There’s a moment in episode 7 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” which chronicles Michael Jordan and the 1990’s-era Chicago Bulls improbable quest for a 6th NBA championship in eight seasons, in which Jordan — undoubtedly the greatest basketball player to ever play the game — breaks down on camera as he is faced with a litany of his former teammates’ withering critiques of his leadership style. A facade suddenly falls away from the legend. A superhero’s mask is yanked off, exposing the mere mortal underneath. Laid bare before the viewer is a profoundly sad Michael Jordan, eyes welled up with tears, who we suspect feels a deep sense of injustice and remorse that his former teammates see him in that light, after all he did for them.
He tells the cameraman: “I need a break.”
It is a telling moment not just in the life of Michael Jordan, or in the story of Jordan and the Bulls, but in the wider study of leadership itself. It perfectly illustrates the profound loneliness that can and often does accompany the mantle of leadership. Jordan undoubtedly would not change a thing about his career, given what he and the Bulls achieved during his time as captain of the team, but the weight of it all clearly still burdens him these decades later. Being a leader took its toll. That toll was plain on his anguished face.
Thirty years on from the height of the Bulls’ success in the Jordan era, his former teammates paint a picture in the documentary of Michael Jordan as a sometimes tyrannical, always driven, and never forgiving team captain. He was relentless in the pursuit of winning, and to that end, he pushed his teammates ruthlessly and unfailingly in practices and games, according to their telling.
The former mates depict him as mocking, bullying, cruel, and impatient when they did not perform to the level he demanded. Jordan himself admits in the episode that if a teammate could not find within himself the same drive to win that Jordan himself possessed, then Michael did not want that person on the team. Jordan had no time for anything other than total commitment to total victory. He was intolerant of anything short of fanatical devotion to the prize.
Michael Jordan knew he was the Bulls’ unrivaled leader, and he embraced that role shortly after being drafted by the team in 1984. In fact, he demanded that role. He knew his job was to win championships for Chicago by putting the team on his shoulders and carrying it to victory. He did it not just once (in 1991), or back-to-back (in ’91-’92), or three years in a row (’91, ’92, and ’93). That run of wins was in-and-of-itself incredible, and put the Bulls in the pantheon of the few greatest NBA teams of all time: those who had three-peated.
No, he did not just accomplish that feat: he did it all again in the 1996, ’97, and ’98 seasons. That seemingly impossible achievement set him apart indisputably as the greatest champion to ever play the game. It also set his team apart as one of the most successful franchises of any era in the NBA. While Michael certainly did not do it alone, as he had Hall of Fame teammate Scottie Pippen, and Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson at his side the whole way, no one doubts that he was the catalyst, and the driving force behind the team.
The hours and hours of footage in “The Last Dance” will make that clear. Jordan’s will to win, and his strength to drag his team with him, is a sight to behold, and not always a pleasant one. He got in his teammate’s faces when they fell short. He called them out. He bullied them. He pointed out their weaknesses. He demanded they do better. He accepted nothing short of maximum effort and near-perfect performance. It is both a wonder to behold, and also strikes one as supremely unreasonable. He was after all the greatest to ever play. How could he expect others to rise to that level? How could he ridicule those who were trying with him to win championships? He did both.
So what is the leadership lesson here? Does it take a tyrant to mold, push, and cajole a group of colleagues or teammates to be “the best?” Does being a “great” leader mean you have to strive for the pantheon of greatness in whatever field you are in, and anything short of that is abject failure? Is it worth sacrificing the relative ease and harmony of being good or even mediocre — or just being “within standards” or “suitably effective” — to be objectively excellent?
In all likelihood, you as a leader will find yourself somewhere on the leadership spectrum between Assistant to the Regional Manager Dwight Shrute on the one end, and six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan on the other. And that is fine. In fact, it is to be expected. Everyday human leaders are not Michael Jordan, nor are their subordinates the 1990’s Chicago Bulls. Re-set your expectations.
You as a leader will have to balance the needs, personal goals, attributes, and ambitions (or lack thereof) of your subordinates with the responsibility you have to create and lead an effective and successful team or organization. Rarely ever will you be leading the 1997 Chicago Bulls. And more than likely, you do not have the superhuman drive of Michael Jordan to be the world’s greatest. Real life does not usually work that way. You will have to guide a diverse set of people toward a common goal, with all of their and your strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. You will have to do it without being an asshole.
So, it is up to you whether you strive to do within your field the equivalent of winning six NBA championships in eight years, or whether you settle for less success than that, in exchange for a more cohesive, harmonious, but still really good or even great team.
In other words, it is not easy to be a leader. It comes with frequent and hard choices, many of which will have no right answers. If it was easy, anyone could do it. Like Michael Jordan, you might end up a ball of wrecked emotion at the end of the day, but that is just part of the deal. If you choose to be a leader, you do not get to choose just the good parts. You have to accept responsibility for all of it.
Maybe that is the lesson here.