Kobe and Fish kicked off the first day of training camp with a speech about how the upcoming season would be a marathon, not a sprint, and how we needed to focus on meeting force with force and not allowing ourselves to be intimidated by physical pressure. Ironically, Kobe was beginning to sound more and more like me every day.

In their groundbreaking book, Tribal Leadership, management consultants Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright lay out the five stages of tribal development, which they formulated after conducting extensive research on small to midsize organizations. Although basketball teams are not officially tribes, they share many of the same characteristics and develop along much the same lines:

STAGE 1—shared by most street gangs and characterized by despair, hostility, and the collective belief that “life sucks.”

STAGE 2—filled primarily with apathetic people who perceive themselves as victims and who are passively antagonistic, with the mind-set that “my life sucks.” Think The Office on TV or the Dilbert comic strip.

STAGE 3—focused primarily on individual achievement and driven by the motto “I’m great (and you’re not).” According to the authors, people in organizations at this stage “have to win, and for them winning is personal. They’ll outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. The mood that results is a collection of ‘lone warriors.’”

STAGE 4—dedicated to tribal pride and the overriding conviction that “we’re great (and they’re not).” This kind of team requires a strong adversary, and the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.

STAGE 5—a rare stage characterized by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that “life is great.” (See Bulls, Chicago, 1995–98.)

All things being equal, contend Logan and his colleagues, a stage 5 culture will outperform a stage 4 culture, which will outperform a 3, and so on. In addition, the rules change when you move from one culture to another. That’s why the so-called universal principles that appear in most leadership textbooks rarely hold up. In order to shift a culture from one stage to the next, you need to find the levers that are appropriate for that particular stage in the group’s development.

During the 2008–09 season the Lakers needed to shift from a stage 3 team to a stage 4 in order to win. The key was getting a critical mass of players to buy into a more selfless approach to the game. I didn’t worry so much about Kobe, even though he could go on a shooting spree at any second if he felt frustrated. Still, by this point in his career I knew he understood the folly of trying to score every time he got his hands on the ball. Nor was I concerned about Fish or Pau Gasol, who were naturally inclined to be team players. What concerned me most were some of the younger players eager to make a name for themselves with the ESPN SportsCenter crowd.

But to my surprise, early in the season I noticed that even some of the most immature players on the team were focused and single-minded. “We were on a serious mission, and there wasn’t going to be any letup,” says forward Luke Walton. “By the time we got to the finals, losing just wasn’t going to be an option.”

We got off to a roaring start, winning twenty-one of our first twenty-five games, and by the time we faced the Celtics at home on Christmas, we were a far more spirited team than we’d been during the previous year’s playoffs. We were playing the game the way the “basketball gods” had ordained: reading defenses on the move and reacting in unison like a finely tuned jazz combo. These new Lakers beat the Celtics handily, 92–83, and then danced through the season to the best record in the Western Conference (65-17).

The most troubling threat came in the second round of the playoffs from the Houston Rockets, who pushed the series to seven games, despite losing star Yao Ming to a broken foot in game 3. If anything, our biggest weakness was the illusion that we could cruise on talent alone. But going to the brink against a team that was missing its top three stars showed our players just how treacherous the playoffs could be. The close contest also woke them up and helped them move closer to becoming a selfless stage 4 team.

No question, the team that walked off the floor in Orlando after winning the championship finals in five games was different from the team that had fallen apart on the parquet floor of the TD Garden in Boston the year before. Not only were the players tougher and more confident, but they were graced by a fierce bond.

“We’ve become a brotherhood,” said Kobe. “A brotherhood pure and simple.”


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