt, even if we're not an athlete like LeBron James.

9 min read


Leading like LeBron James

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Regardless of which team you root for, it’s indisputable that LeBron James is one of the most elite, high-performing athletes ever to have graced the basketball court. Named as the NBA’s most valuable player four times and with three NBA championships to his credit, “King James” with the ball in his possession is a superhuman force to be reckoned with.

He plays to win with a “No excuse is acceptable; no effort is too great” determination. What I came to learn recently is just how much mindfulness plays a role in James’ success in leading his team to victory and how well it serves him on and off the court.

Much has been written about mindfulness in leadership and the value of establishing habits that allow you to more deeply center yourself through practices like meditation, yoga, a rigorous exercise regimen and the like.

As the focus on well-being in our culture has risen, online resources and apps have flooded the market, and the users of such tools has grown significantly. One study even indicates that the compound annual growth rate for such apps will be 8.5% for the period 2019-29.

Nevertheless. I was surprised recently when I opened a meditation app and found mindfulness sessions written and narrated by James. So much of what he shares relates to developing and maintaining a leadership edge, and on the court or in the boardroom, the lessons transfer.

There is an obvious discipline associated with sustaining your leadership mojo, but as James does with basketball, he’s taken using mindfulness as a tool to ensure victory to a whole new level. James applies his practice in pursuit of three goals: developing mental mastery, preparing adequately for success and ensuring athletic recovery. Even if you’re not an athlete, these goals are relevant to maintaining your own leadership stamina.

Mind mastery

Imagine walking in the shoes of an elite athlete. You’re on the court in front of thousands of screaming fans. The stakes are high, and your team is down by two points in a championship game. The ball is passed to you. Every eye in the arena is trained on you, waiting for you to take the shot, with the fans of your team hoping you’ll make it and the haters on the other side praying that you fail. How do you keep your focus under that kind of pressure? James says it’s about mind mastery.

While you may not be up against NBA Finals kinds of odds every day, the pressure on leaders to build thriving businesses offers equal moments of drama. The elite leader-athlete recognizes the importance of extreme focus, the ability to quiet the mind and give attention to only that which is most important. Successful leaders have that focus and build organizations where teams also focus and everyone understands the priorities that drive results. It’s clear that anything other than those priorities is an expensive distraction.

Mind mastery tips:

  1. Take mini-meditation breaks at least twice during your workday. This is especially important before an important meeting or one likely to be contentious, where your emotions may become triggered. James says succumbing to emotion takes you off of your game and blurs your sightline to the goal. So, the more centered you are, the more focused you will be, and the more control you’ll have over the situation you’re facing. No three-pointer ever saw the net when thrown by a player with what the Buddhists call a “monkey mind.”
  2. Pay attention to your breathing. Research shows that devoting just minutes a day to deep breathing helps to clear your mind, stabilize blood pressure and slow your heart rate. Deep breathing increases endorphins and reduces anxiety. Best of all, it’s fast, easy to do and free. Just one minute of deep breathing can make a difference in the outcome of your day.
  3. Give yourself permission to work on one thing at a time by clearing your workspace and computer screen of everything else. We live in a world where multitasking seemingly earns us a badge of honor. However, intentionally working on one thing at a time has its virtues. It increases your ability to control what you focus on and blocks out things that distract from present-moment awareness.
  4. Create an annual focus document for your team, outlining key priorities and projects and the overarching objectives they serve. If you can’t boil down success for the upcoming year to a one-page document, your goals and direction aren’t clear, and results will be compromised.

Pregame preparation

You may not be playing in a championship, but every leader, every day is in a game that matters. Preparing to be in the game, whatever that is for your business, is preparing to win.  It’s about having a champion’s mindset and recognizing that it’s actually the preparation to be successful that matters more than the competition. As James says, “Put in the work and winning is inevitable.”

Pregame prep tips:

  1. If you feel that you already have a champion’s mindset, that’s terrific, but It’s not enough. The power of your mindset is multiplied when you help every member of your team see their potential and how they can contribute to success. Look at team members individually, and be sure that you’re aware of the skills and talents they’ve developed since joining your firm. Are you helping them make the most of those capabilities? Are you helping them see themselves as winners? It’s equally important to focus on what the team has learned from its failures, as much as you celebrate its successes. By doing so, you increase learning and strengthen preparation for the next opportunity.
  2. Ask “why?” questions. It’s a natural human tendency to focus on the “how” questions when facing significant challenges or striving to achieve lofty goals. How will we outperform our competitors? How will we win the contract? How will we acquire that company? How questions are important because they help the team formulate a plan for achieving a goal, but what creates a champion’s mindset are the “why” questions: Why will we be successful? Why will we be the team that wins the contract? Why are we best positioned to acquire that company? When you help your team answer the “why” questions, you highlight the collective power of the team to achieve more than any one person could alone. This exercise builds emotional commitment to a higher ideal, stimulates the desire to continue learning and unleashes an extraordinary level of discretionary effort that makes winning a reality.


Although it’s not surprising that professional athletes give attention to maintaining their health, the degree to which James focuses on his physical, mental and emotional recovery is remarkable. He has a cadre of resources to support him — trainers, massage professionals, cryotherapy and sessions in a hyperbaric chamber — yet James’ secret weapon for recovery is sleep.

To say he’s disciplined about it would be an understatement. James schedules everything around the sleep his body needs, including a nap each day, even on game days. It’s on his calendar, just like any business meeting you might have on yours, and everything works backward from that schedule.

“If you want to seize the day, you’ve got to sleep the night,” he says.

While you might not spend your days taking jump shots and abusing your body on the court, as an elite leader-athlete, planning for your recovery from the day and helping your team do the same is equally important.

Recovery tips:

  1. Rest counts. Do you want to get the most out of your time? Do you want to be at peak efficiency? Then rest is your secret weapon, because when you’re fully rested you can be fully present. You may find a two-hour nap impossible, so instead, schedule a 20-minute dial-down session each afternoon. You can use those minutes for a power nap, meditation or private quiet time that allows you to refresh. If you find music helps, put the earphones in and enjoy. Best of all, you set a good example for the rest of the team on how to maintain your leadership edge.
  2. Control your surroundings when traveling, especially at bedtime. Develop a nighttime ritual that allows you to create a sanctuary in your hotel room where your ideal sleep conditions are maintained. That means powering down electronics at least 45 minutes before going to bed, setting the temperature in the room to what’s most comfortable for you and blocking out any ambient light that might disturb your sleep. This is part of planning for your recovery from today, so that you can be a peak performer tomorrow.
  3. Foster respect for recovery time within your organization by giving careful attention to how work gets scheduled so sufficient time is allotted for team recovery between demanding projects. Be especially cognizant of time zones if you operate globally. The headquarters team in New York should not be scheduling conference calls at 2 p.m. with team members based in Singapore. Individuals can run fast and hard for a while, but no one can do it forever without rest.  Not even LeBron James.


Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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