Don’t Lead Like Kobe, Don’t Lead Like Jesus: Advent Reflections

Bill Russell is in the house!
Bill Russell is in the house! (Photo credit: Lorianne DiSabato)

Bill Simmons has a very interesting piece on Grantland contrasting the leadership styles of Bill Russell and Kobe Bryant.  It’s partly focused on numbers (how does Bryant compare compare to Russell, MJ, Magic, Bird, et al by various measures), but there’s something extremely important buried in the story of what Simmons calls “all the other stuff,”  the negative intangibles Bryant has chosen to manifest and, for lack of a better word, lead with as he’s aged.

From the piece:

As Russell was telling the Siegfried story, I couldn’t help but wonder how Kobe would have handled that situation. Would he have cussed him out? Bullied him? Called him out to a reporter? Pushed behind the scenes for the Lakers to dump him? And how would an obviously stubborn guy like Siegfried have handled Kobe’s reaction? My guess: Siegfried would have pushed back … and if he pushed back, he probably wouldn’t have been a Laker for too long. Let’s at least agree that Kobe wouldn’t have handled things like Bill Russell did.

The more I toil in “leadership,” the less I’m interested in the science or theory of it.  Managing people, managing relationships.  Adults should be adults.  They should be kind.  They should be gracious.

Leadership comes from the gut, I think.  I had a fascinating conversation with Matthew Lyon last night about polyvagal theory before IkonNYC’s monthly gathering that further confirmed for me the importance of gut as locus of style and intuition.  I don’t pretend to know what’s in Kobe Bryant’s gut, or your employer’s, but the Good Book says something about it not being the shit we consume that spoils life for everyone around us, but the shit that comes out.  These things are probably much more related than Jesus lets on.  He wouldn’t make much of a leader today, with that drive toward Jerusalem, that wont to move downward at every opportunity, that goddamn insistence that the Kindgom of God is already here, that we’d see it if we weren’t so busy distracting ourselves by pretending to build it.

Jesus was probably the worst church leader ever.  He was certainly the worst religious professional.  He never met fundraising goals, and even his closest followers fell asleep, just stopped showing up.  It’s no wonder so many of our Christian institutions are, like Gandhi said, so unlike our Christ.  Our upward mobility depends on a critical distance from the God of Philippians 2, who

being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

John Milton put it this way:

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherwith he wont at Heav’ns high Councel-Table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksom House of mortal clay.

Back in Philippians 2, Paul drops this bomb:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

It turns out that leadership is wrapped up in a series of fool’s games:  the accessible Jesus of the street is the same God of the cosmos come down in Christmas.  The persecuted Christ, Jesus — Palestine’s Greatest Loser — that Jesus is glorified in this pouring out, in his manger birth, in his criminal’s death.  This Jesus is God’s model for life in the Kingdom?  Forsake the courts of everlasting Day. Forsake the big crowds if they keep you from the margin.  Forsake the safety of the havens, the heavens you build, for the glory and danger and shit of the world.  Lose your life to find it.  Get saved from saving yourself.

Or work too hard, work too long, be successful but perhaps not blessed.  Make it work, you know, I mean force it.  Don’t let the weak spots show.  Forgot you have them.  Scream at your teammates.  Call them out to the press.  Push for the trade.  You know what’s best.  The strings always need pulling, the curtain must always stay down, pay no attention to that man behind it.  I am the great and powerful Oz.  I am the morning and evening star.  I am Elmer Gantry.  I am nothing. It is finished. It’s gone. I have ascended. I’m nothing, and have nothing to show.

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