I'm sure I'm not alone in being grateful to ESPN and Netflix for accelerating the launch of The Last Dance documentary to make up for the loss of most sports events due to #socialdistancing and #covid_19. Over the course of 10 episodes, the world got to revisit arguably the best team in sports history with the unquestionable best coach and player tandem in the form of Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan who successfully completed two three-peats without every being pushed to a game seven in the NBA finals. ESPN is the big winner here pulling in significant ad revenue and ratings during a period in which every network is scrambling for compelling content.
The synopsis of the documentary goes: In the fall of 1997, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls allowed a film crew to follow them as they went for their sixth NBA title in eight seasons. That resulted in a stunning portrait of one of the sport's most iconic athletes and a celebrated team. "The Last Dance" follows the Bulls' 1997-98 season from start to finish, while also covering the rest of the chapters in Jordan's remarkable career. The 10-part docuseries follows the Jordan timeline from when he was an emerging star on his high school team to becoming a worldwide marketing force and cultural figure. The series takes its name from a phrase coined by then-Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who knew that the season would likely be the final run for the core members of that 1990s Bulls dynasty.
As Bruce Tuckman detailed in his landmark publication on teams - people come together and pass through at least five stages from "forming to adjourning". This documentary is a great allegory for the team experience and what it takes to truly perform when the stakes are highest. People forget that Michael Jordan was little more than a spectacular individual contributor until the Bulls drafted Scottie Pippen and hired Phil Jackson as head coach. It takes a team, aligned on a mission, and primed for performance with everyone knowing and owning their role for ultimate success to be achieved. The Last Dance is about the cost of ultimate team success. In terms of leadership, this documentary also deals in depth with each stage of the team development process: forming, storming, norming, perfoming, and adjourning. As John C. Maxwell once said:
“One is too small a number to achieve greatness.”
With this thought in mind, allow me to present six leadership lessons (one for each championship) gleaned from this deeply compelling documentary.
Success is a process: The Chicago Bulls organization that drafted Michael Jordan in 1984 was highly dysfunctional and disappointingly terrible. They had the extreme good fortune that the Portland Trailblazers already had an explosive shooting guard on their roster in the form of Clyde "The Glide" Drexler which led them to draft Sam Bowie instead of Jordan with the number two pick in the draft. But with the infusion of one key piece the Bulls went from also-rans to perennial playoff contenders for the following fourteen years. But as clearly documented during the series, Jordan's talents alone were not enough to elevate his team to level of NBA champion. It took a combination of individual talent, a dynamic system (Tex Winter's triangle offense), great role players (Pippen, Kerr, Rodman, Kukoc, Paxon, Hodges, Armstrong, Cartwright, Pippen, Burrell, Wennington, Longley, King, etc), an expert coach, the right mindset and reinforcing habits, extreme challenge (in the form of first the Boston Celtics and later the Detroit Pistons), and savvy management; all working in concert to deliver the wave of success Chicago enjoyed during their championship seasons. Leadership Lesson: A team leader needs focus, optimism, and patience to lead a team to success. Acknowledging that success takes time and not skipping steps is essential. Even though corporations are driven by short term returns, in reality it doesn't happen that easily. You have to have the internal fortitude to commit to the process of making improvement daily versus making knee-jerk decisions based on the current state that may derail all the investments previously made.
Culture supercedes talent: We see it time and time again in sports that a generational talent is identified like Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, Lebron, Giannis; and then that talent is tested by adversity. This documentary really cements that fact by demonstrating the pain of the Bulls climb up the ladder from 1984 to 1991. Along the way, Jordan faced a season-ending injury, a host of difficult playoff exits, and coaches who simply rode his talents to the promise land without providing him with a system that would leverage the talents of the entire team. Tex Winter and Phil Jackson's triangle offense together with Jordan's tough love became the culture that built a perennial champion. Leadership Lesson: To build a high performance culture is to combine the right talent, the right mission, and the right discipline creating norms. This is the minimum necessary to align a group of people toward a big hairy audacious goal. The right culture is also necessary to get new joiners to quickly align to the norms and the mission. Servant leaders create cultures that drive high performance norms.
Reject credit: Jerry Krause unfortunately comes off as the bad guy throughout the documentary despite the fact that he drafted Scottie Pippen and Tony Kukoc, orchestrated the coaching change to Phil Jackson, hired Tex Winter, and traded for Dennis Rodman. The reason why he is largely villainized is because of his actions to dismantle a championship team prematurely due to financial concerns. He also complained that Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan got too much credit for the Bulls success leaving he and Jerry Reinsdorf as footnotes. Leadership Lesson: Leaders should not be in their position to boost their ego. They are paid to support the organization and do the work that no one else can do. Credit should be issued by leaders and blame should be shouldered by leaders and this is because leaders should be humble and secure enough to take it.
Support those who support you: One of the things I liked the most about the documentary was the glimpse into Michael Jordan's relationship with his security guard Gus Lett. It was clear that there was tremendous love and respect between them and learning how Jordan was there for his family when he was diagnosed with cancer showed a much softer and human side of the icon. Leadership Lesson: Support is definitely a two-way street. Servant leaders receive a lot from operating in a position of support to their teams. The dipper and bucket analogy is true - the more positivity you give the more you receive and the more full your reservoir of energy, resilience, and positivity becomes.
Connect with each team member individually: Phil Jackson was the perfect coach for Dennis Rodman once he became a celebrity. Jackson worked to deeply understand what drove and motivated his mercurial defensive specialist. Jackson never judged Rodman despite his erratic and attention seeking behavior. And this understanding was the key to Rodman giving his best despite a few notable exits from the team. Leadership Lesson: The theory that "managing" people is punitive is 100% flawed. As Patrick Lencioni says in The Motive - if the world's best athletes and performers need coaches why would executives not need this relationship. To manage someone means to deeply understand their unique talents, weaknesses, derailers, motivators, and praise preferences. Spending time to get to know your people on a deeply personal level is as or more important than designing strategy or doing business development deals.
Everything ends: Due to Jerry Krause's pronouncement at the outset of the 1998 season that Phil Jackson could go 82-0 and still not be welcomed back as a head coach, Phil Jackson pronounced the season as the Last Dance for the team. He did this because he understood the need for teams to have closure once the mission is completed. It lead to greater acceptance and greater cohesion around the ultimate objective of completing another three-peat. Still, Michael Jordan has a lot of bitterness that the team didn't get to leave on their own terms. And this is a natural feeling in the adjourning phase. Had Jerry Krause purposefully designed a more effective exit strategy built on the talents of Tony Kukoc and Scottie Pippen while trading for emerging talent the rebuild might have been more successful. As it is, the Bulls peaked in 1998 and haven't sniffed the NBA Finals in twenty-two years. Leadership Lesson: The team will always look to the leader to signpost where they are on the journey. A servant leader serves team continuity and longevity by developing emerging talent and creating succession throughout the organization. The ensures that the chase for the mission never ends whether the leader remains there or not. The mission is always bigger than one single individual.
The Last Dance was a fantastic documentary and I really enjoyed this blast from the past. (5 out of 5 stars).
What other leadership lessons did you glean from the documentary? Let us know in the comments below. And please give the article a thumbs up and share with your network if you enjoyed and got anything out of it.
Omar L. Harris is the author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams and The Servant Leader's Manifesto available for purchase in ebook or print on Amazon.com. Please follow him on instagram, twitter, and/orLinkedIn for more information and engagement.