The Late-Day Wisdom of Kobe Bryant

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Unless you find NBA basketball to be the bane of your existence, then you probably know that last night was the final game in Kobe Bryant’s storied basketball career. Although Bryant was a polarizing figure for most of his career, many people are now unabashedly celebrating him for the example he set: a genius who mastered his craft no matter what the costs. However, Bryant’s career is a cautionary tale that professional genius does not necessarily equal strong leadership.

Whispering minds would argue that Bryant’s ruthless pursuit of greatness is what made him an impeccable leader. As some pundits have suggested, although Bryant was decidedly hard on his teammates, his sheer will to win is what helped propel his teams to the championship level. Clearly, no one can argue with the results: Bryant helped his Lakers teams win 5 championships. Along the way, he amassed numerous awards and accolades for his on-court wizardry as well as sustained excellence. In a neo-classical way, Bryant may be seen as the epitome of strong leadership.

Yet, Bryant’s career and retirement raise important questions about the nature of true leadership. And while I don’t know the man and certainly was never blessed with anything resembling his basketball talent, Bryant’s embrace of the “maniacal villain” runs counter to what I perceive to be true leadership. Based on his own recent comments, I think even Kobe Bryant understands that being a villain can only take a person (or an enterprise) so far. Nonetheless, it is surprising how understated his late-stage wisdom has become in leadership circles.
When I was growing up, leadership was seen as one of those elusive, intangible qualities that great people possessed. On many occasions, I heard the retort, “Leadership is just one of those mysterious things: you’ll know it when you see it.”

However, nothing can be further from the truth. Leadership is very tangible and very real. When a person possesses good leadership skills, it is readily discernible. Further, when a person possesses poor leadership skills, those characteristics are equally evident to the casual eye. Yet and still, it is helpful to deconstruct what good leadership looks like in the modern era.

Simply put, leadership is the ability to effect a positive outcome while simultaneously creating good and synergistic interpersonal relationships. Leadership is both personal and inter-personal, efficient and transcendent, courageous and consenus-driven, creative and compliant, inspirational and mind-numbingly steadfast. In essence, leadership is a balanced perspective that requires different things for different times.

What leadership is not, however, is simply Machiavellian. Leadership is not the tortured exercise of producing results at all costs. It is the collaborative journey of fostering growth, transformation, and evolution while affirming the best in people. It requires a balancing act of pushing people beyond their self-imposed boundaries while also nurturing their greatness.
Moreover, it is important to remember that the measure of greatness for everyone is not the same. For some, greatness may be the corporate equivalent of a triple-double. For others, it may be the equivalent of simply getting a key rebound at a critical juncture in a game. However, if a person is devalued or dismissed excessively, they will retreat and their talents will remain untapped. Those ancillary leaders may fail to impact the common good.

Perhaps Kobe realized this when he was interviewed by Brett Pollakoff of Complex Sports in December 2015 to discuss his most enduring lesson from his 20 years in the NBA. When asked what advice he would give to his younger self, Kobe said, “I would tell the younger Kobe to show compassion and empathy with his teammates.” His comments didn’t show the fanged sensibilities or unbridled arrogance of his youth, but the tempered wisdom of someone who may have at times pushed people too far.
As a fan, I have always marveled at the heights he reached, while also wondering what he could have achieved had he had simply conducted himself with more understanding. As a leadership coach and organizational development consultant, I am always amazed at the fact that so few leaders realize this idea until they have driven themselves into isolation. Most of the leaders I meet are visionaries of some sort who can see the world in ways that others simply cannot see. Despite those talents (and perhaps in furtherance of those talents), it is imperative that visionaries empower the very people who will be responsible for carrying out their vision. No one person can manifest greatness on their own, and I have yet to see any person who responds well to negative stimuli for a long period of time. Unfortunately, too many visionaries are concerned with ideas and schemes at the exclusion of the people who will be needed to implement them.

To be sure, Kobe Bryant is not the only leader who has been characterized by a relentless pursuit of excellence. Similar narratives have also been circulated with respect to other luminaries like Steve Jobs or Martha Stewart, who despite their reputation for being brilliant visionaries, have also been known for their brute intimidation and low emotional IQ.
Yet, intimidation manifests itself when leadership yields to fear. And…when leaders are fear-based, they tend to rely on the shadow forces of popularity, prosperity (money), prestige, power, or positionality (which speaks to rank, title, or authority) to impose their will. Yet, leadership is not an ego-driven excercise . Instead, it is based on the principled and positive way in which you engage people. If you can engage people and leave them feeling affirmed (even if your affirmation also makes it clear that a person’s talents may be best suited elsewhere) then you have exhibited good leadership. A leader never lets their singular pursuit of excellence be singular; they leverage the collective skillsets of those around them in order to effect a more positive destiny.

So…while the world was stunned by Kobe’s 60 point outburst in his career “curtain call,” I am more captivated by his humble revelation that came with far less fanfare. Leadership requires grace, aplomb, and compassion. Despite Kobe’s mastery on the court, many leaders would do well to focus on the leadership wisdom that surfaced from Kobe (albeit belatedly) once he knew that his professional genius, by itself, would carry him no further. Compassion and empathy are the building blocks of strong and powerful leadership.