The entire world has been in a lockdown with unprecedented caution and fear from the covid-19 pandemic. A silver lining was the launch of the series “The Last Dance", featuring the Chicago Bulls led by the GOAT, Michael Jordan. The world has binged on this excellent series on the behind the scenes as well as game time that led to the unprecedented success of the Chicago Bulls in the National Basketball Association (NBA) league.
The Jordan era in the NBA was the defining moment of the globalization of basketball. MJ not only led the Chicago Bulls for 6 championships in the coveted NBA but also led the Dream Team to the gold medal at the Barcelona ’92 Olympics with a plethora of stars, all of them household names the world over.
The Last Dance is captivating, with the prowess of Michael Jordan, the impact that he made on the league, the world and his peers. For me, he is at the top of the sporting Hall of Fame along with Muhammad Ali – arguably the two best ambassadors for USA and sport everywhere in the world. Even today, youngsters that know nothing about ‘His Airness’ can identify with him, his journey in an era when basketball, with all the bumping and grinding, was a much more physical game than it is today.
More importantly, this stellar documentary chalks out what it takes to win, continuously with no compromise. It lays out the trials and tribulations of the great team, and the pressure of being MJ. But the biggest takeaway for me is the will to win at any cost, and the focus on practice.
Jordan was a tough taskmaster, sometimes abusive, more often than not abrasive, as so many of his teammates and rivals testify – but only to drive people to match his exacting standards. Early on in his career, this was because what he found so easy to do, others found extremely difficult. Geniuses have this problem. It was true of Viv Richards, and certainly of Sachin Tendulkar as captain.
The documentary delineates gracefully what went on in the eco-system of the Chicago Bulls; their management, coaches, players and what they had to do to pivot as a team to become a winning championship team that repeated the three peat.
In any organization, leadership is the difference. What does it mean to lead? For me it’s about setting the same exemplary behavior every time. Consistency is crucial to succeed. It’s also doing the little things well and paying attention to detail. For example MJ use to lace up his own shoes meticulously before every game, not leaving anything to chance.
Leadership is also about pushing your peers so that they can be better at what they are doing: push them to the limit and make them deliver more. But it’s also about taking the clutch shot (making decisions) yourself, and even if you fail, you go at again.
As MJ said famously, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career, I’ve lost 300 games, 26 times I’ve been trusted to hit the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed." And apart from just respecting the team, he also respected his co-workers down to the security personnel, which showed how encompassing his leadership thought process was.
Back in the start of his career, MJ was recruited by the Chicago Bulls from University of North Carolina (UNC) as the overall no.3 pick at the NBA draft. When he entered the Bulls team, it wasn’t a focused organization. That’s when he started setting the tempo by example.
He won a lot of games, but the championship was elusive. He worked hard at practice, in the gym and was singular in his focus - as a leader should be -- but teamwork was missing. Trust in his teammates was also not complete. When Phil Jackson, a man who was on the same page as Jordan, took over, these gaps were filled.
Jackson implemented the triangle offense. This meant that even though MJ would lead the team, the ball would rotate and go to the best possible shooter. MJ understood the value of the triangle offense and through it he realized value of ball rotation, teamwork, which ultimately led to trust.
This trust was earned in practice and in games as the team started gelling together, and MJ kept pushing them demanding even more excellence. In this process, he developed into an all round leader with focus on skills, physical attributes and more. This in itself is a fantastic management lesson, which is often lost or overlooked.
As Jordan quotes, “Talent wins games, but and teamwork and intelligence wins championships." As MJ grew older, he grew wiser, made more allowance for others to be themselves, in fact got them to excel too in their own way. But he didn’t allow his desire to excel or ambitiousness to diminish his success with age. If anything, he got even more determined.
Jordan’s single-minded focus on `winning is everything' is remarkable, and given only to a few. He never shied away from challenges and took on the toughest himself. That is the hallmark of strong leadership, and crucial in organisation management. A leader can’t do everything himself, he has to delegate (not relegate!), demand accountability, and get results.
This is the big difference in a successful organization compared to those that struggle, in the same sector and same environment. In the latter, those in charge haven’t realised the importance of team building as well as the need to persevere and make each team member better, rather than on rely only on few. The saying, ‘if you want to run fast, run alone otherwise carry people with you,’’ has great truth value.
The documentary also brings me to another vital point: cost management versus talent development. Many organizations risk recruiting from outside as opposed to building up the existing team. There has to be a balance. If the Bulls had to recruit the best in every position, they would not be able to afford the payroll or handle egos. That’s when the managers /coaches have to sit down, best allocate resources and generate great role players that can pivot around the leader. That’s what they did in the Bulls. At the same time, every team member has to understand their role clearly and work towards excelling in that specific role.
The Chicago Bulls management also had to take hard decisions about their ageing roster of players and their coach – think about succession planning. The Last Dance was the final season under Phil Jackson. The Bulls won their 6th NBA championship before the team parted ways. The management had a choice to either keep the team together and pay through their noses or choose to rebuild (which takes time) and manage costs better while managing high aspirations and expectations.
They took that tough decision at the end. Like any other organization they needed to do succession planning and think of costs versus benefits, and possibly sacrificed another championship. And every now and then they may have got a superstar that needs a well-oiled team with great chemistry and a coach that can keep them together, but they haven’t won another championship. This also means that good entrepreneurs and managers have to dive into details and pick and choose people of mettle who can rise to the occasion.
The Last Dance is not just a great documentary about Michael Jordan or the Chicago Bulls or basketball or sport, but an insight into the best management principles that can be applied to every organization that has to manage teams, costs, egos and success. In the end management is about people. We will never see a Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson together again, but there are other teams that won well: The Spurs, The Warriors and the Lakers. And all these organizations had one thing in common -- great leaders, with great role players and great chemistry among all of them. Most important of of all, they had the hunger to win.
All management and leadership have to find within themselves that drive to be the best at what they can be, and work towards goals without compromise. Success follows hard work and perseverance. The motto, in fact, should be, ‘hard work is the only shortcut to success.’ Everyone must build their competitive edge and their inner fire. As his `Airness’ Michael Jordan says, “I’m not competing with someone else, I’m competing with what I’m capable of."