Thoughts on Leadership: Leadership Lessons Learned from Kobe

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me first in San Diego as a guest of Tom Ferry’s Elite+ Retreat, a two-day event for learning, networking, masterminding and recharging. I presented on a system for Geometric Growth, helping attendees execute on their 2020 goals.

From San Diego I headed to Northern California to attend the Intero Symposium, to also present on a system for Geometric Growth. Tomorrow, I’ll spend time at Intero’s 2020 Kick-off party, which takes place in one of my favorite hometown spots: Levi’s® Stadium, home of Super Bowl LIV contenders, the San Francisco 49ers.

On the subject of sports, the biggest news event this week as you know was the tragic passing of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. As the news outlets widely reported, Kobe died suddenly along with his daughter Gianna Bryant and seven other passengers aboard a helicopter that crashed Sunday morning into a hillside in Calabasas, California.

This week, the world mourns all those lives lost in the crash. And while we collectively grieve, there are patches of hope to be found in the important leadership lessons the basketball luminary left behind.

Kobe was an undeniable master of his sport. He was a five-time NBA Champion and the youngest player to ever start an NBA game at 18 years and 158 days old. At 18 years of age, Kobe was also the youngest Slam Dunk Contest winner when he took first place in the 1997 competition during All-Star Weekend. In his final NBA game, Kobe scored an incredible 60 points. He was also an 18-time NBA All-Star and a two-time Olympic
gold medalist.

But even with his massive accomplishments, he made just as profound an impact off the court, especially through the development of his unique approach to sports, business and life. After watching Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Kobe coined his own nickname, Black Mamba, which was code in the movie for the world’s deadliest assassin. Inspired by the nickname, Kobe developed a mindset called “Mamba Mentality,” applicable to any situation and every leader. Speaking with Amazon Book Review, Kobe defined the term: “Mamba Mentality is all about focusing on the process and trusting in the hard work when it matters most. It’s the ultimate mantra for the competitive spirit.”

Here are a few examples of Kobe’s unrelenting Mamba Mindset:

  1. He was a fierce competitor. Even during Kobe’s high school years playing at Lower Merion in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, he would show up to practice at 5 a.m. and stay on the court for a solid two hours. He’d also play one-on-one games with his teammates … to 100 points. (During his worst match-up, Business Insider says he still won 100-12.)
  2. He never let anything—even injury—sideline him in the execution of his goals. During his years as a Lakers player, Kobe was always the first player in the gym, even when he was hurt. He once played left-handed because he had an injury to his right hand and was determined not to let it keep him off the court.
  3. He combined physical practice with mental motivation. He was a proponent of the mental aspect of the game; former Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neill wrote in his book that Kobe would often practice dribbling and shooting without a ball and exhibit the same physical intensity as if he had a ball in his hands.
  4. He was a student of continuous improvement. According to Sports Illustrated, in 2008 he requested Nike shave a few millimeters off the soles of his sneakers to get “a hundredth of a second better reaction time.”
  5. He believed in authenticity and the power of personal storytelling. “Be yourself,” he once said to Bloomberg. “That’s it. Be you. There’s no gimmick. You don’t have to contrive anything. Who are you? Where are you today? What is your story? And all you’re doing is communicating that story to the public.”
  6. He was committed to accountability in leadership. Speaking with NBA TV, Kobe said in February of 2015: “There’s a big misconception where people [think] winning or success comes from everybody putting their arms around each other and singing ‘Kumbaya’ and patting them on the back when they mess up, and that’s just not the reality. If you are going to be a leader, you are not going to please everybody. You have to hold people accountable, even if you have that moment of being uncomfortable.”
  7. He programmed the non-conscious portion of his brain to reject failure. To Showtime, Kobe explained: “When we are saying, ‘This cannot be accomplished, this cannot be done,’ then we are short-changing ourselves. My brain, it cannot process failure. It will not process failure. Because if I have to sit there and face myself and tell myself, ‘You’re a failure,’ I think that is … almost worse than death.”

So, what’s the message? What makes Kobe’s passing even more heartbreaking to people across the world is the painful understanding that he died in what could be said was only the second quarter of his life. For many there’s been a tendency to compare the death of Kobe Bryant at 41 years old with the death of President John F. Kennedy at age 46; it’s been said everyone will always remember where they were when they heard the news of Kobe, his daughter and the other passengers’ horrific tragedy. There are innumerable qualities Kobe’s legacy will always remind us of but the most memorable characteristic that will linger the longest for me is how so many of his teammates remarked that not only was Kobe the most gifted athlete but he was also the hardest working athlete, and encouraged that same relentless drive in those around him. Kobe taught us your leadership greatness is not measured in the actions you achieve but in the accomplishments you inspire in others. Above all else—the awards, the championships, the incredible shots taken and even those missed—that’s the gift Kobe passes on to the world. His Mamba Mentality is now a blueprint for extraordinary living, so like the superstar himself, we can all win in the game of life.


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