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Lessons from The Last Dance

What Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls can teach us about greatness.

Any doubt that we live in a culture obsessed with the subject of greatness was to put to rest at the conclusion of the ESPN documentary, The Last Dance. The ten-part series, which concluded on May 18, chronicled the epic story of how Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won their sixth NBA championship. The documentary has been a global sensation. As someone who studies greatness for a living (and has been a long-time basketball fan), I watched with intense interest and high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed. The series delivered in more ways than I can describe. It was a tour de force study in what enables individuals and teams to perform at extraordinary levels. Here are my key takeaways.

Lesson One: Great Leaders Lead by Example

Business leaders often ask me what one principle matters most in leading effectively. My answer is always the same. You can’t expect others to do something you are not consistently doing yourself. Gandhi is believed to have uttered the famous phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” He certainly lived according to this principle.

In Episode Seven, perhaps the most famous clip of the series, Michael Jordan talks about leadership. In it he describes and defends his approach to leading his team: “You ask all my teammates, the one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t [expletive] do.” As he is saying this, the show cuts to footage of him outrunning his teammates in a “suicide” drill in practice. This may have been the secret to his greatness, not just as an individual athlete but in getting the best out of his team. Jordan was able to push others to do things they never thought they were capable of because he was constantly doing that himself. He fully embodied the very standards of excellence to which he was holding others.

Lesson Two: Great Leaders Lower Anxiety

In a recent post, I wrote that your primary role as a leader — in your family, community, or career — is to lower anxiety. Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Bulls, is an extraordinary example of this. I believe, as good as Michael Jordan was (and I do think he was the greatest player to have played the game of basketball), Phil Jackson was the reason for the team’s success. Known affectionately as the Zen Master, Jackson brought an emotional centeredness and stability to the team. Jackson’s maturity (and I think this is the best word to describe him) is on display throughout the series. His ability to stay regulated and non-reactive is remarkable. He’s unflappable in how he handles Dennis Rodman’s unpredictability. He shows incredible grace in how he responds to what many would consider General Manager Jerry Krause’s unprofessionalism. The way he treats his players can best be described as fatherly love. Jackson’s very presence and way of being created the conditions for each individual to be at their best, and served as the antidote to an otherwise paralyzing degree of stress and pressure.

Lesson Three: Great Teams Have Great Cultures

Can we talk about Dennis Rodman? Rodman was an incredible role player. Perhaps one of the very best raw defenders and rebounders the NBA has ever seen. But he was a constant source of distraction. The most famous example was recounted in the last episode of the series. Rodman skipped practice between games three and four of the 1998 finals to appear next to Hulk Hogan in a wrestling match and to party at a night club. Who does that? When he came back to practice the next day, the team welcomed him back without almost any discussion. Jordan, who is relentless in holding his teammates accountable to standards of excellence and professionalism, actually laughs and jokingly refers to Rodman as “Rodzilla.”

As I was watching this, I was struggling to make sense of the tension between Rodman’s undeniable on-court contributions and his off-court behavior. And then it dawned on me. The core values of this team were winning, hard work, and discipline. These aren’t some values written on the locker room walls or talked about in some book. These are the unmistakable attributes that you experience when you observe this team together. Rodman exemplified these values. This was a team that was clear about its values. If you followed them, the team allowed for a fair amount of freedom to be yourself. If you didn’t, you weren’t going to last.

This is true of great organizations. They know what their core values are. And they are uncompromising about them. Adhere to these values and you will be rewarded. Disregard them and you won’t last long. At the same time, great cultures give you the room to express your personal values. Great organizations have great cultures — ones that are unwilling to tolerate deviation from a set of core values and, simultaneously providing an environment where there is ample room for a diversity of personal values to flourish.

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Where do these lessons apply to you? Where is it that you are asking others to do something you are not consistently doing yourself? How can you emulate the emotional and psychological maturity of Phil Jackson in how you show up to your family and your team? And what would it be like to build a culture at home and at work where you are united by a set of distinctive core values while also being free to express the values that are personally most important to you?

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