Thinking Out Loud

Lakers Leadership Problem

The Los Angeles Lakers have a history of being a winning franchise, rivaling only a few other successful teams in the NBA. This season and last, though, they have endured criticism and changes in the coaching staff, have openly demonstrated their frustration, and lost more games than they should have. Considering the team’s range of talent this conduct and the losses seem puzzling. In fact, with all of that talent, one could argue they would need to do little to be a winning team. But clearly, that’s not what’s happening and their leader Kobe Bryant is trying mightily to exercise his leadership. Being a great player, however, doesn’t mean he knows how best to lead this team.

Bryant was a teenage when he entered the league and was immediately compared to Michael Jordan, quite possibly the greatest individual to play the game. Greatness does come in different forms, after all, and there is no definitive answer to the question of who is the greatest. Still, Kobe was compared to Jordan and showed enormous promise. The comparisons, though, were not just to Jordan: they also included Magic Johnson and Larry Bird—good company to be in, but hard acts to follow.

Being a young player, even a great player, requires that you prove yourself:  breaking records and winning championships consistently—a high bar, indeed.  Kobe worked hard, getting his share of accolades and criticism. Much of the criticism centered on his lack of consistency, which was unfair since he was being compared to older more experienced players. Kobe showed frustration responding to the criticism and at times his demeanor changed: He showed and played hard with anger. It’s understandable that he energized himself that way, but it didn’t replicate Jordan, Johnson, or Bird. They, like top competitors in any sport, played fiercely, not angrily. The difference isn’t always easy to see but definitely feels different to the rest of the team.

This is where things get tricky for the current Laker team. They have a superstar leader who loves the game, wants to win, and wants to infuse energy and challenge his teammates to be the best they can be, but he does it through projecting anger. Inspiring others with anger, especially others with enormous talent, is a risky strategy and in this situation I believe it comes across as intimidation. Guys like Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, and Steve Nash, capable of being fierce competitors and true team players, won’t respond to intimidation.

While Kobe’s leadership can make a difference, this ultimately is a coaching issue. Coaches need to identify players’ strengths (and attitudes) and unify individual players into a team with consistent cohesion and drive to win. This requires real communication between the coaching staff and the players, providing proactive guidance to produce a cohesive inherent strength. Anger and rah-rah-let’s-just-try-harder attitudes won’t work: that isn’t a strategy . . . nor does it respect the value, the talent, or the dignity of the individuals involved.

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