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Kobe Bryant has left this earth — but his life lessons linger

Kobe Bryant has left this earth — but his life lessons linger
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Long before the final buzzer ought to have sounded, perhaps even before half time, Kobe Bryant’s transcendent life was snatched from NBA fans everywhere. The outpouring of grief from across the world shows how one man did not just shut up and dribble, but instead exemplified the highest ideals of sport. 

If elite sport is a metaphor for life’s many battles — the primeval competition for success, triumph over adversity, and endurance — then Bryant was its warrior king. Even accounting for the fact that tragic deaths invite encomiastic obituaries, his demise reminds us of the many leadership lessons contained in his 41 years.

First, it is impossible to excel without melding talent with hard work. While the cliché that “hard work beats talent every time” is not quite accurate, it is true that in competition between supremely talented people, those who combine talent with hard work prevail. This has been confirmed by research and there is perhaps no better example than Bryant. 

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After losing to the Miami Heat in a regular-season game in March 2011, for example, Bryant continued to practice late into the night, well after everyone had left the building. Despite being the best player, he outworked everyone and was known for berating teammates who did not have the same work ethic or commitment to excellence. Just ask Smush Parker.

Second, he had an all-consuming desire to win. You can’t lead by losing. Bryant took no prisoners — basketball was a zero-sum game for him. This was especially true in the second half of his career, when he rose above a pursuit of individual glory to emphasize team victory. And when his teammates’ play would not assure victory, he took it upon himself to will his team to victory — recall the Game 6 Western Conference finals victory over the Phoenix Suns in 2010, when Bryant scored 37 points on 25 shots while playing on a team with elite scorers such as Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. Gasol, Odom and Bynum took a combined 26 shots, scoring just 25 points, meaning Bryant had to carry the team to victory.

Third, life’s battles require an indomitable will. Bryant’s leadership style was not just to win but to dominate all competition through sheer willpower. Nothing seemed to faze him, not Raja Bell clotheslining him in a 2006 playoff game, or Matt Barnes threatening to throw the ball in his face. In both instances, Bryant exhibited disdain rather than anger and kept his concentration on the task at hand: winning. Contrast this with other players who react to provocations with bad behavior of their own, to the detriment of their team. Bryant even shot free throws against the Golden State Warriors after tearing his Achilles tendon in 2013.

Fourth is resilience to overcome adversity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 2003 rape accusation and the years of abuse from opposing fans in arenas around the country. Bryant  adopted the “Black Mamba” identity, and went about turning haters into his fans with sheer brilliance. Another man might have bemoaned the injustice of losing lucrative deals; Nike, McDonalds and other companies dropped him after the accusation. But Bryant’s resilience meant that Nike embraced him again, and fans eventually yielded him grudging respect.

Fifth, one needs self-awareness and accountability. When the criminal charges were dropped and the civil suit settled, Bryant apologized to his accuser and expressed contrition. On the basketball court, he recognized that his uncompromising approach to leadership was not working. The Lakers were losing and his teammates were disengaged. Bryant held himself accountable and transformed his leadership by sharing the load and including others in a way he had not done previously. The partnership with Pau Gasol stands as an example.

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Sixth, Bryant showed an incessant commitment to self-improvement. Like most geniuses, he knew that the better is the enemy of the good. He was like a sponge, soaking up knowledge in business, entertainment and publishing in a way that was unprecedented for a man of his success. He also could have soaked up the applause like so many great athletes and coasted on what he did best, but his hunger elevated him to become a transcendent star who exceeded his sport. Perhaps no other elite athlete has won an Oscar or published children’s books, or accomplished as much in diverse areas of business with so little formal education.

Finally, a leader’s true greatness lies in what he contributes to the growth of others. Bryant mentored people in sports and other domains, drawing from the well of highs and lows he had experienced. Aside from those he touched directly — people such as tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka — he inspired millions who experienced tragedies in their own lives. He showed them that they could overcome, too, if they had his will and work ethic.

The Black Mamba will live on in the memories of millions of fans — not just for the 33,000 points or MVP awards, but for the unique brand of leadership he exhibited. Kobe wrote in his poem, "Dear Basketball": 

“I fell in love with you.
A love so deep I gave you my all —
From my mind & body
To my spirit & soul.”

He may well have been speaking about all his years on earth, when he gave us his all. RIP, Mamba.

Sandeep Gopalan (@DrSGopalan) is vice chancellor and executive vice president of academic affairs at Piedmont International University in North Carolina. He previously was a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He has co-chaired American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, was a member of the ABA’s immigration commission, and was dean of law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries.