Leadership Contributions - The Impact of His Influence

From the time he joined the Bulls, it was very clear that very few approached the game like he did. Turning around a team that was rumored to drink beer and smoke cigarettes at halftime, and do far worse in their hotel rooms after the games, wouldn’t be a simple task! The contributions Jordan made to the Bulls organization started having an impact almost immediately but I’m definitely not suggesting any of that was easy…

In The Last Dance, Michael says “Winning has a price, and leadership has a price. I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right…”

When he made that statement in the series, it was more of a rebuttal to a question about whether or not he was viewed as a tyrant. If we’re going to pull leadership lessons from the greatest basketball player of all time though, I don’t believe we can consider that statement from just the perspective of playing on the same team with him - or even whether or not everyone always liked his approach… I believe we need to also look at the impact he had on the performance of the individuals on the team, the organization as a whole, as well as the impact he had on so many who competed against him.

In the same segment where he talked about the price of winning and leadership, Jordan talked about this approach that may have caused some to view him as a tyrant. He said, “it’s who I am, it’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.” 

I’ll say it once more for anyone in the back who may have missed it; I’m not making a case for whether or not MJ was a great leader but I am completely convinced we can pull outstanding leadership lessons from the contributions he made through the influence he earned. One significant contribution he made through that influence was raising the level of performance of everyone on that team. Just because he said “if you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way,” doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have walked all over anyone who wasn’t giving it all they had!

As leaders, we have a responsibility to our organizations as well as every individual stakeholder to bring out the best possible performance in every single member of our teams. While our approach will vary significantly from what he’s said to have taken on the basketball court, the goals we’re striving to achieve probably won’t!

For right now though, let’s push aside any verbal communication and just look at the impact one member of a team can have when they’re work ethic even resembles his. I can’t think of a single time where I’ve worked side by side with someone who was doing all they possibly could to reach our goal and that didn’t push me to give a little extra - even when I thought I was already doing all I could! The best in any field always tend to raise the level of performance of those around them. And that’s exactly what I remember enjoying most about watching Jordan play when I was a kid! I truly believe his team members had better careers that they would have ever had with any other team. I also believe those who played on other teams played their best games when they faced him - otherwise he would have made them look just plain foolish, and sometimes he still did…

His all-in, all-the-time approach improved the overall performance of the team and the organization, but it wasn’t solely based on anyone’s desire to keep from looking like a schmuck. Some of the best in that business at the time wanted something from him that they’d only get one way…

According to Who?

Let’s really think about how Jordan’s performance pulled other players to higher levels, whether they were playing with him or against him… Some of that was sheer competitive nature and some was out of desperation to prevent looking completely foolish… Regardless of the reason, the way he improved the level of play every time he stepped on a basketball court was something I’ve never seen since! And I’m convinced that’s just one more reason he was the greatest basketball player of all time.

Since I’m stirring the pot again about MJ being the GOAT, let’s not forget that he’s not the one claiming to be the greatest. Lebron James did though, and here’s a video showing the reactions from quite a few NBA legends. The most resounding comment to me was that the best at anything are rarely the ones telling everyone how great they are; they just prove it through their actions (not their flops)!

In addition to raising the level of performance of so many of his teammates and competitors on the court, the influence Jordan earned created a desire for the people around him to win his respect - especially the ones who interacted with him the most. While Dennis Rodman had become known as a strong defensive player, he had also earned a reputation for being a bit of a domestic train-wreck off the court. When the Bulls picked him up, Jordan’s influence on the entire team was no small part of the decision. Couple that with Phil Jackson as coach and Scottie Pippen’s presence backing Jordan, and the risk was indeed minimized. But when Pippen was out to start the 97-98 season, significantly more responsibility and attention fell on Rodman. Although he shirked it to begin with, the desire to not let Jordan down was one of the primary factors in him getting his crap together to help carry the load. He refused to let Michael down.

Let’s compare how he rose to the occasion, at least partially to earn or maintain Jordan’s respect, to the traveling circus that’s been most of Lebron’s career. James has won, but he moved all over to do it and he’s been very involved in recruiting other high profile players to help carry the load. Jordan certainly didn’t have the same teammates every year but it was very clear that Krause made many personnel moves whether Jordan liked it or not. (We’ll circle back to how toxic that relationship became soon enough…) Rodman, being one of the higher profile players the Bulls did bring in to compliment MJ, didn’t turn things around because Jordan had publicly called him out, he did it because he knew Jordan was going to find a way to win with him or in spite of him. Even with the stacked teams LBJ has actively involved himself in recruiting, he’s been quick to do most anything he can to avoid blame for not winning the not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, but 7 championships he predicted in Miami alone… That’s not the sign of a goat, and it’s definitely not an example of leadership!

There was a spot about midway through The Last Dance where the producers spoke with the late Kobe Bryant, who actually played head to head against Jordan and may have been a close second to MJ. Kobe made an impressive comment that only added to the greatness that was Michael Jordan. Kobe said he was frequently asked who would win if he and Jordan played one on one and always hated the question. He added that “without Jordan, there is no Kobe. I wouldn’t be the player I am if it weren’t for him!”

Again, the really great ones don’t have to tell us how great they are… And the most effective leaders don’t need to tell anyone they’re leading. Leadership is earned, not dictated!

As we wrap up looking at the contributions Jordan made through his influence alone, we do need to consider how teams were built around him - even with the adversarial relationship between him and Jerry Krause…

Influencing Decisions…

Earlier I touched on how the bitterness grew between Jerry Krause and Michael Jordan over time, especially when a few of the trades Krause made - with players who were Jordan’s close friends - were only brought to his attention by the media after the trade was done… We’ll circle back to dig into that specific relationship another time. For now though, let’s stick with looking at how Jordan’s influence impacted so many other aspects of the teams he played on.

From the time he joined the Bulls in 1984, it was clear that Jordan would play a critical role in the overall success or failure of the franchise. He was yet to be deemed their savior, but his talent and work ethic certainly made an immediate difference. Game plans and how the team was coached, even very early on in his time there, was geared at getting him the ball so he’d have a chance to score. From 1985 on, draft picks (and even immediate trades with those picks) were made with the intent of finding the best supporting cast to put around Jordan when he was on the court. Even head coaching moves were made to get the most out of his style of play.

While nearly all of that, especially early in his career, was done to build the most competitive team, it was indeed his influence that drove many of the decisions. As his influence grew, and his teams won, that influence began to impact even bigger decisions, like who was invited to play on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team… I’m not sure we’ll ever know whether or not Michael was actually vocal about it, but his influence - and more specifically, his animosity toward a specific individual - kept one of the best point guards in the game from being on the team. At a minimum, the perception was that if Isiah Thomas was on the team, Michael would not be… In all fairness, several other plays were at odds with Thomas too but no one else wielded the same level of influence!

Influence is powerful, both in positions with leadership responsibility as well as when team members have earned it even without a title. It impacts how decisions are made in nearly every situation. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to make decisions based on what serves the team best rather than being pulled one way or another by the influence of any one individual. We also need to make sure we use any influence we’ve earned to make a positive impact on each member of our team - even the ones who have significant influence of their own. When we do this effectively, we’ll be able to see the contributions resulting from that influence!

But it won’t always be easy. Moving forward, we’ll circle back to the price of leadership that Jordan mentioned as well as some ways we can manage that price without being overdrawn. Then we’ll wrap this all up by looking at a few things we each need to be alert to when an individual’s influence doesn’t always serve the team’s best interests…