Kobe Bryant and Ruthless Employees – Competitive or Toxic?

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And so it goes…Kobe Bryant is in the Finals…

Think about the employees you know who would run over you with a truck to make their quarterly bonus… Some (many) would say that’s Kobe in the NBA.  Isn’t it funny how ruthless employees get classified as "competitive" when the organization is winning?

For those of you who don’t follow basketball, there’s a corporate lesson (or at least a question) in thisKobeadvisory post.  Kobe Bryant’s widely regarded as the best player currently in pro hoops (he plays for the Los Angeles Lakers).  He’s also regarded as one of the most selfish and ruthless players ever in professional sports.

Here’s the track record:  From high school directly to the NBA, where he was ultimately paired with Shaquille O’Neal.  That tandem won three NBA titles, until Kobe forced a trade that sent Shaq packing because he didn’t want to share the spotlight.  Enter a dark period of average performance for the Lakers.

What kind of employee/teammate was Kobe when things weren’t going so well, especially since he caused most of it by forcing the trade?  Um, not so good.  He routinely ranted and demanded trades, claiming there wasn’t enough talent around him.  He even got caught on tape telling some Orange County kids that the Lakers should "trade his a**", a reference to a young teammate (Andrew Bynum) Kobe didn’t have any use for.

This just in – the mentoring program for the Lakers doesn’t include Kobe as a mentor.  He can’t tolerate all those average "proteges"…

Great article in Sports Illustrated focusing on the walking contradiction that is Kobe:

"Idan Ravin, a personal trainer who works with Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas andKobe_lebron_2 Elton Brand and is known by some in the league as "the hoops whisperer" for his effect on players, has even broken killer instinct down into components: love of the game, ambition, obsessive-compulsive behavior, arrogance/ confidence, selfishness and nonculpability/ guiltlessness. He sees them all in Bryant.

"If he’s a ruthless s.o.b., I kind of respect that," says Ravin. "Why should he be passing up opportunities? Why pass it to a guy who doesn’t work as hard, who doesn’t want it like you do?"

Even now, every little challenge matters to Bryant. Here he is at the end of a practice last week. Each Laker has to take a free throw. Everybody hits his except Bryant, who rims one out. The only shooter left is Derek Fisher, who shot 88.3% from the line this season. Bryant stands to the side of the basket, fidgeting. As Fisher’s shot arcs toward the rim, Bryant suddenly takes two quick steps and leaps to goaltend the attempt. "Of course," forward Lamar Odom says later, "he couldn’t be the only one to miss."

I bolded the traits listed above to describe Bryant that could be seen as contributing to the profile of a ruthless employee.  Nice mix, except now that the Lakers are on the cusp of another title, we’re supposed to see him as a leader.  I can’t wait to see all the halftime profiles of how he’s mentored the young lakers after demanding one of them be traded via a teen’s camera phone.

Which is where it gets complex.  Don’t leaders shut their mouths and accept accountability when times are bad?   How does your organization handle great talent that has all the markers of ruthlessness?  Do they tolerate it when times are good?  Do they tolerate it when times are bad?  Does everyone forget about it as long as the cash flow is strong?

Interesting how sports mimic work most of the time.  And vice versa.

Have you hugged the Kobe in your workplace today?  Don’t bother.  When you miss the numbers one month (regardless of the previous 12), he’ll be calling for a replacement whether you hug it out or not… 

Kris Dunn

Kris Dunn is a Partner and CHRO at Kinetix, a national RPO firm for growth companies headquartered in Atlanta. He’s also the founder Fistful of Talent (founded in 2008) and The HR Capitalist (2007) – and has written over 70 feature columns at Workforce Management magazine. Prior to his investment at Kinetix, Kris served in HR leadership roles at DAXKO, Charter and Cingular. In his spare time, KD hits the road as a speaker and gives the world what it needs – pop culture references linked to Human Capital street smarts.