Let me start by saying whether you’re a basketball fan or not, ‘The Last Dance’, a Netflix/ESPN documentary which focuses on the blazing run of the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls to Six NB championships is a must watch. Simply put, it goes beyond basketball and we can learn a lot from the leadership skills displayed by Michael Jordan to the crucial roles played by his coach, Phil Jackson as well as team mates such as Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman just to name a few.
As I watched each episode, thrilled by the triumphs, rivalries and drama on and off the court, I found myself reflecting on the following lessons from the Last Dance that I could apply to my life. Perhaps some of these thoughts previously had a place in my heart but watching one young talented man make such a difference to his team, sport, nation and world made them resonate even more.
Work ethic is the ultimate talent
How did this young man who was cut from his high school basketball go on to be the greatest basketball player ever? One recurring thread throughout the series was Michael Jordan’s work ethic. It was highlighted over and over again by his coaches from high school, college, to the NBA and even his stint in baseball! He always put in more work than was required, that approach never changed whether as a rookie or a Six time NBA Champion. I believe that’s what made him stand out amongst some of the most talented players in NBA history. No matter the accolades and recognition he got, he kept working harder than everyone else around him. For me, this demonstrates that as long as we keep working on what we believe, we can keep getting better every day.
Leadership requires sacrifice
As the series unfolded, there were several accusations by Jordan’s team mates. The infamous Jordan Rules characterized Jordan as a bully who rode rough-shod over his team mates. There was a scene where Steve Kerr described standing up to Jordan and exchanging blows with him. Clearly bullying is not an acceptable behaviour and it does seem like there could have been elements of such in Jordan’s character. However, his teary, emotional response to the interviewer’s question indicates that this was a man taking up this role only to try and get the best out of his team mates. His response ‘I never asked them to do something I wasn’t willing to do’ reflects a leader showing the way and asking his followers to come along regardless of their ability to keep up. His painful response also showed that he was aware of the way he had been characterized but chose to continue pushing because he was more committed to winning than being seen as a good guy. This is where sacrifice comes in. What are we willing to sacrifice for our goals? Perception? Friendships? Every situation will be different but the constant is simply that leadership requires sacrifice.
You can’t do it alone
Regardless of how great a star player is, they need a good team around them to succeed. Michael Jordan joined The Chicago Bulls in 1984 but it took seven years of building the right team to win their first championship. Other great players like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant had to join the team and come into their own to make winning the first championship a reality. It’s a reminder that as star players in our lives, we need the strength, skills and experience of other people on our team to truly succeed. Now, it’s also important to realize that people will play different roles on your team- for instance in the later years the team GM, Jerry Krause was disliked by the players for his plans to replace them with younger, more affordable players. This motivated the players to show him and the team owners that they were still at their prime. The episode where an unwitting Tony Kukoc was outplayed by Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan at the Olympics comes to mind. At that point, Jerry Krause was touting Kukoc as the next Michael Jordan, and the players decided to go all out and show their prowess over the new golden boy even before he joined The Chicago Bulls. But even while some motivation from your team will be negative, it’s important to keep the bulk of it as positive as possible.
No One’s Perfect
We all have our flaws. This is what makes us human. Whether Jordan liked it or not, he was a role model to millions across the world and with that kind of power there was bound to be media scrutiny. Soon the search light into his life turned up a vice- gambling. While the show played it off as an extension of his ultracompetitive nature and desire to always win, it’s clear that this was an embarrassment to Michael. In the end however, I believe we have to look at it from the point of view that we have various aspects of our lives and while we should constantly work to improve every aspect, we can’t expect perfection across board. In Michael’s case I do not believe he saw his gambling as a flaw and that also begs the question- if it’s not illegal and it hasn’t cost him financial harm, then who are we to say it’s a flaw. In our own lives however, the important thing is to identify our flaws, accept them as such and work on correcting them.
Stay open minded
This lesson is perhaps the most subtle I picked from the show yet I believe it is the most profound. As a rookie in 1984, Jordan wanted to sign a shoe deal with Adidas which at the time was more culturally connected with African-American and hip hop culture. He was not interested in hearing a counter offer from Nike but his mother interceded and he went. While Adidas was not willing to offer Jordan his own shoe line, Nike was. They also offered him $500,000 upfront which was more than Adidas had offered. Today the Air Jordan brand has made Michael Jordan more money than he earned from all his time playing basketball. In fact, he is a billionaire today because of the Air Jordan brand. Being open minded to new information is a virtue that will help us navigate our world. If we approach all our dealings with a rigid mindset, we miss the opportunity of being blessed by new information and enriching our lives.
I am sure there are many more lessons from this 10-part series and I would implore you to check it out on Netflix. It’s entertaining, inspiring, dramatic and motivational and I can guarantee you would get some insights on winning in life!