The Take Away: The Last Dance, Part Two

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. If you haven’t yet, check out part one of that discussion here. Part two of that discussion follows this introduction. Stay tuned for the wrap on this 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

King: 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! In addition to the questions I asked earlier about MJ’s emotions and the role of choice/control in your own work, I wondered if you had thoughts about one Bulls’ player in particular: Scottie Pippen. What did you think about how he was portrayed and did you learn anything new about him from The Last Dance?

Ubilla: I’m so glad you brought up the triangle dynamic between Phil Jackson’s and Michael Jordan’s leadership style when it came to Dennis Rodman. Jackson understood that Jordan needed to know about Rodman’s leave and that Rodman needed Jordan’s blessing in the matter. Jackson also knew that when it was time to go get Rodman, Jordan was going to be the best person for the job. Jackson’s ability to manage through Jordan was remarkable.

Autonomy plays such a key part in job happiness in software. It’s something I think about a lot. I’m always trying to push context to my teams, create some appropriate level of constraint, and then allow the team to work within that space. At a more individual level, I’ve found that a software organization hits a sustainable level of maturity when it has enough different types of projects such that engineers don’t need to leave the company to find a totally different type of work; they can find that challenge within another team at the company. It takes a while to get there, and you’ll always deal with attrition from folks who can’t find that challenge internally, but retention goes up with the greater choice of projects you can present to employees.

I’d always admired Scottie Pippen. It’s so often that really talented people will look for the spotlight. After achieving some success, people often want to be the designated leader of a team. Pippen was certainly talented enough to be the best player on a competitive team, but he found a role both helping Jordan succeed and helping the team succeed. Jordan needed some sort of near-equal to help share the leadership load. When Pippen was out at the start of the 1997-98 season, Rodman had to step up to fill that role. It was only when Rodman recognized this that the team started to turn that season around. Pippen’s leadership style also played such a great counterweight to Jordan. Jordan was ruthless, but Pippen was empathetic. Jordan would yell, and Pippen would listen. It sounded like this balance humanized the team’s leadership.

Pippen had a lot of downs with the team as well. In his sole season on the Bulls without Jordan, he sulked and sat himself for a crucial final play against the Knicks in the playoffs. I’ll never forget the team recounting team veteran Bill Cartwright confrontation with Pippen in the locker room after the incident. The team didn’t know what to say to Pippen, but Cartwright was willing to voice the team’s disappointment in him. In the moment, Cartwright rallied the team back to a center. What did you think of Pippen’s leadership, how the team reacted, and what can teams learn from these moments?

And I know you brought up Kerr briefly. It was fascinating watching him as a role player finding his way in the league knowing the coach and leader he is today. What did you take away from watching Kerr in the doc?

King: Great point about managing through Jordan! I didn’t think about it quite like that, but it’s a valuable perspective. Because for management, another team member might be able to connect with someone else on the team in a way that the manager cannot. I also like your approach to working with your team. Setting that context and boundaries, then allowing them to work is important. Autonomy does not mean zero structure and organization. That can be a tough balance to strike!

I might have learned the most about Scottie Pippen from this documentary. The Pippen/Jordan leadership balance is not one I had considered before though. Jordan’s style could easily have become a negative for the team. Although teammates agreed that Jordan’s style was good for the team’s success, Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, all provided something almost contrary to Jordan’s tough-minded kind of leadership. I think that those team dynamics made for a good mix of task orientation, continuous improvement, and caring for each other. I don’t know how deliberately constructed that mix was for the Bulls, but have you found ways to instill that with teams you have led? That’s another tough balancing act.

I had forgotten about the Pippen self-benching until the documentary. I think that a mistake that emotionally hits your team like this one did can be much tougher to come back from than a missed assignment or missed shot. They looked to Pippen as the leader after Jordan left for his basketball sabbatical and he broke a sort of psychological contract. Here’s what I loved though: the process of coming back from that. I love that Cartwright stepped up and told him directly in a team meeting that he needed to be there for the team. I love that Pippen owned it, apologized to the team, and everyone moved on together. They lost the series but there wasn’t any question about Pippen’s dedication for the rest of the series. Plus, he had that monster dunk on Patrick Ewing in game 6 which is still awesome to watch. I have seen an annoying number of managers who screw up and just can’t swallow their pride enough to say “I’m sorry, I was wrong” and then correct it. Pippen at least deserves credit for this. How we handle those mistakes is really important for building trust with others. When Pippen does something similar later on with a voluntarily delayed surgery and contract disputes, the team still welcomed him back when he was ready to play. Trust is a very delicate concept and the Bulls were a bit lucky that the team stuck together through some of those moments.

Steve Kerr is one of my favorite people in any sport. It’s clear early on for him that he’s not going to be a superstar in the NBA and he knows it. But he found a role with hustle and shooting that got him onto teams and, importantly, onto successful teams. Here is a list of people he had the chance to work with before becoming the head coach for the Golden State Warriors in 2014:

Phil Jackson, Doug Popovich, Mike D’Antoni, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, John Paxon, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Mark Price, Hot Rod Williams, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Shaquille O’Neal, Dennis Scott, and Scott Skiles. There is a lot of basketball knowledge, unique skills, differing personalities, and talent in that list. Kerr always seemed to be surrounded by talented and knowledgeable people that influenced him for the better. As a result, he would retire with a reputation as one of the smartest people in basketball. It was no wonder that he later became a championship head coach for one of the greatest teams in NBA history.

Here’s what I take from this: Do everything you can to surround yourself with talented people that continually push and teach you how to do things right. Kerr isn’t unique in learning from those around him. Everyone does that whether we want to or not (says the psychologist). But that is the issue, isn’t it? We will adopt the habits of those around us. He was unique though in that through his whole career he got to learn from some of the greatest to ever be involved in the game. It’s a lesson I keep learning over and over. The people I surround myself with are the people that I’m going to learn from. So for me it begs two questions: 1) What am I learning right now? and 2) What am I teaching others right now?



Part One is here
Part Three to follow


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