National Basketball Association

Old School vs. New School: How Jordan's and LeBron's leadership styles differ

February 5

By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA reporter

Michael Jordan and LeBron James have a lot in common.

They're two of the greatest basketball players of all time. They revolutionized the game. They inspired everyone around them.

But the ways they went about that differ tremendously. 

While Jordan was a ruthless leader, James has a gentler approach, often befriending his teammates and learning how to get through to them.

Scott Williams is one of four players who played alongside both, winning three championships with Jordan on the Chicago Bulls from 1990 to '93 and spending one season with James on the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2004-05.

Williams describes Jordan as having only one gear.

"I had him before he had a ring, so it was crazy intense, like scary intense," Williams told FOX Sports. "It was almost an illness how hard he went at everything, including teammates, verbally and physically.

"Going to Bulls practices was similar to going to war. You're going to get hurt. And if you don't give your all at every moment, you're not going to survive."

Jordan wanted to play alongside guys who operated at a feverish pitch. If a player fell short of his lofty expectations, he wouldn't necessarily go to management and request the player be traded, but Jordan would make the player's life miserable on the court through a combination of verbal and physical assaults, leaving management no choice but to deal the player to another team.

Williams witnessed that phenomenon firsthand.

"One of the saddest things I ever saw in my pro career was watching him go against Dennis Hopson every day," Williams said of the shooting guard/small forward who played for the Bulls in 1990-91 before being traded after two games the following season. "Hop was a good guy, but Hop was about the cars and the lifestyle and the parties and the girls. And Michael wasn't having any of that. He went at him so hard every day, Hop was a shell of himself by the time the season was over. They had to trade him."

Williams, who was undrafted out of the University of North Carolina in 1990, earned Jordan's respect with his work ethic and willingness to stand up to him.

They'd often play one-on-one after practice because Jordan, who was 6-foot-6, wanted to improve his low-post scoring game against taller defenders. After marathon practices, the 6-foot-10 Williams would spend hours exchanging trash talk and banging elbows and hips with the best player in the world, quickly learning their relationship worked only if he returned Jordan's physicality with forearm shivers of his own.

Those matchups made Williams quicker and improved his instincts, and he had an enduring, 15-season professional career as a journeyman with the Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Cavaliers.

Williams, who is now a color analyst for the Grand Canyon Antelope men's basketball team, said playing with Jordan wasn't always fun. But every June, he felt as though all of the blood, sweat, tears, bruises and loose teeth were worth it.

And he said it prepared him for the rest of his life.

"At the end of the day, the result of when you survive stuff like that, you realize that anything else in life is easy," he said. "Anything else after that is just easier. There's nothing else I've ever faced in life where I've thought, 'Wow, this is hard work.'"

James has a very different modus operandi.

While Jordan had only one mode, James has many. He's vocal but can communicate just as effectively with silence or body language. He can be positive and supportive. Other times, he screams and voices his frustration. He picks and chooses when he approaches guys, sometimes opting to do so on the court in front of other players and other times over private dinners.

James tailors his approach to the specific player.

To Lakers forward Jared Dudley, a 14-year veteran who has played alongside Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Chris Paul and Shaquille O'Neal, James' leadership style is different than anybody else's.

James, Dudley says, inspires players to work harder.

"LeBron is very unique where he's a guy's guy," Dudley said. "He'll drink some wine with you. He'll have a one-on-one talk with you. And guys have looked up to him for a long time. So his words of encouragement, he knows what to say at the right time. He knows when to get on you.

"Let's be real, when you see LeBron's body language, it isn't high when he's frustrated or mad. And they know that. In a way, you want to play well for him, play well for yourself, because you know how [much work] he puts into his craft. You see what he does. You don't want to let him, yourself and [the] Lakers down."

Since James joined the Lakers in free agency in 2018, he has promoted a feeling of inclusivity and acceptance in the locker room. He invited his teammates to his 35th birthday party in West Hollywood last season. He mentored reserve guard Quinn Cook. He made former Laker Dwight Howard feel at home in a locker room that was hostile to him seven years earlier. He has hosted Lakers superstar Anthony Davis for dinners at his home with his family.

James' leadership was pivotal to the Lakers' success last season, especially for Davis. 

Davis, who had never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs, can be hard on himself. He's a perfectionist who can sink into a funk when he isn't playing up to his standards.

James learned to read Davis' body language and determine whether he needed a pep talk or space in those moments. When the timing was right, James would urge Davis to move forward and stop dwelling on the past.

Davis said it made a huge difference for him.

"He’s like a bigger brother to me and helped me with things I need help with, on and off the floor," Davis said. "So it’s been great to have him around and being able to call, text him whenever I need more support on anything, mainly on just trying to figure out everything. So it's been good just having him around. If he see things, he helps me. And if I have questions about anything, he’s always there picking up his phone or responding to a text to help me out."

That's not to say James isn't intense.

James has had yelling matches on the court with teammates. Earlier in his career, he sometimes used social media to send cryptic messages, famously tweeting in 2015, "Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN," a note he later acknowledged was directed at his former Cavaliers teammate Kevin Love, among others.

At this stage of James' career, however, there's one thing that stands out to Lakers coach Frank Vogel: his approachability.

In the NBA Bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida, where the Lakers spent nearly 100 days before winning their 17th NBA championship last fall, Vogel marveled at how accessible James made himself.

"On a regular basis, he’s down there eating with his teammates and being with his teammates, which is something you don’t always say about players of his caliber," Vogel said. "I can’t say enough positive things about him as a leader and what he means to our franchise."

James' leadership style has changed throughout the years. When he entered the league at age 18 as the No. 1 pick by the Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Draft, his approach was to observe what leadership traits worked best.

"You come into a professional league, you sit there, and you watch," James said. "You become a sponge, and you see. You lead by example, you go out, and you practice hard and stick your head into film and try to get better every single day and just try to keep quiet because there are vets and things of that nature. You've got your coaching staff that does a lot of the talking. I was more of a sponge at 18, just watching, seeing."

Williams played with James during his second season in the NBA and was immediately impressed by his approach.

James befriended his older teammates, playing cards with them on flights. He asked Williams questions about Jordan and the Bulls, something other young players — perhaps surprisingly — failed to do. And he demonstrated an indefatigable work ethic.

"The kid worked hard," Williams said. "He was a gym rat, whether it be in the weight room getting strong, which he was already pretty darn strong as a 19-year-old, but working on his outside shooting, his footwork. I think he wanted to show the guys that I'm here every day giving it my all. I expect everybody to do the same. So it wasn't so much what he talked about, it was what he demonstrated."

James became much more vocal over his next few years in the league, a transformation Williams witnessed after retiring in 2004 and becoming a color analyst for the Cavaliers who often attended team practices.

James went on to lead the Miami Heat to two championships in 2012 and 2013, the Cavaliers to a championship in 2016 and the Lakers to their first title in a decade last season.

"He's a world-class leader," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who guided James from 2010 to 2014. "He's always had instincts to lead, and now he's really made it an art. It's a competitive advantage, his leadership, and he's developed it each year that he's been in this league. And he's utilizing it more and more and more to have that multiplying effect."

James' leadership was never more on display it was than during the 2016 NBA Finals, when he helped the Cavaliers overcome a 3-1 series deficit against the Warriors to win the franchise's first title.

Tyronn Lue, who coached James during that time and played alongside Jordan in his final two seasons on the Washington Wizards from 2001 to '03, said the two men are much more alike than different.

When asked to compare their leadership styles, Lue didn't hesitate.

"The same," said Lue, who now coaches the LA Clippers. "I think they both wanted to win and would do anything it took to win."

Both players got the results they wanted.

Jordan won six championships. James trails him by two rings, but he is played arguably the best basketball of his career at age 36 for a Lakers team poised to compete for another title this season.

Playing alongside either of them is something teammates will never forget.

When asked if he'd want his children to play with Jordan, Williams reluctantly said yes.

It was impossibly tough, too tough – but it changed his life.

"He looked out for me," Williams said. "He got me my shoe contract at Nike. He didn't stop the vets from getting on me, but he made sure it didn't go too far. There was a little-big brother kind of thing there. But he also knew I needed to take my floaties off and be able to swim in the deep end."

As for Davis, he still sometimes has "pinch me" moments about being teammates with James.

A big one came last postseason

When the Lakers were on a team bus headed to a game, Davis came across a social media post that showed James in the top three all time of many major statistical categories. Davis, who attended James' basketball camp in Ohio when he was 15 years old, couldn't help but marvel at the fact that they were now competing for a championship together, and he decided to pour his heart out in a text to James, telling him how much he has inspired him throughout his career.

Immediately after sending it, Davis became a bit worried.

"It felt kinda awkward to walk in the locker room, like, sending a heartfelt message to him, and now we're about to go play, and we're right next to each other," Davis said. "I'm like, 'Damn, what's he gonna say?' 'Man, you soft,' or, 'You gonna send this before a game?' So it was kinda weird."

But James didn't say a word at the time.

He waited until after the game to acknowledge the text, knowing anything else would've embarrassed his teammate before an important game.

For James, being a leader is a delicate dance. It's something that requires patience and impeccable timing.

Even though he's in the twilight of his career, it's still one of the most important aspects of his game that he continually works on.

"Leadership is not a one-day thing, not a one-trick pony," he said. "It's an everyday thing, both on and off the floor. And I take full responsibility for that."

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA reporter for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News.

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