During my recharging time, I’ve been diligently watching “The Last Dance,” continually inspired by the leadership lessons of Michael Jordan. As I watched the final episodes, I was struck by the idea that some of Jordan’s most legendary stories contain within them dictums of leadership excellence that apply to any court, any game or any business. Here are a few:
As this documentary shows, success is hard. It’s an important lesson, especially for younger generations used to instant gratification and the idea that success is easily won and should be immediately granted. Think about Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time and still, he was tackled for six years of his career; he had six total playoff losses before his first championship win, three losses to the Pistons alone. Phil Jackson was his fourth coach. His story proves that it’s hard to be great. Jordan was supremely talented, relentless in the pursuit of his goals, focused, determined, the hardest-working player on the team—and probably, the league—and still for him, success was hard. If success was hard for Michael Jordan, you can expect it will be hard for you, too.
A Competitive Spirit
To Michael Jordan, everything was a competition. He didn’t play to play. He played to win. Will Perdue, Bulls Center from 1988-95 told an interesting story: On plane rides to games, Jordan would sit in the back and play cards with Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper. They’d play for thousands of dollars a hand while other players like Perdue, John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong would play blackjack in the front of the plane for $1 a hand. Perdue recalled a time when Jordan walked up to the front of the plane, abandoning the expensive card game in the back and asked him, “What are you guys doing?” Perdue was shocked. Why would Michael Jordan want to play the $1-a-hand game? Jordan explained, “Because I want to say I’ve got your money in my pocket.”
Winning for Jordan wasn’t about the money. It was about the glory of calling yourself a winner no matter how high—or low—the stakes may be.
In 1992, sportswriter Sam Smith published “The Jordan Rules,” which painted a not-so-appealing picture of the basketball superstar. Jordan fought with team members. He punched Perdue. He threw hard-to-catch passes to expose team members’ inabilities. After the book came out—becoming a New York Times bestseller—Jordan told the media: “If I’m going to be knocked off this pedestal, I’m going to make sure I do something to be knocked off. I’m not going to let someone else knock me off for no apparent reason or comments I didn’t say.”
The lesson? Jordan took absolute accountability in the execution of his goals. No one affected his lead measures but himself. He was in total control of whether he won in basketball … and in life.
It’s Game 5 of the 1993 NBA finals and the Bulls just lost, sending them back to Phoenix to play Game 6 there. Michael steps on the plane to greet a dejected team, cigar hanging from his mouth. In “The Last Dance,” Jordan describes the moment: “Everybody’s dreading going back on the plane and going back to Phoenix, so I just said, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I’m only packing one suit.’” In other words, there was no way Jordan was playing two more games to win. They’d win this series in one game. And the Bulls did, in a stunning 99-98 victory. Was Jordan psychic? No. His gift was that he created a mindset for winning and focused on everything he needed to do to achieve that goal.
Fast forward to 1998, Game 3, Chicago Bulls versus Utah Jazz, vying for the NBA championship. It’s literally The Last Dance. Jordan said the team was “mentally and physically exhausted” but trying to muster up the energy to win it all. Despite everything, Jordan explained, “We didn’t lose focus on what we were trying to achieve.” And as it turns out, focus was key. The Utah Jazz, a team that managed to reach the finals two years in a row, were held to just 55 points, the lowest point total since the advent of the shot clock in any game, not just a finals game.
Even in his darkest hours, Jordan was focused on not only building a strong mindset but also on positivity. After his father was tragically robbed and murdered, found in a creek near the border of North and South Carolina, Jordan remembered what it was like to be at the funeral, noting the atmosphere was “about support.” Soon Jordan began to reframe his mindset, finding the positives in a terrible situation. He followed the advice of his late father, James Jordan, who said, “You have to take a negative and turn it into a positive.” It’s that kind of optimism that allowed Jordan to excel not only in hard situations but also on the court. While some talented players got in their heads, Jordan famously did not think about failure. He only thought about the positives and the possibilities. Jordan’s mindset mantra was: Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?
So, what’s the message? It’s only fitting to let Michael Jordan have the last word. As he told Bulls Coach Phil Jackson after a dramatic Bulls victory in Game 6, while the team was celebrating on the court: “I never gave up…I knew we were going to do it.”
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.