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What LeBron James Teaches Us About Burning and Rebuilding Bridges

January 19, 2015

With the much anticipated 2014 NBA season under way, now is a good time to reflect on how LeBron James went from Cleveland’s hero to villain, and back to hero again.  He burned a bridge with his employer, the Cavaliers, and his customers, the fans in Cleveland, who supported and loved him from his high school days at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron.  As a lifelong Clevelander, I believe that I speak for the majority of fans when I say that I wasn’t angry that he left; I was angry because of the way he left.  In a matter of minutes, everything that was good about his relationship with Cleveland was destroyed. But, LeBron found a way to rebuild the bridge that many thought was burned beyond repair.  There are some valuable lessons we can learn from his journey that can save us from making the same mistakes in our careers.  And, if we burn a bridge, we can follow his lead on how to fix it.

 

Two Ways to Burn a Bridge:

 

Gloat About Moving On:  Every Clevelander remembers where they were during the infamous “Decision.”  LeBron James went from being the most loved sports hero in Cleveland to being as hated as Art Modell when, on an hour-long ESPN special, he announced with a smirk on his face, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”  And, the gloating didn’t stop with the announcement. He rubbed more salt into the wound when his dream team joined him on stage and he boasted about winning championship after championship with the Miami Heat, while his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland went unfulfilled.

 

The lesson learned is no matter how excited you are about your new opportunity, stay low-key about it while you are still employed.  Don’t gossip with co-workers, don’t post about your new position on social media sites, and don’t act like working out your notice is akin to finishing a prison sentence.  It’s okay to be happy about your future, but the time to share your enthusiasm isn’t when your employer is scrambling to fill the void that losing you leaves.

 

Don’t Give Proper Notice:  The Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert, did not find out about LeBron’s decision until minutes before the ESPN special.  In fact, LeBron’s waiting so long to make his announcement left the Cavs’ organization in a lurch as they struggled to replace him after the free agency market dried up.

 

The lesson learned is it is pertinent to give your boss as much notice as you can, at least two weeks.  Telling her the next business day after you make your decision is best.  Doing so will show that you respect your current employer and are willing to make the transition as smooth as possible.  And, if you wait to tell your boss, you run the risk that someone else will tell her first.  In addition, provide the notice in writing and keep the tone of the letter positive.  Don’t forget to thank her for the opportunity within the organization.   

 

Two Ways to Rebuild a Bridge:

 

Rebuilding a bridge is much more difficult than burning it down, so it is best not to burn it in the first place.  But, if you make a bad decision and come to regret it later, there are ways to mend your relationship with your former employer.  We can learn a lot from LeBron’s return to Cleveland.

 

Apologize:  The damage was done, but LeBron realized that he had made a mistake in the way he left Cleveland and he wanted to return.  He had to rebuild the bridge.  First, he worked out his differences with Dan Gilbert and signed a long-term contract with the Cavaliers.  Second, he announced his return to the public with a well-thought out essay, as told to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated.  This essay explained why he left, it included an apology for the way he left, and he expressed that his heart belongs to Northeast Ohio.  It was humble, heartfelt and perfect.

 

The lesson learned is that making a bad decision right is important, and admitting you were wrong and apologizing goes a long way.  It will help your former employer realize that you have grown as a person and that you are ready to put the past behind you.  In fact, leaving and returning with a new perspective may make you a better employee in the long-run.  A written apology followed by a verbal apology is best.  Providing an apology in writing will give you a chance to organize your thoughts and eloquently say everything you want to say.  In LeBron’s essay he states, “I’m doing this essay because I want an opportunity to explain myself uninterrupted.”  A written apology will give you the same opportunity.

 

Forgive:  The way LeBron announced his decision to leave Cleveland spurred a passionate reaction from Dan Gilbert and Cavalier fans.  Gilbert posted a scathing letter on the Cavalier’s website to Northeast Ohio about LeBron’s “cowardly betrayal.”  Cavalier fans burned jerseys, spewed their hatred for LeBron on social media sites, and mercilessly booed him every time he played in Cleveland.  Even though LeBron has become an icon, he is still a person and he had to work through the hatred that was directed at him.  He needed to forgive if he wanted to return.  He needed to be the bigger man. In his essay, he states, “What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?” LeBron was able to put himself in the other person’s shoes, and he wanted to start with a clean slate.

 

The lesson learned is that both you and your former boss need to let go of any grudges that you hold against each other.  When emotions are high and tempers flare, we tend to say and do things that we normally wouldn’t.  There is a good chance that your boss and co-workers reacted poorly to you leaving them in a bind.  Things may have been said by both parties that were later regretted.  If this is the case, like LeBron and Dan Gilbert, you need to be willing to wipe the slate clean.  Gilbert said it best, “we had five great years and one bad night.”  If you are to forgive, you must remember what is bringing you back to the company, not what happened when you left. 
 

Overall, a burned bridge can be rebuilt, but it takes a lot of effort to do so.  Even if you do not want to return to a former employer, it is a good idea to take steps to repair your broken relationship.  In this age of social media, a burned bridge can affect you unexpectedly for years to come.  And, if you are thinking about burning a bridge, remember that it is always better to leave your employer on good terms.  Just ask LeBron if you don’t believe me.

 

If you’re currently looking for a professional position in the Cleveland area, let the experienced team at Area Professionals help you land your next position.  Contact us today and we’ll work closely with you to find a job that best suits your skills and career goals.

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