Why Russell Westbrook Lost: A Lesson in Tribal Leadership

After watching the unheralded Utah Jazz dismantle the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the NBA playoffs, it got me thinking about one of my favorite books and organizational culture models: Tribal Leadership.  The book, originally released in 2008, was co-authored by three management consultants who studied 24,000 people in two-dozen organizations and discovered the success of a company is determined by the success of the tribes within.  They created the five stages of tribal culture that encompasses the language people use to describe themselves, their jobs, and the people they work with.  The stages are as follows:

1.      Stage 1: Life Sucks (2% of organizations):  Marked by despairing hostility and hopelessness, people in this stage think life is relentlessly unfair and violent, and nothing they can do will change this.  Street gangs often operate in this stage.

2.     Stage 2: “MY” Life Sucks (25% of organizations):  People in this stage are often antagonistic, feel undervalued, and tend to only associate with members of other dysfunctional tribes.  They are often sarcastic, judgmental, blame others for their plight, and will do the absolute minimum to get by.  However, there is some hope for those in stage 2, for they believe that if circumstances were changed enough, they could potentially thrive and be successful.

3.     Stage 3: I’m Great (and you’re not; 49% of organizations):  Almost half of modern organizations are operating in this stage.  This is the first stage where people are generally engaged in their work.  Stage 3 individuals believe they are personally great, smart, and successful, while others are not (a lone warrior mentality).  They will often complain that the people around them aren’t pulling their weight and feel they have all of the answers and hoard information.  It is important to them that they seem better than others.  Winning is a personal endeavor, not a collective one.

4.     Stage 4: We’re Great (22% of organizations):  At stage 4, people are focused on the team: It’s shared values and purpose.  Language is centered around the “we,” not “me.”  People in this stage are generally inspired, happy, and can be their authentic selves at work.  A stage 4, people are galvanized by defeating a common rival, whether it be another company (in business) or team (in sports).

5.     Stage 5: Life is Great (2% of organizations):  This stage is marked by a sense of innocent wonderment.  The group is no longer motivated by defeating a rival, but is motivated by making history and having a global impact.  Potential is limitless, with results transcending the norms of their industry.  They often leave a legacy that will be discussed for generations to come.

Phil Jackson talks about the stages of his championship teams in his book Eleven Rings.  He places 8 of his 11 championship teams (1991-1993 Bulls; 2000-2002 Lakers; 2009-2010 Lakers) in stage 4 (we’re great), and three of his championship teams (1996-1998 Bulls) in stage 5 (life is great).  For greatness and championship level performance to occur, a team needs to reach at least a stage 4.

Which leads me back to Russell Westbrook.  After his performance against the Utah Jazz, where he averaged 40.5 shot attempts in the last two games, he is clearly operating at a stage 3 (I’m great, and you’re not).  In game 5, the second to last game of the series when his team was down 3 games to 1, he showed how a stage 3 mentality can temporarily lift the team:  He led the Thunder back from a 25-point deficit in the third-quarter to a victory, scoring 45 of his team’s 107 points.  His unassailable belief in himself was mesmerizing to watch. 

Then came game 6.  He scored 46 of his team’s 91 points and took 43 shots (including 19 three-pointers).   The other two ‘stars’ on the Thunder, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, combined for 12 points on 5-23 shooting.  In this case, Westbrook’s “I’m great (and you’re not)” mentality severely hampered his team.  They clearly didn’t play with any sense of purpose, passion, or commitment to shared values.  No one played with a “we’re great” mentality.  There seemed to be no strategy beyond having Westbrook shoot on every other possession.

Not surprisingly, the Thunder lost.

Going into the season, the Thunder, with their newly minted “Big 3” of Westbrook, George, and Anthony, had high hopes that they would contend for a championship.  However, as we’ve seen time and time again, a collection of stars often does not translate to success.  Oftentimes, stars that are cobbled together are used to operating in stage 3 environments, where they have to carry the load and play with inferior teammates.  It perpetuates their belief that they are great, while their teammates are not.  All of a sudden, when they do find themselves playing with other talented teammates that are at their level, it is easier said than done to instantly adopt a stage 4 mentality.  Resentment can set in when they are no longer getting as many shots and attention as they were in their previous role, which is exemplified when the team encounters adversity. 

As the season went on and the Thunder never totally clicked, Westbrook tried to carry the team by himself.  He made it abundantly clear that he only fully trusted himself, and that winning was a personal endeavor, not a collective one.  While his passion was on full display and he played with an astonishing amount of effort, his teammates often looked disengaged, uninspired, and were not themselves on the court.  While Westbrook performed at a stage 3, many of them looked to be at stage 2: Apathetic and resigned to their fate.  

Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors are well on their way to their fourth straight NBA finals appearance.  When Kevin Durant left Westbrook and the Thunder to join the Warriors in 2016, it was clear he wanted to join a team operating at a stage 5 that seemed to be battling history more than any particular team and playing with a childlike joy for the game.

For Westbrook or any leader to reach their potential, they need to find a way to elevate their teams to a stage 4.  Westbrook did not take advantage of his teammates' strengths and skill-sets and did not inspire any sort of “we” focused mentality.  Once leaders have learned to get the most out of themselves, as Westbrook has done, hopefully they learn that their true legacy lies in what they are able to get out of others.  For Westbrook, who has averaged a triple-double in each of the past two seasons, hopefully the best is yet to come.