Lao Tzu’s advice for Kobe Bryant and Silicon Valley

This year has so far been an epic fail for the Lakers. With the acquisition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, they were widely expected to challenge the Thunder and the Heat as one of the NBA’s elite teams. Instead, they are 11th of 15 teams in the western conference, with a losing record. Adding insult to injury, they are 8 games behind the Clippers – never mind the best team in the west, they aren’t even close to the best team playing at Staples Center. 

Lots of things have gone wrong. Dwight Howard’s recovery from back surgery has been slower than expected, and Steve Nash’s broken leg has kept him off the court most of the season. But even if new coach Mike D’Antoni’s style doesn’t fit Pau Gasol very well, Kobe Bryant has been having a spectacular year. 

In his 17th NBA season, Kobe Bryant has been leading the league in scoring, averaging 29.5 points per game. While others greats have declined at this point in their career, Kobe is performing at his usual high levels in assists, rebounds, and steals too. While it might look like he’s carrying the team on his shoulders, a deeper look indicates otherwise. 

ESPN’s Chris Broussard recently looked into Kobe’s performance (I’d post a link but its subscriber only) and how it impacts the Lakers. What he found was that the Lakers are 4 and 11 when Kobe takes 20 or more shots a game and 8 and 3 when he takes less than 20 shots a game. The difference is not accounted for by quality of opponents; in fact the opposition was tougher when Kobe shot less and the Lakers did better. 

This is not a case of Kobe taking bad shots and missing most of them. He is shooting 48%, which is good. But if by doing that he is depriving other players of their very high percentage shots, it can be bad for the team. Of course it can be hard to know what is cause and what is effect; is Kobe shooting more when his teammates are shooting worse or the other way around? There are other statistical arguments that Kobe is helping his team this season; most notably the Lakers seem to be playing a lot better with Kobe on the floor than off the floor. 

This brings to mind some advice from Lao Tzu:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.

Right now Kobe is in that middle state of leadership. He is right in the middle of everything his team is doing, and he is doing it well. Maybe doing a little less would be better?

I think about these thoughts on leadership in the context of Silicon Valley. We worship hero-leaders who personify their companies. Many of the leading companies of Silicon Valley have been built by strong-willed iconoclastic leaders. Certainly in my days at Oracle it would be hard to say Larry Ellison spoke little, and Oracle did well. 

Has the world changed in the 2500 years since Lao Tzu’s time? Does his advice apply to basketball or software? Certainly I think we could move a little bit in that direction from where we are today.

I know at 10gen there are so many talented people my biggest contributions will be in growing the team, making sure we have money to keep paying them, keeping them pointed in a common direction and creating an environment and culture where we get the most from them. The art lies in staying close enough to understand what the team needs be but not so close as to get in the way of the team leading itself.

As for Kobe, maybe he needs a quota. He’s out of the game after his 6th foul, or his 20th shot?

— Max

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