5 leadership insights to learn from The Last Dance

Although Michael Jordan is one of the biggest heroes of my childhood and he continued to inspire me as I grew up, this post is not about him, but about how the Chicago Bulls became champions and what to learn from it.

I was a teenager in an ex-communist Romania when the Bulls were still struggling to win their first NBA championship.

Because we didn’t have internet, mobile/smartphones and the “free” TV schedule was still in early stages after the 1989 revolution, I picked up basketball as a way to spend free time and be with friends. I was 13 years old when I first touched the first basketball.

I started playing after school on the basketball court in the schoolyard. Nobody showed me or taught me how to play. I just loved it. Soon, I was playing in all the spare time I had. During the vacations, I was playing all day long, just going home to eat lunch and quickly returning on the court.

Then, I heard about MJ and I started watching games at 3 AM in the morning (because of the timezone difference) I became fascinated, immediately. The next day, I was on the court trying to replicate MJ moves and shots (not very successfully though).

As an adult, looking back I acknowledge how my passion for basketball and admiration for MJ has driven me to learn and become very good at something by doing only one thing: obsessively repeating, learning and focusing on improving every shot, every move.

What I didn’t know back then was that it took more than having MJ for the Bulls to win a championship.

Watching The Last Dance has clearly revealed how Chicago Bulls as a Team improved and succeeded in winning not one, but 6 championships. Here are my 5 takeaways from the first 4 episodes: 

1. MJ is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) basketball player and also an iconic athlete who inspired millions, if not billions of people and forever changed not only basketball but sports, in general. His biography on the official NBA website states: “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.” He was one of the most effectively marketed athletes of his generation and was considered instrumental in popularizing the NBA around the world in the 1980s and 1990s. However, he couldn’t drive the team by himself to win the championship. You can have a superstar in your team and he/she can have amazing individual results. Nonetheless, until the team as a whole, works as a coherent system, the potential for truly great results is vastly diminished.

2. MJ joined the Bulls in ‘84, but they won their first championship in ‘91. It took 7 years and many changes in team structure, strategy, mindset. Sometimes we only see the final achievements, but overlook what it takes to make it happen. More often than not, it’s not the individual values of the team members that contribute to the overall results, but the collective effort focused together on improving the underlying systems, processes and strategy that make the difference.

3. Every Batman needs a Robin and vice versa – MJ needed Scottie Pippen. Their duo is an iconic example of how people with complementary skillset working together can perform at incredible levels of efficiency. Pippen was an amazing player taken individually, but he played at another level of magnitude when teaming up with MJ. Team members can underachieve in various areas as individuals, but they can overachieve when coupled with complementary skilled co-workers.

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4. The Worm aka Denis Rodman. Some of the Bulls wins were achieved because Rodman was fighting for each and every rebound, he took every chance to steal the ball, he jumped over the crowd to bring back the ball into the game, relentlessly. He was not a superstar per se, like MJ or Pippen. On the contrary, he was a ‘bad boy’, totally unconventional, a rebel with ever-changing vividly colored hair. As a team member though, he was always there, giving his best, every game (with few exceptions). Do you have a Worm in your team? If you do, treasure him/her. If not, get one.

5. The only thing I had no clue about until I watched The Last Dance is how Phil Jackson contributed to the team’s success, as head coach. Interestingly, Phil was named head coach for the Bulls in ‘89, they won their first title in ‘91, in the second year as head coach. The main difference in Phil’s approach was to apply the ‘triangle offence’ strategy, designed by coach Tex Winter. Simply put, he changed the previous strategy that coach Doug Collins design around MJ – basically everybody was to feed MJ the ball to a strategy that was fluid and involved everybody in the team that could take the ball to the basket and score. Phil helped the Bulls win 6 rings and then the Lakers another 5, for a record 11 championships as head coach – the most in NBA history. Jackson has had a winning record every year as a head coach, and currently has the highest winning percentage (70%) of any Hall of Fame coach, and the highest of any NBA coach coaching 500 games or more. Along with his NBA-record 11 championships, he is the only coach to win at least 10 championships in any of North America’s major professional sports. Yes, the message is that a great coach can dramatically improve the results for a team, even if the team has a GOAT in it.

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