The Take Away: The Last Dance, Part Three

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 parts one and two of that discussion here and here. The third and final part of that discussion follows this introduction.

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: In addition to the questions I posed earlier, what are your thoughts about effectively transitioning into a new era or version of a team? I think that turnover on teams happens often and that transition sets the tone for future success with new personalities and skills. It can be easy to overlook.

Ubilla: The team dynamics are kind of everything. Whenever I talk to my team about this stuff, I’m always trying to highlight how every subset of a team is a team. Each piece can be functional or dysfunctional. And at no point will every individual, subset, and team by working well. So a lot of what I’m thinking about is balancing folks’ need for stability with their capacity for growth. Enough of those subsets need to be going well, and if you highlight the few that aren’t, and establish them toward a path of recovery, the team can function well as a whole.

As for Steve Kerr, his basketball career is such a great lesson in maximizing opportunity. Kerr was some combination of lucky and hard-working enough to extend his career and land on some fantastic teams with that litany of talent you laid out. And then, you’re absolutely right, he recognized what he could learn from those around him, and he seems to have done just that. You said it best: you learn from those you surround yourself with.

I could go on and on about Kerr. His path from player to announcer to GM and back to announcer to coach is an amazing lesson in leveraging your current opportunity to discover your next one. That all comes after the period of time that the doc covers, of course, which is why I was so fascinated to watch this player before he puts that career together. What stuck out to me most in the doc about Kerr is that he shoved Michael Jordan. This act epitomizes Kerr. It’s an uncomfortable thing. Nobody really stood up to Jordan previously. And Jordan himself even mentions that Kerr earned his respect that day. Now, of course, I’m not advocating for violence, but I will encourage folks to reach for some amount of discomfort. Just outside of the comfort zone is where growth happens. The more you can venture there, the more growth you can find. Kerr takes these steps repeatedly for the next twenty years, and he becomes the face of the next generation of great coaches.

I love your take that how a team approaches transition sets a tone. Turnover is going to happen and it’s important that teams get good at handling it. Each person that leaves a team gives the team a chance to strengthen its culture by sharing that culture with someone new. I love the Ship of Theseus thought experiment: a ship has each of its planks removed one by one over the course of many years. When each plank of wood has been replaced, is it the same ship? Transitions can also be used as a narrative advantage. If a team has been struggling along a particular angle or measure, the change can give a team renewed focus and belief that it can achieve new heights.

I think that’s one of the things that struck me about The Last Dance: the finality of it. The ship was basically gutted overnight. That did allow for closure for each member of the team. And I thought Jackson handled the moment beautifully. He asked each player to write something about what this last season meant to them, and then he asked everyone to read what they wrote aloud to the team. As each player finished reading their words, they put their writing into a coffee can. And at the end, Jackson lit a match and dropped it in the can. It’s a lofty gesture, and it’s one that’s difficult to pull off. It takes a foundation of trust between each player and, in this case, the coach, and trust between the team collective and the coach. Once that’s in place, a bet is placed, in this case, Jackson is betting that his players will buy into the act. And when they do, and when they all participate, they’re left with this incredible moment that goes behind their job and becomes a part of a memory of who they were. Leadership is all about those minute, micro moments in which you build credit repeatedly over time. Once you have enough of those, you get the chance to create a memory that lasts.

We’ve gotten to a few topics, but in a ten-hour docuseries, there’s so much to cover. What have we missed that’s still sticking with you?

King: In all my man-crushing on Steve Kerr I totally forgot to mention that he shoves Jordan! Who does that? They have all this footage of other guys getting yelled at by Jordan and nobody reacts that way to him. Everyone else tries to explain (unsuccessfully) what they were trying to do and he just says that it’s not good enough. Kerr gets fed up with it and decides to shove him. I like your point about discomfort too. I think a closely related emotion to it is fear. When I’m at my best, I recognize fear and explore it more. I think it might be reading too much into this for me to say that Kerr was trying to explore his fears or discomfort by pushing Jordan, but that willingness to take a step into uncertainty and stand up to Jordan was significant. And another sign of the real cohesion on that team is that the fight in practice between Kerr and Jordan doesn’t derail them from the ultimate goal. Everyone apologized and everyone moved on. Good call to bring that to mind!

I like that story about the ship of Theseus as well. I think you kind of have to consider it a new ship in order to commit to taking the next steps. I also really like the symbolism that fire has. Fire cleanses things, it provides light, it provides warmth, but it also changes things at a molecular level in an irreversible way. So to use it at the end of an incredible run of success in the way that Jackson does has a finality to it but also says, “look at all the great things we’ve been able to do together”. And like fire, with the right conditions it may not take very much to get it going again.

There’s so much in a 10 hour docuseries we could have covered. There’s the rivalry with the Pistons, there’s a lot more we could say about Jordan’s mental toughness, other role players like all the centers that he played with or guys like John Paxon and BJ Armstrong. I think though that after talking about so many topics I come away with the overwhelming sense that our success is made up of so many fragile pieces. So many things have to balance in just the right way to achieve success. One of the things that I’m asking myself after considering all of these moments is do I enjoy my successes and my team’s successes enough? Do I actually take time to acknowledge and recognize everything it takes for a professional success to occur? I hope that I can find myself saying “yes” to that question in the future more than I am at the moment.

I also think about how to handle success. The Bulls didn’t just win 6 championships. They won three in a row. And then they won three in a row again. When you win a championship everyone else is getting better to try and beat you. Which means that you not only have to get better than you were last year. You have to get better than everyone else is getting better. This isn’t a topic I have thought about in detail, but this exercise has gotten me thinking quite a bit about this. What are the things I need to do to build on success? Handling success seems like it would be just as important as handling the failures. Success can derail people because of an unhealthily high drive for ambition. Success can make people complacent. It can harm your relationship to others if you don’t give due credit to others. If not handled well, success can actually be the driving factor behind failure. That’s somewhat of a paradox I need to chew on for a while…

One last thing that I come away thinking about… entertainment as a broad topic. It is tempting to think about entertainment as mere diversion or distraction from the things that we actually have to get done. But the older I get, the more I realize how important those things are for us. Sure, basketball is just a game. But this game played by this specific team is giving me a different way to understand my role at work and providing me with inspiration that I think is difficult to get by solely thinking about my work itself. The diversion itself is also good when done in moderation. We can learn from anywhere, and I’m starting to think that my hobbies are giving me more potential sources of learning.

If I had to sum up the things I took away from The Last Dance in a single word it would be balance. There is a place for a wide range of emotions and behaviors at work given a counterweight and way to move forward (obviously nothing extreme or too abnormal like workplace violence). What have been your thoughts after discussing all of these things? Are there any topics still bouncing around in your head?

Ubilla: How fitting is the word “balance” for a Dance? I sat here racking my brain for any other top takeaway, but it’s “balance” isn’t it? It’s how the pieces fit together. And I think that’s what’s attracted me to teams for so long. Helping teams be successful is an infinite problem. Teams are always changing because the people within them are always changing. And it’s what makes sustained success so difficult. I remember growing up watching this Chicago Bulls team and thinking that this is what greatness looks like. Greatness is sustained excellence. It’s not a single success, but a string of them. You described it so well: it’s not one title and it might not even be two in a row. Something about three in a row (twice!) struck me and came to be my definition of a streak, a pattern of sustained excellence. It was so much fun to remember that root of my belief with this series.

And it was so much fun to explore this with you. Brandon, thanks for going deep on these ideas and topics. I’m already eager for the next inspiration to find us!

King: Dan, I would say that discussing this with you has been one of the highlights of my COIVD-19 pandemic experience. Hope we get to do this again soon!

Part One is here
Part Two is here

Dan Ubilla is obsessed with the craft of engineering management

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