It’s been awhile since I’ve written a blog personally, but after completing the 10-part sports documentary series “The Last Dance” which chronicles Michael Jordan’s Bulls and their 6 NBA titles during the 1990’s I’m feeling compelled to do so.
There were so many life and business lessons that we can learn from the documentary and as good as it was from a sports fan perspective, there can be a lot of motivation and personal growth that comes from it, too.
During the show, I often found myself wondering... what was it about MJ that was so special? How did Phil Jackson succeed the way that he did? How did these role players come to be? How did they stay motivated and together as a team through adversity? It really was incredible to watch.
Looking back at the history of the NBA there are only four teams to ever win three championships in a row. The Minneapolis Lakers (1952-1954), the Boston Celtics who won 8 in a row (1959-1966), the Los Angeles Lakers from 2000-2002 and then these Chicago Bulls who did it TWICE from 1991-1993 and then again from 1996-1998.
The Bulls will forever go down as one of the best teams and dynasties, in any sport, in any era. This documentary only grew the legend even more. So, what can we learn about their success that can be applied to life and business as well? Here are some of the ones I see:
1. You need talent to succeed – This seems like a good place to start. To achieve the highest levels of success you need talent. Michael Jordan was arguably the best basketball player ever and having him as the centerpiece of these teams was paramount to their success. Any leader or coach out there should try and do whatever they can to attract the best talent possible. This isn’t a new concept, but it has to be mentioned. Prioritize finding the best talent you can.
2. Success is a team game – MJ was already the best or one of the best players in the league before he won a championship. He singlehandedly carried the Bulls to the playoffs in the late 80’s and if it weren’t for the Celtics and some of those other GREAT teams, he may have had just enough to get it done. But he didn’t. You may be the best individual performer, BUT you need to surround yourself with the best teammates and people you can. Heck, even golfers have swing coaches, nutritionists, mental coaches even though they play an individual sport. Doing it together as a group is key to success. Michael may not have won those titles without Pippen, and key contributions from John Paxon, Steve Kerr, and Dennis Rodman. Work together as a team, not as a lone wolf.
3. Set high expectations (and don’t waver) – One thing that stood out to me during the documentary was that Michael played and practiced at a certain level and he expected everyone else to get to that point, too. He didn’t settle for anything less than the best and he pushed everyone to get there. The minute you start to make concessions for yourself and your team it starts to send a message that not being the best is “ok” and that can become a slippery slope. Set the bar high for yourself and your team or you’ll never get there.
4. Practice is key – There was a clip during one of the episodes where they were talking about how stressful it was to practice with Michael. He’d ride you and push your buttons. There were even stories of physical altercations during practice (I think he once punched Steve Kerr). Jordan's comment after was something to the effect of: “If you can’t handle pressure during practice, how are you going to handle it in the playoffs?” Practice your skills in practice (and practice hard), continue to refine your craft and do things that are challenging so you can execute in the game when you need to do it for real.
5. Don’t manage everyone the same way – This one is for the leaders out there, but a lot can be gained from the way Phil Jackson led the Bulls. He didn’t manage everyone the same, he knew what to say, when to say it, and HOW to say it. He let people do their thing but had a way of galvanizing the group around a central mission and story. He let Rodman take trips to Vegas, he pulled Michael aside when he needed to, he addressed Scotty in front of the team when he refused to go into the game. He didn’t try and change everyone, he played to their strengths and focused on the relationships he built with them, so they trusted him and wanted to go to war for him. He was flexible, which is a must for any great leader.
6. You need some adversity to thrive – The Bulls (and Michael) may have never become what they eventually became without the Celtics and the Pistons. During that second loss to the Pistons, MJ got beaten up physically. That offseason he trained more and pushed harder than he ever had before and when they finally got over that hump it felt that much sweeter. If things come easy, you’ll never push yourself to go beyond and find the limits of your potential. Look at adversity as a good thing, use it as motivation to be better and to achieve even greater levels of success. Good can be the enemy of great. Don’t settle.
7. Take pride in your role – On the finale they detailed Steve Kerr’s path to the Bulls. During one of the segments he talked about how much he respected the Bulls before he got there, and how he looked up to John Paxon who played a pivotal role in the Bulls' early championships. Steve wanted to be THAT guy. When he got to the Bulls, Paxon took Kerr under his wing and told him that if he wanted to play and earn Jordan’s trust he had to work hard, play his role well, and be ready. Paxon said on camera that he knew he was a role player and was ok with that. He wanted to be the best one he could be. That team was defined by players who took pride in their role(s). They knew Michael was the Alpha and they trusted he’d lead them, and he did. Rodman played D and rebounded. Pipp was versatile and selfless. Paxon and Kerr spaced the floor. It took all of them owning their roles to win as a team. Take pride in the role you play within your organization and be the best at it.
8. Block out the noise – Those Bulls seasons were littered with controversy. The back and forth with Jerry Krause, the contract disputes, rumors about MJ’s gambling, Scotty refusing to go into the game, Rodman in Vegas, fights at practice and the list goes on. Not unlike most people and teams, there are always distractions, but this team had the ability to keep them in house. They addressed them internally as a team, worked through them, and found a way to come together for one common goal, to win. Address distractions directly with those involved and block out everything else that deters you from your goals. Those things ultimately don't matter.
I could probably go on but before this get’s too long I should probably stop here. When the Bulls won their sixth championship in 1998 I was 14 years old. As a freshmen in High School I was focused on playing and watching sports, my schooling, and hanging out with my friends. I remember those Bulls teams but didn’t appreciate them half as much as I do now.
Thank you to the ESPN family for putting these documentaries together and showing the world how special Michael Jordan and those Bulls really were. In a time of such uncertainty, and when the world needed sports, these docs got a lot of us through... me included. Hope you enjoyed this piece and let us follow Michael’s lead and be great in our own lives going forward.
Bob Hamer is the President and Founder of Sports Business Solutions and creator of theClubhouse. SBS provides sales training, consulting and recruiting services for sports teams and through theClubhouse they provide educational content and career services for current and aspiring sports industry pros. Prior to this role, Bob was the Vice President of Ticket Sales and Service for the Phoenix Suns. The company mission is to help people succeed in sports. To learn more about SBS visit sportsbusiness.solutions and follow along on social. T: https://twitter.com/SportsBizSol IG: https://www.instagram.com/SportsBizSol/