Thoughts on Leadership: The Last Dance

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me at home, balancing Zoom meetings, conference calls and Facebook live events with opportunities to recharge. (By the way, if we aren’t connected on social media, let’s connect on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.)

One way I like to recharge is by listening to audiobooks but this week I was captivated by “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary series from ESPN and Netflix about Michael Jordan’s career and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Each episode provides unprecedented access into the 1997-1998 season, titled by then-coach of the Bulls Phil Jackson as “The Last Dance.”

I feel a kinship toward Michael Jordan and his extraordinary ability to lead, execute and win. I also feel connected to Phil Jackson. One of Jackson’s nicknames is “Zen Master,” because his leadership was influenced by Eastern philosophy and Zen beliefs. In a sport where selfishness could run rampant, he encouraged grace, love and freedom as guiding ideals. While serving as team president for the New York Knicks, he even introduced mindful meditation prior to each regular training session.

Additionally, Jackson labels his year with a theme just as I have done for my companies and my life plan; the very first year of Intero, our theme was “Building the Dream,” and this year for my life plan the theme is “Healthy, Wealthy, Wise and Minimize.”

Anyway, if you haven’t yet watched the first two episodes of the series, I highly recommend you spend your “recharging” time this week catching up. As you’re watching, here are key takeaways to keep in mind:

Do what it takes to win. Michael Jordan says: “We are entitled to defend what we have until we lose it.” As the team approached the 1997-1998 season, the future of the Bulls dynasty was uncertain; franchise management announced it was Coach Jackson’s final year, Michael Jordan announced he didn’t want to play for another coach and behind the scenes, Scottie Pippen was dealing with the public embarrassment of being a severely underpaid top NBA player. No matter what challenges they were faced with, including Pippen’s decision to undergo season-halting surgery, Jordan and the Bulls exhibited characteristic strength and resiliency. Jordan simply did whatever it took to win.

Focus on the craft. Michael Jordan and the Bulls could’ve been easily distracted by the media circus surrounding them during “The Last Dance” season as reporters and sports insiders speculated about what would be next for the legendary basketball superstar. (When describing Jordan’s superstardom, journalist Michael Wilbon said Jordan is in a league with Babe Ruth and Muhammed Ali and really, no one else.) But Jordan wasn’t just known for his extraordinary skills, he was also known for his singular focus on basketball. In one telling interview, Jordan said to a reporter who asked about his future with the Bulls, “Are you going to ask me about the game?” The lesson here is that even with intense uncertainty and challenges, focus should always remain on perpetually improving your craft. When your skills improve, your chances of winning improve and the rest will fall into place.

One leader can make a huge difference. When Michael Jordan arrived to the Bulls in 1984, the team wasn’t well-recognized by the public. More people knew about an indoor soccer team than they did about the Bulls. Of course, as legend has it, Jordan would change all that and went on to win Rookie of the Year during his first season.

Talent + continual improvement = unparalleled excellence. Perhaps pushed by his older brother, Larry, Michael Jordan always strived to become better – stronger, faster, quicker. He had an insatiable hunger to learn and grow. Jordan soaked in everything he learned then applied it to better his game. Mixed with his raw talent, it was an explosive combination. As Roy Williams, current coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels explained, Jordan kept getting better and better. “He could turn it on and off and he never turned it off,” Williams said in the documentary.

It all starts with one small win. (OK, maybe this wasn’t such a small win …) Michael’s game-winning two-point shot during the 1982 NCAA Championships (pitting Michael and the UNC Tar Heels against the Georgetown Hoyas) was critical to his development as a team leader. He said it “gave me the confidence I needed to start to excel at the game of basketball.”

Habits create a foundation for progress. While the Bulls were partying late into the night, Michael Jordan notoriously spent his off time relaxing in his apartment. He ate healthy, recharged and re-calibrated his mind. “I was looking to get some rest,” he said. “Get up and go play.” Jordan’s positive habits helped build his strong body and mind.

Play hard. Jordan wasn’t worried about hurting feelings; he was concerned with motivating the players as a team leader. “I want this, do you want this?” He would ask when players weren’t giving it their all during practice. It’s no secret Jordan used his anger to inspire team members to improve but there’s also no denying he was passionate about winning the game.

Remain positive. After Jordan broke his foot, he became restless and eager to return to the court. He rehabbed in North Carolina and unbeknownst to the coaching staff began slowly getting back into basketball despite warnings his foot needed rest. When he returned, the coaches wanted to restrict his playing time. Jordan was warned there was a 10% chance he could re-injure himself. Instead of focusing on the 10%, he reminded the coaching staff and medical team there was also a 90% chance he’d prevail.

So, what’s the message? When your desire to win is unrelenting, no challenge can get in your way. When your habits are positive and your mindset is right, no obstacle can prevent victory. We can learn a lot from the leadership lessons of Michael Jordan because whenever anyone told him he couldn’t do something; he would make it his mission to prove them wrong.

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