By: Christopher “Matcha” Little
“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.” --Michael Jordan
Truth be told, I am not much of a sports watcher. I like to play sports, but I haven't really enjoyed watching sports the way most of my peers enjoy watching. Occasionally though, I want to scratch the nostalgic itch from childhood. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, whether you liked sports or not, helped define the 1990s and some of my childhood segments. Today, we still feel reverberations of that era. Michael Jordan helped put the National Basketball Association (NBA) on the world map, as well as helped launch Nike into the “Air Jordan” era. This era of time undoubtedly inspired many to become better, whatever that individual’s niche in life. The Bulls helped give inspiration to all who were willing to believe. Recently, ESPN, in conjunction with Netflix, launched a series titled The Last Dance. The name comes from Phil Jackson, giving every season a name to rally behind. The last season of the Bulls was named “The Last Dance.” This series focused on the reign of the Chicago Bulls from 1984 through 1998, under the leadership of Michael Jordan, coach Phil Jackson, and team manager Jerry Krause. What transpired during this era was an epic rendezvous with world-class talent, leadership, and countless tribulations. This article will focus on highlighting the leadership lessons portrayed in the series, which were essential to the author.
Phil Jackson, the Chicago Bulls coach from 1987 through 1998, along with Michael Jordan, helped turn a former severely under-performing team into a six-time winning championship team in only nine seasons. How could this be? To start with, both men were experts in their field. Additionally, Michael Jordan is arguably the best basketball player to have ever stepped foot on the court. Teams win games, not individuals. Jordan and Jackson gave the Bulls a vision, something to work towards for a common goal.
Furthermore, the team practiced as hard as they played and were unrelenting when they came to the court. They had the mentality of winning at all costs. This mindset, along with passionate innate leadership, is what led to the Bulls to so many victories. One of the most impactful quotes I heard in the series was by Jordan. “Winning has a price. Leadership has a price. So, I pulled people along when they didn't want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged…Once you joined the team, you lived a certain standard that I played the game to, and I wasn't going to take anything less. I never asked anyone to do anything that I hadn't done before…I wanted to win, and I wanted them [the team] to win too.” This is the expectation Jordan held people to if they played with him on the court. The expectations and the groundwork was laid with this mantra.
From the lens of a military leader, there are many leadership lessons to be learned from this series. One's that you can apply to your team in your organization. An effective leader will transform any entity into a performing one. This notion comes with determination, a commitment to life-long learning, and self-improvement. For the Bulls, it was a multitude of individuals who helped lead the team to victory. Here are some of the leadership lessons from the series:
Find the strengths in each of your teammates. One of the jobs as a leader is to be able to cognitively identify weak areas and build a team that strengthens those thin pillars. Phil Jackson, along with Jerry Krause, helped build a team that exemplified this thought. Rarely, if ever, is one player good in all of the positions of basketball. An example of this idea is the controversial Chicago Bulls player, Dennis Rodman. He was recruited to the Bulls because he was the best forward in the game. He was nicknamed “the Worm” because of his impervious rebounding skills. Rodman was qualitatively the best in the NBA at rebounding; he poured his heart and soul out on the court. Being the best at rebounding was Rodman’s contribution to the team. He didn’t have much else to offer. However, initially, without competent leadership and vectoring, his talent might not have been identified. Rodman, through effective leadership guidance and vectoring, was able to find his niche. This is what leaders need to do with their people. An effective team has a Dennis Rodman for every position it needs. Finding a Dennis Rodman for every position of your unit comes with observational leadership of building up your weak spots as a leader. However, first, you have to be able to identify them. As a leader, you might think you are good at everything, but in reality, this isn't the case. Like marriage, work with the imperfections, while strengthening and nourishing the bonds that you both know you are good at.
“The strength of the team is each individual member.
The strength of each member is the team.”
--Phil Jackson, Chicago Bull Coach
Trust your teammate to make the shot. Game six of the 1997 NBA finals, Steve Kerr, made the winning shot after Jordan passed it to him with only seconds to spare in the final quarter. This act was incredibly significant. Jordan typically, noted in the quote by Jordan at the top of the article, made the last of the game-winning shots. This time, he trusted Kerr to make and take the game-winning shot. This does two things from a leadership perspective. First, it empowers that teammate who typically doesn't get all the glory to have their time to shine. Second, it helps validate all of the hard work and effort they put in. Try this with your team in the military environment. Let someone else, who you know will make the shot, make the shot. I bet this act will reap some rewards.
When life hands you crap, channel it into success. Jordan was a master of this success channeling philosophy. All throughout his career, adversity helped fuel him in both games and practice. If someone thought he couldn't do something, he showed this through the sheer will that he could. When people gave him crap during the game, the crap they fed helped fuel the desire to overcome his complacency. As Jordan’s career vectored on, he got more burnt out. So much so he took eighteen months off of his career to try out a new profession. However, eventually, he found his footing again and came back even more potent. This can be an analogy to military life. Military life, like ordinary life, will have its ups and downs. At some point, one gets burned out. However, what separated the men and the women from the boys and the girls, is they find a way to plow through and come out even more victorious on the other side. Some of the best advice as I received as a young Lieutenant from my commander was "make sure you always keep the candle still lit, don't let it burn out." Like Michael Jordan, when faced with adversity, helped fuel the candle to keep it burning and, in some instances, burn ever brighter.
Have a coach. Go from you centered to team-centered. Mentioned previously, Jordan was the best. He knew it, and the world knew it. However, he had a coach that also knew. Phil Jackson, a phenomenal coach, had to take the Bulls from a Jordan centered team to a team-centered team. This was easier said than done. As a leader, one needs to rely on the team, not one individual. Let's look at the Bulls from an adversary's perspective, the Utah Jazz in the finals. They knew if they took out Jordan, tired him throughout the game, the team would flounder. The Jazz used this tactic throughout the finals. As a coach, Jackson had to manage the best player in the world, while balancing a team he knew would never get all of the glory they deserved. Scottie Pippin was a good example. He was Jordan’s right-hand man, and Jordan trusted Pippen. Jackson knew, as well as Pippen himself that Pippen would never be more than a second best. All in all, Pippen honorably assumed the role as a support for the team. Without Pippen as the support role, the servant leader, the Bulls might not have ever been as good as they were. Take your team from you centered to team-centered. It is about them, not you. Let your team know this through your leadership. Actions speak louder than words.
Give them your best. After returning to basketball in 1995, with Jordan's famous two words, "I'm Back," Jordan and his team soon found themselves in the playoffs. He started out some time already into the season. They didn’t win that year. He said he had an obligation to himself, his team, to the fans, and to the organization to give them his best. Typically after the playoffs, teams get some time off to blow off some steam. However, Jordan started back at practice the very next day after the playoffs. This dedication to perfecting his craft showed his team, fans, and the organization he was in it to win it. Jordan said, “if the fans were willing to spend 3 hours of their day watching him on television, then it was my obligation to give them my absolute best." Additionally, he came back to a different team than was before he left just eighteen months earlier. Jordan and coach Jackson had to work with what they had. Jordan had to show his new teammates what "his best" looked like. It started with Jordan. Show your team your best, and they will assuredly follow. Put in the hard work and lead by example, not merely some meaningless words.
Undoubtedly, there are many more lessons to be learned from the trials and tribulations of the Chicago Bulls during their six championships. However, highlighted above were some of the more impactful ones important to the author. Although this article was tailored to show parallels of sports and military leadership, a leader from any sector can glean a myriad of applicable information on leadership from showing and giving to their team. Strive for the best as Jordan did, and you will impact both people and your organization. Be in it to win it. Leadership is never easy; if it were, everyone would be able to effectively lead. However, the few, the determined, the sweat-stricken, will lead those who will lead tomorrow. Show them your best, your team deserves it.