LeBron's Lessons for Laterals: Burning Bridges, Mending Fences

By William Peacock, Esq. on July 15, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Was there ever a more idiotic idea than "The Decision"? Four years ago, LeBron James went on an ego-inflating tour de free agency, letting teams across the country woo him with cap space, exciting teammates, and chances for championships. In the end, he made a completely defensible basketball decision, to join up with two other superstars on the Miami Heat, which led to four finals trips and two trophies, in four years.

But "The Decision," a one-hour television special on ESPN where he announced that he'd leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, was one of the biggest PR disasters in history. Fans burned his jerseys in the street, the team's owner wrote an open letter criticizing LeBron, and it seemed the relationship between the man and his people was irreparably destroyed.

And then last week, he returned to Cleveland, with the city and team welcoming him with open arms. How? And how does this relate to your own career moves?

Burning Bridges

Let's be clear: four years ago, there were no winners. LeBron's public break-up with his city was insensitive, Dan Gilbert's letter was stunningly immature, and the townsfolk's jersey burning was downright idiotic.

Four years ago, the right move for LeBron was to leave, but in doing so, he should have approached that departure like any other: in private. And just as any professional should try to make those types of transitions as stress-free as possible, he shouldn't have drawn the process out as long as he did -- the free agency tour and the build-up to the television announcement meant that Cleveland couldn't plan for his departure.

The real life equivalent to "The Decision" would be to interview for multiple new jobs, then to tweet at your former law firm an "I quit" while moving into your new office.

For Dan Gilbert, his mistake was just as glaring: the public evisceration of LeBron in an open letter made him less appealing to other potential employees, as well as LeBron. (In fact, the biggest shock about LeBron's return was that he was willing to work for Gilbert again.)

Again, the real life equivalent would be a law firm publicly badmouthing a former partner or associate -- what person is going to want to lateral into that firm when they see how it treats former colleagues?

Mending Fences

If LeBron's departure was notable for the incomprehensibly bad manner in which it was pulled off, his return was the exact opposite: his agent met with interested parties in quiet meetings, then LeBron sat down with Gilbert and talked through their issues. Over the course of a few days, the seemingly impossible happened: LeBron went back to Cleveland.

And his announcement was impeccable: a subtle letter, apologizing for past sins, recapping his personal maturation in Miami, and expressing a desire to come home and help a city whose professional sports teams have been historically abysmal was utter perfection. It was the heel-face turn, the sort of dramatic swing that only happens in professional wrestling (a fictional sport) except this was real -- the prodigal son returning.

It was done exactly how any professional should handle a departure: he met with his employers from Miami, discussed the decision in private before going public, and when he made the announcement, did so while speaking glowingly about his former coworkers and employer. And it's exactly how you, if you someday make a lateral career move, should handle the process.

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