One of the popular documentaries recently has been "The Last Dance" on Netflix about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls journey through winning 6 titles in a span of 8 years (one year of which MJ spent playing baseball). Watching the 10 part series was a great reminder why he is regarded as one of the most influential athletes of our time. Here are a few key takeaways I had about MJ and that Chicago Bulls team:
Focus - here is that word again mentioned by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in an earlier blog, but the absolute commitment and focus he demonstrated to his craft was unparalleled. There is no doubt that he outworked everyone in site in his tenure. On the court or off the court, he only focused on getting better and providing his fans with the performance that they came to expect. Winning championships and getting results was his only focus. In the 1992 Olympic Games when MJ was front and center of the 'Dream Team' that won a gold medal on the world stage, it was his focus, drive, and passion that not only catapulted him to become a worldwide icon, but also forever changed the global popularity of the NBA. In one practice with the Dream Team, it was discussed in interviews and footage that MJ completely took over a game of two teams loaded with NBA stars. His focus on being and beating the best was unmatched. When shooting the film 'Space Jam,' MJ would be in the studio from sun up to sun down followed by a private workout and then flew in other NBA stars to play in pickup games until 11-12 pm at night. Relentless focus and determination on always working on his craft.
Performing at peak level when it matters most - one of the issues addressed in multiple interviews was how MJ was very hard on his teammates. He was not a 'nice guy' to his teammates as he was continually pushing them and even berating them about performing well. MJ said that he wanted to test his teammates early and often in the season because he needed to know who he could count on when it came time for the playoffs - when games and seasons were on the line. He needed to push them to their limits to make sure they wouldn't crack under pressure. MJ even said, "I never asked my teammates to do something I wasn't willing to do" (one of our Grit Creed phrases even). There was no doubt that when the game was on the line that MJ wanted the ball and he was going to deliver, and he did so almost every single time. When he vetted teammates to the level of his expectation, he would trust them in those pivotal moments and Steve Kerr, John Paxon, Dennis Rodman, and Scottie Pippen would deliver.
Stay connected to your purpose and passion - After the 3rd NBA title, MJ's father died and he pulled away from basketball. His enthusiasm and passion for the sport had dwindled over the previous season from the physical toll it took on his body to continue at that level of play for as long as he did to the mental toll the media and publicity took on him to the final straw the emotional toll of his father's passing took on him. He spent some time away from basketball and started playing baseball because his father had always wanted him to be a baseball player. He went to #45 because that was his baseball number growing up. Per usual, he applied the same effort and tenacity to baseball that he had to basketball and had a great start to his career. Then baseball went on strike, and he made his way back to basketball the following year. He played a few basketball games in the number 45 (instead of his legendary #23), but then went back to #23 because it felt right to be back in #23 playing basketball. The media was rough on him in his time away from basketball, but he didn't listen to the noise. The space gave him time to mourn his father's death, honor his father in the best way he knew how (by playing baseball), and the time away rekindled his passion for basketball and truly gave him the energy and enthusiasm for his sport that the next few years would require of him to help accomplish what the Bulls went on to accomplish (winning another 3 championships over the next 4 years). What a great lesson we can all learn from that, especially coming from someone that could never escape the public eye!
Group chemistry - Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Bulls during this span and arguably one of the best coaches of all times, had an incredible understanding of not only how to lead MJ as a coach, but also how to build a group chemistry. Phil Jackson was different from the Bulls previous coach because Phil did not completely cater to MJ the way his predecessor did, and it was probably one of the best things for MJ's career and the fate of the Chicago Bulls. In one of the pivotal playoff games, Phil Jackson told MJ to pass off the ball to Steve Kerr for the final shot and to trust Steve Kerr to make that shot. Phil Jackson knew MJ was going to be fully covered and knew that MJ would not like Phil's decision to have MJ pass off the game winning shot. However, MJ passed off the ball to Steve Kerr who hit the game winning shot, and Phil Jackson was filmed afterwards congratulating MJ on 'doing it the right way.' It was a breakthrough moment in a lot of ways that no matter how much someone is a superstar, there is always the team aspect involved of leaning and trusting in others.
I read a book recently on the Navy Seals and how they use two simple philosophies to maximize the effectiveness of their team and how they 'merge' into one unit (also known as group flow or merging of consciousness). The first is called 'dynamic subordination' where leadership is fluid and defined by conditions on the ground - the person who knows what to do is the next leader. The second philosophy is that when they sweep a building, they do the exact opposite of what the person in front of them is doing so they can complement each other's moves and move as quickly and efficiently as possible. It's interesting to think about how many organizations are crippled by hierarchy, politics, egos, lack of a coordinated game plan and execution, etc. Practicing dynamic subordination requires a next level type of mindset that pushes groups to lose the ego, trust each other, and work together in the most efficient way possible, and top performing teams do just that. MJ learning and applying that philosophy under Phil Jackson was undoubtedly one of the reasons that the Bulls were able to pull off 6 titles in 8 years. In closing, there were many unique aspects to the documentary, but to get a behind the scenes view of all of the ingredients and layers that go into a person and team achieving what they achieved is quite extraordinary. In reality though, as unique as it was getting to see and hear the interviews and playback those moments that I remember as a kid, it wasn't surprising because the ingredients for ultimate achievement and happiness are usually all the same. Just the situations and events are different. That is why I believe talking about these principles is so important because they never change and it never gets stale seeing them in action! Here is the iconic buzzer-beater shot from this picture below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk0aErTKtqI