What Kobe Bryant Taught Us About Developing a Passionate Work Ethic

John Hollon Audacious Ideas, Leadership, Learning, Talent Management

This is NOT the blog post I thought would be published today.

Kobe Bryant had something to do with that.

As a native Southern Californian and a Los Angeles Lakers fan since the last days of Elgin Baylor, it’s hard for me to imagine that an outsized presence like Kobe Bryant is gone. He died Sunday, near Los Angeles, in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna as they were traveling to one of her basketball games.

Type in “Kobe Bryant work ethic” on Google and you get 252,000 responses, and to me, that’s a surprisingly low number given all the focus on how driven to win Kobe was during his 20-year NBA career.

There will undoubtedly be a lot of commentary published on the greatness of Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, and that’s understandable because he was all that — and more — throughout his incredible 20-year NBA career.

Kobe, however, was a lot more than that, as his life after basketball has shown.

One lesson: just outwork everyone else

I have not followed Kobe all that closely since he retired from the Lakers three years ago, and frankly, that’s because he’s been taking a lower profile and has been busy with business, his family, and winning the occasional Academy Award, as he did for the animated short film “Dear Basketball.

But I do listen to LA sports talk radio when I’m partaking in the famous SoCal tradition of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and not too long ago I was listening to an interview with longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, and he said something about Kobe Bryant I had never heard before.

Here’s what Vitti said on the Legends of Sport podcast:

“(Kobe) was talented, but what if I told you he wasn’t the most talented guy out there? I’m telling you, and I’ve had them all, there’s nothing really special about Kobe.

I mean he’s a big guy, but he’s not that big. He was quick, but he’s not that quick. He’s fast, but wasn’t that fast. He was powerful, but he wasn’t that powerful.

There were other players that had more talent than he did, so what was there about him that more talented players had zero rings and he ended up with five?”

That’s a great question, and Vitti, who was the Lakers’ head trainer from 1984-2016 and wrote the book 32 Years of Titles and Tears from the Best Seat in the House, told CNBC that the answer is that Kobe simply outworked everyone. He not only worked harder than anyone else, but he also worked smarter and was “intellectually brilliant at his job.”

From CNBC: “During halftime, when other players looked at messages, emails, and tweets on their phones, Bryant watched film from the first half of the game on a laptop in the training room to see how he could do better in the second half. Kobe himself has attributed his past progress on the court to an intense work ethic and obsessively studying other players.”

Harnessing “The Mamba Mentality”

“He was tough in the sense that he took ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon, and he just believed that he could do it,” Vitti told CNBC. “Kobe taught me that talent is the most overrated thing in life; it’s what you do with your talent” that counts.

Kobe was also known as the “Black Mamba” after the deadly African snake, and he embraced the comparison, writing a 2018 book titled The Mamba Mentality that described the legendary passion and work ethic that led him to five NBA championships and two Olympic gold medals when he served as the captain of Team USA.

As Kobe put it himself back in 2016:

“To sum up what Mamba Mentality is, it means to be able to constantly try to be the best version of yourself. That is what the Mentality is. It’s a constant quest to try to better today than you were yesterday.”

He also wrote this in 2018, on The Players Tribune website, and it’s something that worth thinking about as you look to motivate the grow your own employees:

“I liked challenging people and making them uncomfortable. That’s what leads to introspection and that’s what leads to improvement. You could say I dared people to be their best selves.”

Daring people to be their best selves — isn’t that what all of us want from the people we manage, we work with, and that we spend so much time on the job with? That is what having a passionate work ethic is all about, and it’s a great lesson that Kobe left for all of us.

So, vaya con dios Kobe Bryant. Your physical presence may be gone, but your work ethic will live on … because it IS what you do with your talent that really counts.