You don’t get to six rings, back-to-back championships, and the title of G.O.A.T. all on your own. If you watched “The Last Dance” then you know that Michael Jordan’s success could not have been possible without his team. Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and the entire Bulls’ roster was imperative to the success of the Jumpman. Just like in basketball or any other sport, in business you need to build and lead a team to success.
Jordan’s leadership style and competitiveness cemented the 90s Bulls as a legendary NBA team. There’s a lot we can learn from MJ. But with trash-talking his teammates during practice and even getting into fights with them– his leadership hasn’t been flawless. Today we’ll dive into those leadership lessons, what to avoid, and how you can implement the best of Jordan in your business leadership style.
What is Leadership?
I’m sure we’ve all seen this picture floating around the Internet 100 times before depicting a leader versus a boss. Now, we can’t hear what the picture is saying, but if it could talk, I think you would hear the boss turn to their team and order them to, “go that way.” Whereas we’d hear the leader turn to her team and say, “let’s go this way.” A boss sees their staff solely as human capital to drive their mission forward. A leader invites people to work together towards a shared goal.
It’s a collective effort.
Now, this is interesting because when Jordan joined the NBA he was a star player on his own. He was getting buckets. He was killing it. He was putting up great stats for himself– but his team wasn’t up to par yet. It wasn’t until Michael led his team to be the best that they could be that the Bulls really started seeing success.
Throughout the rest of this blog post, I think it’s very important to keep this one crucial quote from the Jumpman in mind:
“Winning has a price. Leadership has a price. I pulled people along when they didn’t wanna be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. But I never asked them to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself.”
This leads us into our first point.
Demand The Best From Your Team
Like Mike said, you can’t demand the best from your team if you’re not putting up shots yourself. You can’t march into a room and ask your designers, developers, and marketers to give their 110% when you’re lounging around all day.
If you want your team to perform at their best, they need to see that you’re performing at your best, too. If you want them to put in more hours, you can’t ask them to do that until you put in more hours yourself. If you want them to learn more and go above and beyond for clients, they’ve got to see you doing the same as well. Your team will respect you if you walk the walk before you talk the talk.
The reason Jordan was able to get away with being so demanding was because he was sweating even when they were running simple drills. When the team was doing suicides, he was panting and outrunning everyone. If you want to earn the respect of your team and pull the best out of them, you’ve got to pull the best out of yourself first.
Go Hard In Practice
The reason Mike was outrunning his teammates during practice was because he believed that if you bleed in practice, you’ll only sweat in the game.
There’s famous tales of Jordan getting into fights and trash-talking his teammates in scrimmages. But like Steve Kerr said, he was right. Steve Kerr said that if you couldn’t handle trash-talk during practice, there was no way you could handle the pressure of the NBA playoffs.
Now, of course, you’re not going to go around the office punching your coworkers. You’re going to get into a lot of trouble for that. But you can still practice hard everyday.
Rehearsing pitches to dream clients, build concept proposal decks, running new ads to testing ideas– those are all forms of practice.
It’s very easy for creatives and entrepreneurs to get comfortable when we reach some sort of success. Getting regular paychecks is dangerous. When you’re comfortable is when you start to plateau. Personally, I’ve noticed that when I start to get content with a little bit of success is when I start to skimp on the very fundamentals that led me to where I am right now.
And when you do that, it’s a slippery slope.
Even after a night of celebrating wins, Jordan would go to his teammates’ hotel rooms banging on the doors in the morning and pulling them out of bed for practice. You’ve got to show up every single day and shoot every single basket. The more you practice, the more prepared you are.
So, all those fake pitches you do in front of the mirror or all the templates that you keep building, those are all in preparation for that one day you meet that one big client. Remember– luck equals opportunity plus preparation.
Fight For Your Team
Now, I actually had this section labeled “fight with your team” before, which is not what I want to preach. But Jordan did do a lot of that, too.
He fought a ton with his team, but he also had their back. When Scottie Pippen was getting into arguments about his salary being capped or his teammates had any issues with other players from opposite teams, Jordan was there to back them up.
If your teammates don’t feel like you have their back, they’re not going to be open with you. If there’s something going on in the lives or if they messed up with a customer, they’re not going to feel like they can come to you. If you don’t have their back, they’re not going to be transparent with you.
Your teammates need to know that no matter how bad they mess up, you’re there to back them up.
You’ve got to fight for your team so when the time comes for them to fight for, they’ll step up.
Pass The Ball
Jordan was not a ball hog. Yes, at the beginning of his career he was the one getting all the points and raining buckets. It was the Jordan show! But as his ambitions grew, he knew that he had to pass the ball.
Passing the ball was also good for his team because it gave people like Steve Kerr a chance to gain more confidence. I’m a big believer in confidence through competence. If your team isn’t scoring on their own and they’re not becoming competent in their craft, they’re never gonna achieve confidence.
Passing the ball to your teammates allows them to, of course, get confident their abilities, but to also reach their own goals.
No one joins your team to help you get your Lamborghini and house in the hills. They joined your team because they felt that they could share your vision and reach their goals simultaneously. When you pass the ball to them and you trust them to take a shot, they’re gonna return that favour to you.
Remember, giving trust to your team helps them produce their best work. If you want them to take shots without you looking, you’ve gotta pass the ball.
Watch Their Blind Spots
When Jordan was on the court, he had his eyes everywhere. He was watching all of his teammates and reported back any mistakes to them. He would teach them how to recognize a misstep and avoid it in the future. Your job as a leader is to oversee the entire “court.”
When you teach your teammates how to catch themselves before they slip, you’re helping them gain confidence.
Remember, leadership is about helping other people grow. It’s not just about helping you score baskets, but helping them score baskets on their own. Good leadership results in a team that is autonomous.
When a team is autonomous, they can operate on their own and get work done without you being there. That’s the goal of leadership. A) to get work done without you being there. And B) help people become the best versions of themselves.
Lose Like A Champ
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
You and your team will take L’s. It’s an inevitable part of business. But what matters most is how you as a leader respond to those L’s. During the lows is when your leadership will be tested the most. Your teammates will be looking to you for guidance.
How are we going to weather this storm? How do you make it through this alive? How are you treating your teammates?
Being a leader when everything is nice and rosy is easy. Anyone can do that. Being a wartime CEO, when it’s time to batten down the hatches in and get your troops in order– that’s when the real test is. If you want your teammates to keep their cool and march forward, you’ve got to shield them from everything else happening outside. You’ve got to make to feel like no matter what happens you can make it through.
Jordan was super competitive and he hated losing. So, bouncing back from failures and being a leader for his team wasn’t actually one of his strong suits.
Do You Have To Be Like Mike To Win?
Yes, Jordan was a tyrant. He was demanding, abusive at times, and just all round jerk. I think now is a fitting time to return to his quote from the beginning of this post.
“Winning has a price. Leadership has a price. I pulled people along when they didn’t wanna be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged.But I never asked them to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself.”
Now, when this quote first aired on The Last Dance, I was on Twitter and I saw tech bros and VCs alike going up in hurrah saying, “I told you so! I told you that I wasn’t being a jerk and I just had to be like this to win!”
They felt like MJ gave them permission to be a jerk in order to win. But this isn’t true. Leadership requires empathy.
You need to listen to your people and cater to their needs. There’s examples of Jordan publicly berating his teammates when they couldn’t keep up in practice. That is not something you want to do. Making and example out of your teammates leads to them resenting you. Resentment compounds. They resent you more and more as the weeks go on and you’ll never get the best work out of them.
But what’s important to note is that Jordan also took time to look after his teammates and bond with them. For example, when Dennis Rodman needed his 72 hour escapade to Vegas to blow off steam, Jordan didn’t stop him. But when it was time to come back and do the work, Jordan, sure enough, knocked at his door, said nothing about his escapade, and just pulled Dennis back. Letting your teammates do what they need to do to make sure they do their best work is key to being a great leader.
Jordan Wasn’t A Manager
Now, one of the biggest lessons that you had to read between the lines to notice was that Michael wasn’t a manager. He was a leader.
He didn’t manage his teammates. He led them. The difference between the two is subtle but it makes a huge difference. Management can only be applied to things that are predictable or take a predetermined path. That’s not basketball. Likewise, in today’s age of entrepreneurship, creative work, and knowledge work, there is no one path to success. And because no predetermined path, you can’t really manage that. Take Apple and Microsoft, for example. Two companies in a very similar field that took very different paths to get success. The way you achieve an outcome is probably different from the way you a teammate might.
Leadership starts on an individual level. Cater to each and every team member’s own needs and desires. Elevate your people from an individual perspective first.
Jordan didn’t count the number of reps his teammates did. He didn’t tell Pippen do hold his hamstring stretch for 45 seconds instead of 30. Jordan did tell his team that they’re there to fight a mission. They’re there to do whatever it takes to win a title and become the best team in the NBA. How we get there is up to you. That’s leadership. So whether it’s Michael Jordan or Michael Scott, the type of leader you are determines the type of followers you’ll attract.