Leadership isn´t easy. Some inspiration from Michael Jordan.
Updated: Mar 16, 2022
One of the only bright spots for me during the Pandemic lockdown at the beginning of 2020 was a series I saw on Netflix. I don´t really watch much television, but as we were literally trapped at home, my son (who is a basketball freak) and I sat down to watch a documentary about the life of a living, sporting legend.
His name is Michael Jordan and the Netflix documentary we watched together was called “The Last Dance”.
I highly recommend it, even if you don´t like basketball, or sport for that matter. It is pure drama and gives a remarkable insight into how to be successful. In Michael Jordan´s case of course this went further than simple success. He is the G.O.A.T. or “Greatest Of All Time”!
There are many leadership lessons in the series, from the structuring of the winning Chicago Bulls team and their extraordinary coach, Phil Jackson, to the incredible winning mental attitude of Michael Jordan.
Enough for a huge blog post. Enough for an entire book!
I want to focus on one aspect that I think has universal value here. Michael Jordan´s attitude to both failure and success. Here are a few things I took away that I believe have relevance to anyone who wants to be a successful leader:
Lesson 1 – Failure and success go together
Jordan was not a naturally gifted basketball player. He was dropped from his University team because he didn’t have enough impact on the court. He was consumed by this for years afterward and simply practiced and practiced until he became good enough. He didn’t give up. Failure spurred him to success.
“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”
Jordan never stopped learning. He learned by trying again and again. That was his personal learning strategy. Everyone has their own. (If you are interested in learning more, see this series from Ian Gibbs).
Lesson 2 – When you lose, get straight back to work
The Chicago Bulls didn´t win everything with Jordan. In 1995, the Orland Magic defeated them in the playoffs. The day after the defeat, who was back out on the court, practicing? Michael Jordan of course. He didn´t tell himself a story about how he was now a loser, nor did he spend time licking his wounds. He didn´t even buy into the fact that the Bulls deserved to lose. He just got back out on the practice court and tried harder. He tried to improve for the next Championship (which the Bulls went on to win).
After the defeat, he got straight back to work.
“If it turns out that my best wasn’t good enough, at least I won’t look back and say I was afraid to try.”
Lesson 3 – Celebrate the wins
Michael Jordan realized that most of the season was spent training and working hard. Often it was simply a slog. He endured many difficult personal situations as well as defeats on court. For this reason, when the wins did come, he attempted to stop and enjoy the moment. He realized that it was important to absorb the sweet feeling of victory to drive him onto further success and provide fuel to keep him motivated in moments of doubt.
In the documentary, there is a scene when he is celebrating winning a championship. The champagne corks are flying and the team is dancing together in the dressing room. Suddenly he is asked by a reporter a question about his future. He is asked if he has another season in his legs. Jordan responds with zen-like wisdom:
“It´s the moment, man. Get in the moment and stay here”
Jordan understood that the feeling of victory is fleeting even for the very best. When these moments come, it is important to celebrate them and stay in the present moment.
Lesson 4 – It´s all about the team
One of the most amazing moments in the legend of Michael Jordan´s Chicago Bulls doesn’t directly involve Jordan.
It is the last play of the last game of the NBA Finals in 1993, The Bulls are two points down to the Phoenix Suns. 12.3 seconds are left on the clock. The opposing team sets up to defend Jordan. He always wants to be the hero. He always takes the final shot. It was well known that Jordan always demanded to take the final shot, knowing he was the best player on the court.
The coach, Phil Jackson knows that this time the play has to be different. The Suns had been successfully defending Michael in the final quarter. If they successfully block Jorden, a whole season is lost for the Bulls.
Jordan knows the team has to come first. He puts his ego aside and agrees with Jackson that someone else should take the shot.
The ball is passed to John Paxson, considered far less of a threat – and a complete surprise to the Suns, who don´t have him covered as they mass defend Jordan. He is free and shoots… to score a three-pointer with only 3.9 seconds remaining! The Bulls win 99-98!
Paxson is the hero, but it is Michael Jordan who has given the team victory. By staying humble and putting the team first, Jordan has another title in his locker and he has learned his biggest leadership lesson - It´s all about the team.
“Talent wins games, But teamwork and intelligence win Championships.”
Lesson 5 – Only by risking failure can you ever, truly win
I finish with a legendary Michael quote, that Nike turned into an incredibly successful advertising campaign:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six 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.”
Even the greatest leaders struggle and have to earn their right to be called the best.
I hope these lessons from Michael Jordan inspire you as they have inspired me.
I encourage you to watch “The Last Dance” and if you want to improve your leadership skills, reach out to me for a coaching conversation to see how I can help you.