With Martin G. Moore

Episode #92

The Leadership Dance: A winning mindset

There’s a great documentary series currently streaming on Netflix called The Last Dance, which looks at The Chicago Bulls basketball team, one of the most successful sporting teams of all time.

The Bulls, led by Michael Jordan, one of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of sneakers, won six NBA championships in the span of eight years.

In this episode, we look at what made this team so special, and analyze some of the critical elements that unfold during the series. There are some great leadership lessons here, and we put them into the context of some of our No Bullsh!t Leadership philosophies, like excellence over perfection and creating a high performance culture.

Did the ends justify the means, and what role did each of the team’s leaders play in the franchise’s unrivalled success?

If you enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast on your favourite podcast player so that we can impact even more leaders!

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Episode #92 The Leadership Dance: A winning mindset

Hey there and welcome to episode 92 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, The Leadership Dance, a winning mindset. Like many others in lockdown over the last few months, I’ve had time to consume some quality content on Netflix. Between producing podcast episodes and writing my book, I had a chance to catch up with a 10 part documentary series called The Last Dance, which looks at one of the most successful sporting teams of all time. The Chicago Bulls basketball team won 6 NBA Championships in a span of eight years winning 3 in a row on two separate occasions. Emma was the one who actually suggested that we do an episode on this. She isn’t into basketball at all, but this is her must watch of the year so far. So even if you don’t like basketball, we recommend you taking a look at The Last Dance.

We’re going to have a look at what made this team so special and analyse some of the critical elements that unfolded during the series. There are some great leadership lessons here and we put them into the context of some of our No Bullsh!t Leadership philosophies like excellence over perfection and creating a high performance culture. Bear in mind, that this is just based on a bunch of observations Em and I had on the documentary, supplemented with a little background research that I happened to do. No doubt there’s a lot of context that was left on the cutting room floor by the producers. Did the ends justify the means and what role did the team’s leaders play in the franchise’s unrivalled success? So we’ll start by looking at what made this team so special. I then want to ask the question “Was Michael Jordan a perfectionist?” And we’ll finish off by analyzing whether or not this was a desirable culture.

First, a spoiler alert. If you aren’t familiar with this story and you intend to watch the series, I’m going to make some observations on some of the more pertinent leadership lessons and I can’t do this without telling you what happens. So I’d suggest if you want to watch the Last Dance go and do that before you listen to this. And just a little background on how NBA organisations are structured. They have a general manager and in this case a gentleman by the name of Jerry Krause. The GM buys and sells players and puts the roster together. The GM is also accountable for player contract negotiations and decisions, although this wouldn’t normally be done without some level of consultation with the coaching staff. Typically, the GM also supervises the operations of the coaching staff which includes the power to hire and fire coaches and coaching assistants. The coach of the Chicago Bulls at this time was a gentleman by the name of Phil Jackson.

Now, the coach typically takes accountability for the team in all aspects of its play. He sets the strategy, he handles all the in-game management like who’s on the court at any point. He handles mid game changes in tactics and he calls the set plays. But they also have the longer range objective of talent management, improvement of individual and team offensive and defensive skills, overall physical conditioning and individual player development. I find it super interesting that the accountability for talent management in this model is split between two people, the GM who hires and fires, and the Coach who tries to grow and develop what the team has. It implies a very close working relationship between the head coach and the GM. And then of course there’s the players. First amongst equals Michael Jordan, but also massive, massive names in the business like Scottie Pippin, Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley, the Aussie, and Steve Kerr.

They’re the ones obviously who play the game. But they’re not only accountable for their own individual performance, but also working in with their teammates to get the best overall result, which basically is winning. Now, results in any sport like this are unforgiving. At the end of 48 minutes of playing time, there is a score. You either won or you didn’t win. Feedback here is immediate and it’s incredibly finite. So let’s look at what made this team so special. And we’ll start with the centrepiece of the documentary, Michael Jordan. Now, Jordan was more than just the best player in the world at the time. He was the first true international sports icon. He had a relationship with Nike which gave him a huge amount of exposure and at the time Jordan was one of the most recognisable people on the face of the planet. He was the first sports star to singlehandedly boost the profile of a sport and create the money flows associated with it.

The NBA Commissioner at the time, David Stern, credits Jordan with the explosive growth that the NBA experienced in the ’90’s becoming a sport of global significance. Jordan’s competitive drive and his will to win was almost dysfunctional. The equivalence to this we see in the business world would be people like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, and so forth. They have many of the same characteristics. There is a huge amount of pressure in this and sometimes being around people that are this fixated on winning is not fun. Now Rob Gronkowski, the famous footballer who played for the New England Patriots, my favourite team, was quoted as saying, “The Patriots is not a fun place to play. It’s a winning place to play, but it’s not a fun place to play.” I want to come back to this “win at all costs” mentality bit later.

The second observation about Jordan was his ability to see what needed to be changed and then to change it. He was constantly adjusting to the conditions in his way. So in the late eighties, the Bulls nemesis was a team called the Detroit Pistons. Detroit was a very physical team and contained Jordan with a very aggressive form of defence. The Bulls lost the conference finals, the final hurdle before the NBA Championship series, 3 years in a row, 1988 to 91. When this happened, Jordan didn’t just say, “I guess we’re not meant to beat these guys.” What he said was, “Okay, I’m getting pushed around here. I need to get bigger and stronger. If we’re going to win, I need to change my body”, and that’s what he went out and did. He wasn’t rigid in his thinking and when more information came to light, he was mentally agile enough to change his strategy. He didn’t become defeated. He doubled down. Leaders are learners and we have an episode on this, episode 45 if you want to go back and review it.

The next remarkable thing about Jordan was his application of the challenge coach confront framework that we talk about. I think we see him doing this throughout the series with different players, pushing them to be the best they can possibly be. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with these methods because at times he fell on to slander and picking on his teammates, but at its core, he was basically implementing the challenge coach confront methodology. He wasn’t afraid of hard conversations. Remember, if your people trust you, there’s nothing you can’t say to them. And he certainly led from a place of honesty and the team knew he was riding himself just as hard. He set the standard and he didn’t allow any less in him or his teammates. We produced an episode last year, The Standard You Walk Past Is The Standard You Set, it’s episode 44 and goes into this in a lot more detail.

The next thing about Jordan was that he was a master of dealing with adversity. He had a huge level of resilience. This guy had a lot of plates spinning at the same time. Just playing would have been more than a full load for most. The training and playing schedule is tough, not to mention that he had a family to look after. He also had a bunch of media commitments and for a guy that famous everywhere he went, there was a camera and a microphone shoved into his face. Try that for one week and see how you go. But Jordan managed to do this for 15 years. He also came under a lot of unwelcome media scrutiny for his gambling habits, which would have no doubt placed enormous pressure on him, both emotionally and physically, but he didn’t let it get to him. When he went out onto the court, he was at his peak.

He realised this sort of pressure comes with the territory and he certainly believed in the principle of respect for popularity. But he also had to uphold his sponsorship obligations and there was a time when he was also shooting a movie. How he did all of this, I have no idea. He’d regularly do meet and greets for his fans, and of course somewhere, he found time to keep his golf handicap in single digits. Now I know that many of you are going through pretty tough times at the moment with the COVID-19 epidemic and lockdowns, it’s a great reminder though that going through these tough things is what builds the resilience muscle that makes us better on the other side. And just as Jordan built his resilience over time, that’s what we’re doing right at the moment. The most interesting thing I’ve found about Jordan though in all of this, was his evolution as a player.

What Jordan realised over time was that he couldn’t win by himself. And Phil Jackson, the coach, who we’re going to talk about in a minute, helped him to realise it. As Jordan matured, he knew that he didn’t have to score all the goals himself and he started to use his teammates more. As soon as he got famous, he started to get doubled teamed because that’s the only way that an opposition could stop the Bulls. But when you’ve got two men on one with Jordan, someone else is free. Once he worked that out, the team began to really click.

Let’s talk about Jordan’s number two, Scottie Pippin. Now, Scottie was an incredible player, but he wasn’t actually number one material, and it’s important to think about this as a leader. We’ve had a few people who go through our Leadership Beyond the Theory programme saying, “I’ve just realised that I don’t actually want to be a leader”, and this self-realization is super important. When Michael Jordan retired for a couple of years in the mid ’90’s to go off and play baseball, Pippin became the number one player on the team. Now it was great for just one season and then it sort of seemed to fall apart a bit. He just couldn’t keep the team rolling quite the same way with the same momentum that Jordan could. Pippin unfortunately was burdened by a bad financial deal that he struck with the Bulls when he first joined the team and it pretty much coloured everything that followed.

What Pippin had done was to sign a longterm contract because of his risk aversion and his need for security at the time. In 1991 that seven year contract was signed for $18 million. Now, apparently after he signed it, against the advice of his agent, he regretted it almost immediately and pretty soon it made him one of the most undervalued players in the whole National Basketball Association. On any other team, he would have been the number one, the Michael Jordan, the absolute unstoppable star. So arguably, his Pippin, the second best player in the whole of the NBA, playing on a world championship team, but being paid like he wasn’t even in the starting five of a struggling franchise. We’re going to have more on this later. We can’t overstate though the importance of Pippin to this team and Jordan himself has said “There is no Michael Jordan without Scottie Pippin”.

Let’s go to Phil Jackson, the coach. He played a really important role, although probably not the traditional coaches role. He saw each player for who they were and for their diverse strengths, and he played to that. Dennis Rodman is a great example. He was a wild guy and Phil Jackson knew he couldn’t treat him like he treated the others, but he also knew how to get the best out of him on game day. This is a really interesting one because Phil Jackson cut Dennis Rodman a hell of a lot more slack than I would cut someone on my team if they didn’t want to be a team player, but it really, really worked for them. Because when Rodman turned up, he was ready to go and he was an absolute star. Jackson also let Michael Jordan do what he needed to do with the team without being overbearing. He had no qualms though about pulling Jordan into line if he needed it. In a training altercation, at one point, Jordan physically punched Steve Kerr. Whenever Jordan was getting too mean to his teammates though Phil would step in. So Phil sort of sat back a little bit in the shadow of Michael Jordan in terms of how he actually managed the team culture. The team had a huge amount of trust in Phil, which he built and maintained over the years. So much so, that when Phil retired in 1999 the star players, Pippin and Jordan wouldn’t play for another coach coming into the Bulls team. Now, Phil Jackson clearly had a great strategic mind. He knew how to get the most out of his players and to apply their individual talents to get the best overall outcome. He drew up some incredible game plans to win against teams who were arguably stronger on paper than the Bulls were, and he also tempered the sometimes brutal approach that Jordan took.

Let’s talk about the GM Jerry Krause. Now, this guy’s no slouch, right? In 1996, he was named the NBA Executive of the Year. But the documentary portrayed Krause as someone desperately looking for affirmation and there’s a certain sadness about this. The players unkindly often pilloried him, which clearly went too far at times. Jerry was doing his job and he was getting stunning results. He managed to put a team together around Jordan and Pippen, but there was a slew of supporting players over the years who could never have made it without Krause making some incredibly astute decisions. There was more than little resentment from the team players, particularly from Scottie Pippin, about the contract that he was held to by Jerry. And it seems like Jerry sort of wanted to be included with the cool kids, but they rejected him. Felt a little bit like school yard bullying as we watched it, but Jerry didn’t know how to effectively use his power with either the coaching staff or the players to get the best results he could have. It’s probably worth going back and having listened to one of our early podcasts called Using Power Wisely, episode 5.

I want to ask the question, was Jordan a perfectionist? I thought about this quite a bit because of his drive to being the absolute best and how much effort he put into perfecting everything he did. Was this a case of perfectionism or was it just a case of excellence over perfection on steroids? Now, let’s face it, Michael Jordan set for himself and his teammates, incredibly high standards, but this was more about intensity of effort than it was about not making mistakes. He clearly wasn’t afraid of having a go and pushing himself into territory that was unfamiliar. He risked what he had, to pursue something he wanted. This was demonstrated pretty clearly in his switch to baseball in the mid ’90’s. Jordan was the best basketball player in the world at the time, but he wanted to try his hand at baseball, which was his childhood love and the sport that his father always wanted him to play.

There are also some cues in Jordan’s post-match press conferences. If they lost a game, he’d admit that, but then he’d say, “Don’t worry, we’re still going to win the series. We’ve got this ahead of us and I’m very confident we’re going to win.” So he believed in winning at overall and because he could handle those critical clutch situations, more often than not, they did. His own drive to win was all encompassing. And the Bull’s culture was no doubt, a tough one to be in, but this is the price of legacy. Jordan’s drive, more than anything else, was the drive to be the best he could possibly be and to lift his teammates to the same standard. I argue it’s excellence over perfection. Now I want to take a little tangent here. I want to talk about a guy called Neil Peart, who unfortunately died early this year.

He was a musician, played for a Canadian band called Rush. And whenever you look at a list of the greatest drummers of all time, you don’t often get to number three without seeing Neil Peart’s name. To mark Peart’s passing, I went back and revisited an old documentary on Rush and I was particularly interested in Peart’s view of his own craft. Now remember, by the time it got to the early ’90’s he’s very, very widely considered as the best drummer on the planet. But he said he got to a point in the mid ’90’s where he developed a really good precision of time, but he felt a stiffness because of what he calls the metronomic need. He felt that something important was lost when he gained that precision required to play the drum lines of such incredible complexity. He didn’t have the looseness that he wanted to hear out of his own playing.

Now, Jason McGerr, the drummer for the band Death Cab for Cutie, was interviewed in the documentary. And he said “After so many years of being an amazing player, Neil could have clearly just decided not to play drums at all until it was time to go and play a Rush show. But instead he cared enough about what he did to try and break down his current technique.” So he went to work with a guy by the name of Freddie Gruber, one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time to try and reinvent his playing style. Now Peart says that going into this time he asked himself, “Can I really do this? Will I have the discipline?” So he was challenging himself to become better and better and he went right back to basics. He says it was all about motion of the hands and feet. It had nothing to do with the drums.

He says that he started to think not just about the hit, but the motions in between. And after studying with Freddie Gruber for awhile, Peart said, “I can play a simple beat now completely differently from how I would have played it 15 years ago.” And this is when, mind you, he was one of the best in the world. Jason McGerr absolutely marvelled at this and he said “When Peart came back out and made his appearances after working with Freddie, he was so much more relaxed. And that was the most refreshing thing you could have seen, that your hero, could also still learn. That they weren’t just done.”

His band mates, incredibly talented musicians in their own right, said that they couldn’t tell the difference. They said, “Neil, it still sounds like you.” But when they started to play, there was a different clock at work. Now you have to respect, and even marvel at the fact that anyone at the top of their game was able to say, “I can improve and I’m going to go back to basics”. Neil Peart did it. Michael Jordan did it. And it pulled the people around them into being better than they could have possibly been without them.

I’ve taken a little longer over this than I had planned to, but I think it’s been fun. So I just want to finish off with, was the Chicago Bulls culture a desirable culture? Let’s look at Jordan, the leader. Michael Jordan was the bellwether for the Chicago Bulls culture more so than the coach, more so than the general manager. From a leadership perspective, is it okay for a player to take that type of role with their peers? Absolutely. In any high performing team, there is an element of self regulation. They don’t wait for leaders to step in and tell them what to do. They set their own standard for performance and their own commitment. If Jordan hadn’t earned the right to do this by being the most valuable, the most talented and the hardest worker, his teammates would have revolted. He never would’ve got away with it. There’s an interesting delineation between formal authority and team dynamics.

My verdict. It was entirely appropriate for Jordan to assume this role and to lead the team in this way as its strongest player. But how about Jordan’s methods? Now, there was no doubt, that at times his behaviour was nothing short of bullying. He held his teammates to the same exacting standards he placed on himself. Yeah, but you had to be pretty tough to survive. Let’s not forget the context. This wasn’t a random group of shrinking violets. They were the best of the best. Each an elite performer in their own right. And you don’t get there unless you’re more resilient, more capable, and more driven than all but the tiniest fraction of a percentage point of our society. These guys all took it in their stride. So what’s my verdict? Well, you may have heard me say in the past there should be a zero tolerance for bad behaviour.

It doesn’t matter how talented an individual is or how exceptional their performance, if their behaviour is poor, it’s a culture killer. But I don’t think this was a behavioural thing with Jordan. Yes, he pushed his teammates right to the limit. This may be one of those very few outliers situations. Phil Jackson, the coach, kept the team together and any of that behaviour may have been exaggerated anyway. There are only a few examples on this 15 year stint where they actually focused in on the way Michael Jordan treated his teammates. But his behaviour in general was all about setting a high standard of excellence, which is the very essence of a high performance constructive culture. Remember though, there is absolutely no place for bullying or belittling, even in that context. I’d wager that Jordan could’ve got exactly the same outcome with a slightly different approach that didn’t belittle the other players. And who knows how many conversations Phil Jackson had with Jordan to try and get him to approach these things more respectfully and productively.

I want to finish off by talking about this Scottie Pippin, Jerry Krause feud. Was it right for Krause not to review Pippin’s contract despite the fact that he was arguably the second best player in the NBA, but his contract placed him as the 122 player in terms of value. Ironically, because Pippin was being underpaid, it enabled Krause to bring better, higher paid players into the team than he otherwise would have based upon the additional room in the Bull’s salary cap ceiling. So this may have contributed to Pippin’s success in terms of winning championships. Would they have even won the second set of 3 championships in other circumstances, probably not. And also Scottie Pippin was a true professional. He played his heart out. Genius level, leaving the discord with the front office off the court. Interestingly though a lesson here, this created a lot of friction in the franchise.

Sometimes, we think the best contract is the one that gives us maximum financial advantage, but this is not always true. Sometimes, a counterpart who signs a poor contract with you will do everything they can to cut corners to make their side of the contract more profitable. Sometimes, they’ll even put pressure on you by working the contract to the letter of the law and not giving you the critical product or service you need. They mess with you to push you to renegotiate, and I’ve seen this a few times in business. Now the Bulls got away with this. Pippin was the loser unfortunately, and he did deserve better. But when you make a choice as he did in signing their contract in 1991, sometimes you just got to live with it. What the Chicago Bulls managed to achieve in the 1990s is nothing short of incredible and it came from a few ingredients. The uncommon quest for excellence. The positioning of incredible talent that complemented each other in the same place at the same time. Everyone knew how to play their part, coach, GM, players. The leadership was strong and their accountability was exercised particularly well. Very few organisations ever put all the ingredients together at the same time.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of episode 92. Thanks so much for joining us and remember at your CEO mentor our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few moments to rate and review the podcast. This is how we get to even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode, the COVID-19 leadership scorecard.

Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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