4 Leadership Lessons from Michael Jordan and The Last Dance

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As a child of the 90s, a decade where the NBA was dominated by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, I found myself enthralled by The Last Dance, a documentary series released by ESPN and Netflix. 

To make it very clear, I’m a Los Angeles Lakers fan through and through, but it’s hard not to admire and want to study any team that can sustain greatness long enough to win six championships in eight years.

In this short post, I’ll share the four leadership lessons that stuck out to me most while watching the series. Let’s begin.

Lesson #1 – Leaders aren’t always best friends with their teammates

Michael Jordan was and is beloved by fans — but not so much by his teammates. One story that loomed large in the documentary described how Jordan punched a teammate. Others described being confronted and yelled at. Clearly, he wasn’t always a “nice guy.”

When I was promoted to a management role for the first time it took me a bit to realize that sometimes leaders must have hard conversations and they likely won’t be best friends with the people they are leading. While I don’t advocate yelling, and certainly not physical altercations, leaders do their teams a disservice if they favor friendship over giving honest feedback. 

I can certainly remember hard conversations with past bosses that hurt at the time, but in retrospect helped me and the company succeed in the long term.

Lesson #2 – Leaders require the strength of the entire team to succeed

You might think the documentary is about Michael Jordan — but you’d be wrong. Don’t forget about the huge, game-winning shots made by John Paxson and Steve Kerr. Scottie Pippen was a huge star in his own right, consistently playing incredible defense and averaging 20+ points per game. And for all of his antics, Dennis Rodman made it to the NBA Hall of Fame by being the greatest rebounder in NBA history. The list could go on, but the point is that Michael Jordan did not win any of his six championships on his own. 

As a customer support leader, I’m keenly aware of the fact that without a team of incredible customer service professionals, our customer experience would completely flop. Leaders are only as strong as their ability to recognize the unique strengths of their team members.

Lesson #3 – Leaders love what they do

In the documentary, they spent a lot of time talking about the immense pressure the players were under to keep winning. Michael Jordan couldn’t go out in public. At times he had no choice but to go travel directly from a game back to his hotel room to eat a pizza by himself. As one of the most famous people in the world, I’ll bet he often felt like one of the loneliest. 

The question is, is it really worth it? It’s clear that deep down, even amid burnout, tragedy, and isolation, Jordan loved the game of basketball. He even loved the practice. 

This is an important reminder for leaders that leading is a challenge. There’s no way around it. But deep down we must love what we do enough to stick with it and inspire a team to stick with it.

Lesson #4 – Leaders keep their team focused on the goal

The documentary focuses primarily on the sixth and final championship the Bulls won in the 90s. And in many ways, the sixth was the biggest grind of all. There was plenty of drama all the way around, like Dennis Rodman taking random trips to Las Vegas and Scottie Pippen’s contract dispute, but this was ultimately a great example of the team’s continued focus on achieving their ultimate goal of winning the championship.

Indeed work is a grind at times and it’s easy to get bogged down by the daily minutiae. We contact center folks are especially good at that! But great leaders have the ability to take a step back and keep their eyes on the prize.

Leaders who can learn these lessons will absolutely have more successful teams. As I conclude, did you get a chance to watch this documentary? If you haven’t yet, head on over to ESPN or Netflix, watch it, and then share your own leadership lessons in the comments below.

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