The Take Away: The Last Dance, Part One

At the start of the summer, a longtime friend reached out to get my thoughts on The Last Dance, the sports docuseries on the Chicago Bulls last championship run over 1997 and 1998. We ended up exchanging emails over a course of a few weeks as we broke down the the leadership, management, and organizational lessons - yes, our takeaways - from the ten-hour program. Part one of that discussion follows this introduction. Stay tuned for more of the conversation next week.

Brandon King is the Founder and Owner of Behavioral Research Solutions a company that specializes in organizational effectiveness and people analytics. Be sure and check out his blog, The Scientist Practitoner.

The Take Away

Ubilla: I can’t remember if we first started discussing The Last Dance while it was still airing or if we only started once it had wrapped, but it became clear early in our conversation that the documentary affected us both. And judging by the ratings and social media chatter, we weren’t the only ones. What was it about this documentary that captured your attention from a professional perspective? And, maybe, what do you think it was about the series that had so many people interested?

King: haha. How long do you have? I once infamously said that I would rather watch golf than basketball (one of the many stupid opinions I have had in my life, no offense golf fans/participants), but you thankfully changed my mind on that one while I was still pretty young.

There are so many specific things that I took as professional lessons. I think the biggest overall theme though was the importance of supporting talent. Talent is needed, but it can’t really thrive and shine until it is properly supported. And in the case of the Bulls, that support came in so many ways. Talent alone didn’t win The Bulls 6 titles. It was a combo of great coaching, well-matched teammates, an Xs and Os system that fit with the players, mental toughness, and so many other less tangible things like team cohesion in addition to the talent. Success at the highest level takes the coordination of several organizational systems and pieces and this team had it for a very long time.

I think we tend to focus on talent a lot because we can’t teach that in most cases. But sometimes the focus on getting talent becomes so dominant, that we forget about all the other things we need to support that talent. Talent without the support is wasted. Research also demonstrates that many of the factors that decrease engagement and hurt performance have nothing to do with talent. They are things like job mis-fit, non-supportive management, or job design. It makes me wonder how much more success is left out there on work teams because the talent is not properly supported. It is also interesting to me that the Bulls’ Front Office was so ready to move on from this group of players and coaches given the number 1 metric of success: championships. I found myself getting into some deep thoughts about my own work and how I do things. I think that says more about me than I want it to…

There are a lot of things that I think contributed to the attention The Last Dance got. There’s COVID-19 shutting down sports and sheltering people in place, there’s the fact that it focuses on arguably the biggest sports figure in the last 30 years. But I will note one that I very much enjoyed while watching this: Pure nostalgia. Dan, you and I were in elementary and middle school during the Bulls’ championships and as I was watching I was remembering conversations I had with you or that I had with my Dad about the Bulls. It’s notable that I didn’t even like basketball until the second three peat of the Bulls and I still remember having conversations about the early 90’s Bulls. It is also notable that although the topic of those discussions was ‘da Bulls’ I was remembering people in my life, and I think others had similar experiences. This team defined the sport of basketball for an entire generation. The Jordan era Bulls were that pervasive in the culture of the time.

Coming from a different industry and background, I am curious to hear the types of themes you took professionally from this and if there were any particular moments or story lines that really stood out to you. Also, did you get that same sense of nostalgia from this that I did? You were and are the biggest Bulls’/Jordan fan I know.

Ubilla: The nostalgia was really strong. I think that’s one reason the documentary resonated so well with audiences. And yeah, it took me back to our talks about sports, to playing basketball, and to simply growing up. In a lot of ways, it felt like I was reading a book as an adult that I had read as a kid. And I found myself picking up on things I had never considered the first time around.

You’re right. The talent was growing slowly over the first few years of Jordan’s career, but it was basically there in Jordan during the Doug Collins-era when they couldn’t get past the Pistons. Collins, as a coach, fully leaned into giving his superstar more: more minutes, more touches, more shots, And it wasn’t until Phil Jackson came in with a system and a philosophy geared toward getting the most out of everybody that the Bulls became the legendary team they did. Jackson sat down with Jordan and basically told him, and I’m paraphrasing here, the key to us winning is you scoring less. Can you imagine being a fly on the wall for that story? For all I read about how to manage top talent and how to grow teams, I think there’s not enough on how to manage your top talent to make those around them better. Maybe I just need to read more of Jackson’s books.

There’s so much wasted talent out there, right? As a manager, I’m always trying to be aware of the multiplicative factor I have on my team. But that factor can be negative. And it changes based on the team. I’ve always felt like good managers can get the most out of their team, but the best managers can get the most out of different flavors of teams. They can adapt. Jackson seems to get the most out of great talent, but Doug Collins was a successful coach for many years after his time with the Bulls. Situation is so important.

One topic that comes up often in tech and in startups is the topic of burnout. Startups can ask for long hours of employees. All the talk of changing the world and finding product-market fit can have leaders asking their teams to work at an unsustainable pace. This typically leads folks to take months off between jobs where they then start the same cycle over again with some eventually leaving the industry altogether. When Jordan reflected on the time before his first and second retirements, I believe he even used the phrase, “I was burned out”. Jordan never shifted his energy and his tenacity down. I think his former coach Roy Williams said, “He’s the only guy I’ve ever known who could turn it on and turn it off, and he never turned it off.” Jordan’s considered the greatest at what he does, and he couldn’t escape burnout.

The documentary spent some time on Jordan’s intensity and how it affected his teammates. What did you take away from Jordan’s interactions and relationships with his teammates?

King: Yeah, that Phil Jackson-Michael Jordan discussion would have been fascinating to witness! I wonder how much he felt like he had to prepare as a first time NBA head coach to tell the biggest talent in the league that he needs to do what he does best less often. I think it tells me how important it is to have those hard conversations with your team to commit to a clear purpose and vision of how you want to accomplish your goals. It’s hard to overstate Jackson’s influence on the team. He always seemed to have control and an understanding of what the team and what each individual needed to be their best. And your point about the talent in leadership/management with the right situation is a great one. So much has to align for a really well functioning team to exist and it can be difficult to do. I think that the shift in style of basketball is a key turning point. For all the ridicule that Jerry Krause may have received and/or deserved (and I don’t claim to know how much or how little he did deserve), the decision to bring in Phil Jackson was a bold one and one that paid off big time.

There is a lot to think about there about the balance between team and individual contributions. You have to keep the individuals happy, but the team success has to come first. I think that Jordan bought into it most of the time. But when it really came down to who was going to take the shot, it was almost always MJ. I don’t think anyone had any concerns with that though.

Another note on matching leadership style to situation: It’s interesting to contrast the leadership styles of Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan. Take the Rodman 48 hour vacation. Jackson makes sure that MJ knows about it before it happens and trusts Rodman’s word that he will be back in 48 hours. MJ disagrees and says we’re not going to see him in 48 hours. Jackson lets him go anyway and MJ ends up having to go find him and drag him out of bed with Carmen Electra hiding behind a couch under some covers. Although Rodman doesn’t look particularly ready for practice, he gets back into it quickly and performs well in the following games. Jackson had enough insight to let him go. MJ had enough insight to go get Rodman for practice. Phil’s calm demeanor and Jordan’s no-nonsense focus allowed for different styles of leadership to be present when it was needed. Phil has the team do yoga. Jordan constantly tells teammates they’re not doing enough. Speaking of Jordan and his teammates…

It was insightful to hear his teammates talk about their relationship to MJ. On one hand, his teammates all agreed that he frequently acted like a jerk. On the other, everyone also agreed that it was a key to those championship teams. They even tell the story of how Steve Kerr and MJ got into a disagreement that ended with a fist fight and MJ thrown out of practice. He had previously been criticized for not making his teammates better, so this appeared to be his way of mitigating the concern. What is most interesting to me is that Jordan got very emotional talking about wanting to win for his teammates as much as himself and wanting to push them as much as possible. He has to take a break from the interview because he starts to out right cry on camera. I wondered what his reaction was about. Was this regret at the way he treated his teammates and how he is viewed now? Was this heartfelt camaraderie and maybe even nostalgia of his own? How did you read his emotions at that moment? I’m not sure that I have a strong thought in any direction but it was clearly something that still brings up a lot of feelings for him.

It really emphasized to me that the price of success isn’t cheap. The level of success the Bulls enjoyed came because the level of work and drive that was put in behind the scenes. Jordan did not treat his teammates particularly kindly. But he drove everyone else to commit and focus as much as he did. With everyone on a higher plane of work ethic and attention to detail, the whole team was better. You talked about a multiplicative effect as a manager. Although the leaders on a team are positioned particularly well to set the tone for everyone, I think it’s important for everyone to remember that anyone on the team can contribute to that tone. There’s the concept of emotional contagion in social science research, which basically says that we tend to take on the emotions of those around us. I think Jordan found his way to elevate his teammates play by effectively spreading his sense of commitment and competitiveness to his teammates. Everyone appreciated what he did for them and how much he pushed the team to greatness. I have sometimes been a big contributor to the good times of teams I have been on and (unfortunately) sometimes I have been a big contributor of the bad times. We have to be aware of that influence and find out how we contribute to more long term good times than bad.

I think that the downside to his pushing everyone is exactly what you brought up: burnout. In addition to the excessive workload you mentioned, it seemed to me that there was a real lack of choice and control for Jordan in a lot of ways. I think he in some ways felt a bit trapped by his fame. He always had to be careful of his actions and words. Doing that constantly drains you emotionally. He couldn’t even go with his father to Atlantic City for some stress relief without it turning into criticism about him. Then compound that with feeling like he had to push his teammates like he did or else his abilities would be questioned. And then listen to his thoughts on transitioning to playing baseball. His argument was basically “because I can”. The choice was in his hands. Choice plays such an important role in our mental state. Some of the biggest research predictors of low stress work environments have to do with the ability to have choices. Job autonomy, feeling like you can influence decisions that affect your job, the role of employee feedback to management teams, etc. It’s a lesson I keep seeing over and over in my work: people need some element of choice or control in their lives. Have you found the same thing for you? What do you think about this idea of choices/control in your own work?

Good grief… I knew there was going to be a lot to say but I didn’t anticipate this single email going on quite this long!

Part Two to follow

Thoughts on Eng Management and Leadership

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