NBA

8 Leadership Lessons From ESPN's Documentary, 'The Last Dance'

Here's what you can learn from Michael Jordan and the '90s Bulls.
8 Leadership Lessons From ESPN's Documentary, 'The Last Dance'
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Growing up, I was enamored by the Chicago Bulls. What kid wasn’t? I think we all wanted to be like Michael Jordan when we grew up.

Obviously, I didn’t make it into the NBA. However, after watching ESPN’s documentary miniseries, The Last Dance, I’m still inspired by the Chicago Bulls and their six title victories. As an adult and business owner, the leadership lessons sewn throughout the series were particularly meaningful.

1. It starts with one small win.

It was the 1982 NCAA Championships between Jordan’s UNC Tar Heels and Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas. At the time, Jordan was just a baby-faced freshman. But, after he clinched the series with a game-winning shot, there was no denying that a leader was born.

“That (game-winning shot) changed my name from Mike to Michael Jordan,” he said during The Last Dance. “That gave me the confidence that I needed to start to excel at the game of basketball.”

In short, that was the first step he needed to take in becoming one of, if not the, best basketball who ever played the game

What can you learn from this? Acknowledge your wins — no matter the size.

“Small wins can give people an enormous boost emotionally, and can really raise their level of intrinsic motivation for what they’re doing and lead to creativity,” Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School said in The Executive Edge: An Insider’s Guide to Outstanding Leadership.

“So in one of our studies, as we analyzed these data, we found that if people are experiencing progress in their work, they’re much more likely to feel emotionally positive about themselves and about what they’re doing.” And, they’re also “more likely to come up with a creative idea.”

2. Failure is part of the journey to success.

As someone who has experienced business failure and some personal setbacks, I’ll be the first to admit that it sucks. Nobody plans to put in the time and effort to launch a business only for it to fold. But, that’s just a part of life, and it’s even reared its ugly head around icons like Jordan.

Throughout his illustrious career, Jordan played games while battling food poisoning. He suffered a foot fracture that almost sidelined his career in 1985. These were also heartbreaking losses, and he even kept playing after the tragic loss of his father.

How did he handle these failures? Well, Jordan once famously said: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 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.”

Jordan, along with successful people like Steve Jobs and Jobs Gates, knew that failing was not just inevitable. It also became a part of his success story.

“You might have failed at something and lost what was important to you,” Peter Kamurai Chibayamombe wrote in his book, More Than A Conqueror. “Do not despair or lose heart.” Instead, use failure as a learning opportunity “and keep doing what you love.”

Related: Why Failure Is Your Best Teacher

3. Find your intrinsic motivation.

When it comes to motivation, there are two types. There’s extrinsic, which would be external factors like money or awards. Even more powerful though, is intrinsic motivation where you’re driven because you want to explore, grow, learn, or actualize your potential.

While Jordan has definitely made his millions, TLD did an interesting job highlighting his self-motivation. For example, Jordan pushed himself to become a better player than his older Larry. There was also the fabricated rivalry with Washington’s LaBradford Smith, who after beating Chicago, supposedly said, “Nice game, Mike.”

Smith didn’t say that. But, Jordan used that to dominate Washington the next night.

Also, there was when Karl Malone was named MVP in 1997. Jordan used that as fuel to best Malone’s Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals that year. 

Obviously, some of these tactics might have gone too far. However, it just goes to show how intrinsic motivation can be a lightning rod when you need it.

4. You need to surround yourself with a diverse team.

Having the greatest player in the world doesn’t hurt. But, even His Airness admitted that the success of the Bulls was because of the players who surrounded him.

“I would never be able to find a tandem, another support-system, another partner in the game of basketball like Scottie Pippen,” Jordan said in The Last Dance. “He was incredible to play with … he helped me so much in how I approached the game, how I played the game.”

“Whenever they speak Michael Jordan, they should also speak Scottie Pippen,” he added. “I won all the championships but I didn’t win them without Scottie Pippen.” And, “That’s why I consider him my best teammate of all time.”

It wasn’t just Pippen, though. The front office armed MJ with an incredible coach in Phil Jackson, as well as Tex Winter who taught them the Triangle offense. They also brought in Dennis Rodman to improve their defense, and Jordan could turn to reliable role players like James Paxson or Steve Kerr when needed.

Just like the Bulls, great leaders surround themselves with talent who complement their strengths. More importantly, they are aware of their weaknesses and aim to found people to fill in those gaps.

Related: Why You Need Diversity on Your Team, and 8 Ways to Build It

5. Continual self-improvement is a must.

The Bulls and Pistons had a heated rivalry in the late ’80s and early ‘90s. After all, they faced each other in four consecutive postseasons, from 1988 to 1991. Detroit was victorious for the first three of those series because of the “Jordan Rules.”

As Isiah Thomas explained, this strategy was "to play him tough, to physically challenge him and to vary its defenses so as to try to throw him off balance." What did Jordan do? He changed his workout regiment to add muscle.

"I was getting brutally beaten up," Jordan said in episode four of the series. "And I wanted to administer pain. I wanted to start fighting back." So, that’s exactly what he did during the summer of 1990.

That’s just one of several examples of Jordan realizing that if he wanted to succeed, he needed to improve different aspects of his game.

Besides Jordan, The Last Dance also provided a fascinating insight into how Rodman became such a great rebounder. "I just practiced a lot about the angle of the ball and the trajectory of it," he said. "Basically, I just started learning how to put myself in a position to get the ball."

If you want to be the best, then you need to make self-improvement a priority. It can be like Rodman in enhancing an existing skillset, or like Jordan, by identifying and improving a weakness.

6. Leaders trust and empower their teams.

The Last Dance didn’t always paint Jordan in the best light. But, one thing was certain: If you were able to earn his respect, then he had all the confidence in the world in you.

James Paxson and Steve Kerr are perfect examples of this. Jordan put the ball into the hands of Paxson during the 1993 NBA Finals. The result? He hit the game-winning shot in game 6. Fast forward to game 6 of the 1997 Finals, and this time Jordan put his trust in Kerr. And like Paxson, he rewarded the Bulls with the game-winner.

Leaders also need to trust and empower their teams. It is, after all, the foundation of all great relationships.

“Once you’ve given that support, clear the way for them to do the work,” wrote Calendar’s Howie Jones. “You can’t do everything yourself. If you try, you may lose connections, and your team members may stop sharing ideas with you.”

7. You have to walk the walk.

Jordan, to say the least, was a bit of a jerk. I’m not suggesting that you repeat his behavior. But, he also worked harder than anyone else on the team. He made sacrifices and strived for perfection. At the same time, as he says himself, “The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t do.”

In other words, he walked the talk.

“When you see your leader working extremely hard in practice, you feel like, 'Oh, man, if I don’t give it my all, I shouldn’t be here,'” stated his former teammate Horace Grant. That’s exactly the same mentality that you should have as a leader.

Related: 9 Powerful Ways to Lead by Example

8. You have to be decisive.

When it was crunch time, Jordan demanded the ball and was clutch at sinking split-second shooters. He trusted his instincts and abilities. More importantly, he didn’t have time to second-guess himself.

Anyone in a leadership role will also feel the pressure of making last-second decisions. That takes a lot of courage and confidence — especially when it backfires. But, leaders like Jordan know that even if you made a poor choice, you have to live with it. And, you need to learn from the experience so that you don’t repeat the same mistake.

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