The recent article in ESPN the Magazine (by Henry Abbott) on Kobe Bryant’s destructive patterns of leadership brings to light many interesting questions. Abbott obtained quotes from several NBA agents, players, and insiders that described the toxic leadership dynamic of Kobe Bryant. One agent described Bryant as the unmovable object that has inhibited the growth of teammates and stagnated the organization. By comparing Bryant to a “big rock in your front yard” the agent was essentially saying that Bryant has forced everyone in the Lakers organization adjust to him and his way of doing things. Bryant as the ‘immovable object’ necessitates that everyone else circumvent their position to comply with his needs, instead of using his leverage to empower and inspire others.
Abbott interviewed another agent who sited Bryant as the primary reason many of his clients wouldn’t entertain the idea of playing for the Lakers. The players worried that Bryant would use his influence to pin the blame on them if the team started to lose games. Kobe has created a culture of fear in where his teammates must pay homage to King Bryant or suffer the consequences. The tools of public humiliation and alienation are used to control the proletariat from veering outside of their prescribed zones of operation.
In contrast to the Bryant leadership style, I want to suggest that great leaders have the ability to accomplish three specific things as a direct result of their influence.
By definition, a leader is someone who other people are willing to follow. Great leadership at its most foundational level has the ability to attract a group of talented individuals to accomplish a shared goal. Bryant has been a toxic repellent that many players have avoided like the plague. Instead of enticing talent to join him in Los Angeles, his demanding personality and me-first attitude has made the Lakers an unattractive destination for possible free agents.
Great Leaders Accentuate the Talents of Others
Bryant has made it clear that he is uninterested in developing the talents of his teammates as evidenced by the mass exodus of talented players – particularly big men who require guards to give them the ball in the post – in the last several years. According to Basketball-Reference Bryant has hoisted the 4th most shots in NBA history (24,416 attempts at a pedestrian 45%), and will easily move into 2nd position (surpassing Karl Malone and Michael Jordan) if he stays healthy this season.
Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum are just a few examples of players who have left under the inauspicious dynamic of a Bryant dominated system. Steve Nash a renowned teammate, leader, and well-respected point guard was unable to mask his frustration in an interview with Zach Lowe.
Leaders accentuate the talents of their teammates by helping them surpass the limits of their abilities. The mark of leadership is always measured by the growth of people around them.
Great Leaders Create a Community of Trust
In contrast to creating a community of trust, Bryant has fostered a community of fear and compliance. Bryant is the ruler of his kingdom and would deal harshly with any teammate who dared challenged his reign.
Teammates would learn to fear Bryant or risk being squashed by one of the most powerful players in the NBA. The ideas of open dialogue, communal trust, and transparency were replaced by marching orders to accept Bryant and his standards or face the consequences. Great leaders earn the respect and trust of their followers by submitting themselves to the same standards they enforce on others. They understand that double standards, favouritism, and hypocrisy cripple healthy team dynamics and glorify the individual instead of the group. Trust is the most valuable currency a leader can have, and without it the community crumbles.