Find Your Kobes, Call Your Kareems

A little homage to the start of the NBA season as it relates to organizational change:

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I tuned in this evening to watch one of the NBA’s opening night games, the first for the new-look Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers enter the season with two new additions to their starting lineup- 2-time MVP Steve Nash entering the twilight of his career, and 3-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard entering the prime of his. Like every new team, these 12 new teammates have their eyes set on winning an NBA championship. I tuned in this evening because I was particularly interested in the addition of Howard as a new potential superstar in the long-time pantheon of Laker centers. How would this team come together?

On first glance, it’s obvious that this is still Kobe Bryant’s team. A 17-year veteran with 14 All-Star appearances, an MVP award, and an all-important 5 NBA championships, Kobe carries the team on and off the court. Apparently, he recognizes this role in the team, though he also plans specifically to mentor his new superstar teammate. He will spend the next few years grooming Howard to grow as a leader, so that upon stepping away from the game, “this organization can ride on as if I [Kobe] never left.”

This idea of performing such that the organization can “ride on” reminds me that every new team – a school staff, a leadership team, a grade-level PLC – has its Kobes. For better and for worse, the institutional memory within a team will tend to define the actions of the new team for years to come. How can we help to ensure that those Kobes, these de facto leaders that will grow the future’s leaders, are setting up the organization to continue in the right direction?

Like everything else, it starts by finding the right people. Last week, I heard a sports radio interview with Lee Jenkins, the author of a recent cover story for Sports Illustrated chronicling Howard’s transition. Among the many anecdotes of Howard’s arrival in Los Angeles was one about the importance of leadership development, where Jenkins describes the demonstration that Kobe was putting on for Howard in how to practice.

According to Jenkins, Kobe led by example – which was nothing surprising, as few others have a comparable work ethic to Kobe. However, he also led by expectation. Jenkins noted that if there was anyone on the court who wasn’t working as hard or as purposefully, then Kobe gave that man what he needed – a high five or a raised eyebrow, a sidewards glare or a sideline encouragement. Kobe was setting the expectation that this is how a Laker practices. I imagine that’s how Kobe treats everything. I can see him thinking, This is how a Laker does pre-game warm-ups. This is how a Laker does a post-game interview. This is how a Laker eats sushi.

And this is the lesson we can learn: in times of transition, find your Kobes. Not only the Kobes in the sense that they are the de facto leaders, but in that they embody the ethos of your organization. More than anyone else on that team, Kobe lives and breathes to improve, to practice, to win. Can you imagine the effect if someone else had been Howard’s example instead? The key is understanding what you want your organization to be. What is your mission? What are the key values you represent? Who are the individuals who embody that mission and those values? Find them, and make sure they have a voice – especially among those who are new to the team.

In many ways, Kobe is keeping up a mindset instilled in the organization by former coach Phil Jackson, who led the team to 5 championships between 1999-2011. In his book Sacred Hoops, Jackson talks about how important practices are to ensuring that the players on the team become “like five fingers on a hand” as they grow in their understanding of one another. The hope is that Kobe – and any leader – is able to be the glue in the present that connects an organization’s past to its future.

Of course, current players are not Dwight Howard’s only mentors: what about those who have since left the organization, but still have a powerful voice? The Sports Illustrated article chronicles a powerful encounter between Howard and NBA all-time scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Following this discussion – a veritible “welcome to the club” if I’ve ever seen one – Howard was so moved by the encouragement by the Hallf of Fame center that he visibly wept. Who are those “former greats” who can bring such a powerful reaction in your newest members? Seek them out, and call them up – the team needs to remember where it has come from in order to find where it will go.

As I finish writing this post, Kobe walks briskly to the locker room ahead of the rest of his teammates following an 11-point loss. The Laker offense looked out of sorts, the defense looked a step slower than their opponents, and Howard watched the end of the game from the bench after fouling out. In short, the Lakers looked like a new collection of players still learning how to play together. I look forward to seeing what they look like in March, after a season’s worth of figuring out how Lakers play together.