Picture the scene: You've just been hired to lead a great company with loads of potential and a promising future. Shortly after taking the job, a leading expert is added to your team. Together, you transform the company into an industry leader, and you match or exceed all reasonable expectations.
Shortly thereafter, you're fired.
That's essentially what happened last Friday to David Blatt, head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite the major achievement of guiding the Cavaliers to the NBA finals in his first year as coach, and the fact that the team leads its division halfway through the current season, Blatt was dismissed by General Manager David Griffin just before the weekend.
Of course, there's more to this story than meets the eye.
According to Griffin, there was a "disconnect" and "lack of spirit" that was obvious among the team. In an extremely competitive environment like the NBA, where a team's window to win championships is dependent on the age of its best players (among other factors), moves are made quickly and take unexpected turns.
"When you have the clarity of purpose that we have as a franchise, these decisions make themselves," Griffin explained.
But what led to the disconnect between Coach Blatt and his players? And more importantly, what lessons can business leaders take away from that decline?
A Major Change
David Blatt came to Cleveland with a great basketball pedigree. In college, he played for and learned from one of the best, legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril. After playing professionally overseas for a decade, Blatt became one of the most successful coaches in European basketball history, winning multiple championships and "coach of the year" honors.
Blatt was supposed to bring expertise and a steady hand to an inexperienced Cavs roster. But that all changed when LeBron James, league MVP and Ohio native, announced he was returning home to Cleveland in the summer of 2014. The Cavaliers went from rebuilding mode to championship contender--literally overnight.
With James in his prime at the age of 29, Cavs management made a series of moves over the next year to make sure the superstar had the support he needed to win now.
But what effect did all of this have on Blatt? As ESPN reports:
"David was hired to coach a developmental team and young players who would've wanted to please him," one team source said. "He ended up coaching a finished product where the players expected him to please them."
David Blatt came to Cleveland with an awesome reputation. But to his players, he was simply a rookie coach.
To be clear, I believe Coach Blatt did better than 99 percent of those given the same circumstances would have. But in the interest of always learning, here are three lessons to take away:
1. Respect must be earned.
Blatt faced an extremely daunting challenge in winning the respect of one of the greatest basketball players of our generation. As he struggled early (any coach in this position would have), James became impatient.
It wasn't long before James regularly took matters into his own hands, explicitly changing the coach's orders when he felt the need to do so.
Takeaway: If you're placed into a position of leadership, it's imperative that you gain the respect of your team.
Don't expect them to hand it over on a silver platter; your previous accomplishments are irrelevant. But you were put into this position for a reason: Identify what knowledge you have to impart, and look for opportunities to teach.
Focus on making the team (and the star performers) better. Respect will come.
2. Nobody benefits from favoritism.
Favoritism and partiality simply aren't compatible with good leadership.
In an exclusive interview with NBA.com, former Cavalier Brendan Heywood claims that Blatt was quick to point out team members' mistakes, but wouldn't do the same with LeBron, essentially giving him a free pass. In contrast, assistant coach Tyronn Lue (who has known LeBron since his teenage years) refused to let the superstar slide, highlighting James's mistakes along with everyone else's.
"Those types of situations led to guys kind of respecting Tyronn Lue a little bit more than they respected Coach Blatt," Heywood says. "[Blatt] didn't understand that it's better to be respected than to be loved." (It's no coincidence that Lue was appointed the Cavaliers' new head coach.)
Everyone needs to be coached. Even the best player in the world.
Takeaway: The most successful leaders know that everyone must be held accountable for his or her actions, including "superstars" and fellow leaders.
That doesn't mean that you treat everyone exactly the same way. Building good relationships requires recognizing nuances and making adjustments.
But consistency is key. Allowing specific individuals or groups to play by a different set of rules is a recipe for disaster.
3. Even good leaders make mistakes.
Of course, it's easy to point out these mistakes from the sidelines.
The truth is, David Blatt accomplished a heckuva lot in his short time with the Cavs. He expertly handled the rotation after major injuries took away two of his top three players. He built a top tier defense and guided the team to within two victories of a championship in his first season as head coach. (If the Cavs had won last summer, today's situation would look a lot different.)
Instead, a complicated series of events led to the downfall of a proven leader.
Coach Blatt wasn't the only one at fault here. We could also analyze the mistakes of management as well as the players. But all is not lost--as with any "failure," this opportunity provided a huge learning experience. Given another opportunity and the right situation, Blatt will surely excel.
Takeaway: Some situations make success almost impossible. But good leaders don't back down from big challenges. Why not?
Because win or lose, those challenges make you better.