What the ’97-’98 Bulls Can Teach Business Leaders About Forming Great Teams

Stephen Buehler
Stephen Buehler

Creator of Astra Insights & Founder of Astra Ventures

The airing of the ESPN 10-part documentary “The Last Dance”, perfectly-timed in its release, has provided exactly what our country and the entire world need so badly. First, it has filled a small part of the literal void of televised athletics created by the suspension of all major sports. But more importantly, it has taken us on a much-needed journey of adversity and the triumphs that are possible with the power of the human spirit. We have been invited on the team bus to relive the greatness that was the 1990’s era Chicago Bulls, a championship team that was easy to love. And perhaps most importantly it has reminded everyone, through its spotlight on Michael Jordan, what is required to not only win but to achieve greatness.

While the focus of The Last Dance is Michael Jordan (deservedly so), it has also acknowledged that individual greatness is almost certainly achieved as part of team greatness. Accordingly, each episode has cast a light on one of Jordan’s teammates, from Scottie Pippen to Denise Rodman to Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr and others. This approach has been fascinating as a sports fan as well as a business entrepreneur who aims to assemble great teams in the corporate world. The Last Dance’s profile of the ’97-’98 Chicago Bulls can teach business leaders and entrepreneurs a lot about who to build great teams and what roles you should aim to fill. This profiles of the supporting cast of the ’97-’98 Chicago Bulls can easily be analogized to profiles that you should seek to fill of your own teams.

Michael Jordan – The Leader

What can be written about Michael Jordan’s greatness that hasn’t already been penned? Certainly not much. We all know he is almost universally considered the greatest basketball player of all time. And this is remarkable considering this is such a subjective statement. There is hardly a comparison in other team sports. If you pose the question, “Who is the greatest ever?” to 10 people as it relates to football or baseball, you’ll likely receive 10 different answers. So why is this view so universally held about Michael Jordan? And what can we extrapolate about Jordan’s greatness as it relates to building corporate teams?

First, despite, his many individual accolades, Michael Jordan’s true greatness stemmed from his ability to push each teammate to be the absolute best version of himself. And in doing so, Michael Jordan shaped his teams to be the best possible collective unit. And no slight is intended for Phil Jackson. His coaching approach allowed if not encouraged Jordan to push his teammates. But it was Jordan who, by setting an example of his own work ethic and standard of excellence, accepted nothing short of perfection from each of his teammates in each practice and each game.

But if we break down Michael’s ability to inspire, motivate and push his teammates, what made his style so effective? First, The Last Dance has done a phenomenal job highlighting Jordan’s work ethic. This is an important point for business leaders and entrepreneurs to absorb. Jordan was the most talented player in the NBA. But he was also the hardest working player. This combination helped to fuel his growth as a player as well as to establish his credibility as a leader. He had high standards for his teammates. But that high standard was no different than the standard he set for himself. And he expected his team to work hard. But no harder than he worked himself. Michael summarized this expectation best.

“You ask all my teammates, the one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something he didn’t do.”

Michael Jordan – The Last Dance

Great leaders work hard. And they lead by example. They build allegiance by doing so. Most importantly, their team members want to work hard for the leader to not let him or her down. And demand excellence of themselves, just as the leader does.

But Michael Jordan was much more than talent and work ethic. First, he was also a master strategist. Like a business leader or founder, he never stopped analyzing the competition for weaknesses and ways to exploit those weaknesses as opportunities for growth. You hear this when he and Scottie are discussing plays and strategies during timeouts. They devised a scheme and then executed it to perfection.

Second, Jordan wasn’t afraid to be unconventional. Whether this was his decision to walk away from the game of basketball (twice) or his decision to pursue baseball, Michael was not afraid to follow the direction set by his own compass. Business leaders need this same ability to question the conventional wisdom. Because when a leader shows that it is ok to challenge the status quo, the team members will respond in turn and also become more free-thinking. And creativity will lead the team to greater heights.

Third, Michael Jordan had a magnetic charisma. His smile alone could disarm the most harsh critic. He was eloquent and spoke with purpose and passion. While this was likely more significant in the spheres of the media and sponsors, his honest approach transcended into the game. No, he was not perfect. But he owned who he was with the press and with team members. Leaders need to be able to inspire people to want to go on a journey with them. Whether this charisma manifests itself via words or personality, it is important. Because no one can win a battle on his own.

Lastly, Michael Jordan was willing to take the last shot. He lived for that moment. And he accepted full responsibility for the outcome of that shot – good or bad. Great team leaders should live for a challenge and be able to thrive under pressure. Because everyone on the team will take your lead and feed off of your energy. Leaders need to be willing to listen to their team. But ultimately they need to be willing and able to make the final decision and accept responsibility for the outcome – good or bad. Leadership is a double edge sword and leaders must be emotionally-prepared for the pressures this role brings. No one did this better than Michael Jordan.

Scottie Pippen – The All-Star Willing to be Led

Scottie Pippen could have been the #1 star on any team in the NBA – other than the Chicago Bulls. But he was willing to be #2 to Michael Jordan. I think in part, Scottie knew Michael made him a better basketball player. But Scottie also made Michael better. It was this mutual respect that was the single most important team ingredient across all six of the Bulls’ championship teams.

“Jordan is the diamond pendant at the base of the gleaming necklace, Pippen is the thread running through the emeralds, pearls, and lesser stones that compose the whole”

Phil Jackson about Scottie Pippen

The greatest teams I have seen in the corporate world have a Scottie Pippen – a team member who is amazingly talented at every aspect of the game and can be trusted to take on and lead any task. They transition from a board room to a client meeting to an internal strategy session with such effortless grace they make the game look easy. Scottie made the game look easy.

Yet, despite being a versatile all-star, this person is emotionally secure. Secure and willing to be the #2 on a great team rather than the #1 on a good team. And this selfless-mentality is contagious. Other team members see their team’s Scottie Pippen’s humility. They realize that if Scottie can play his role, they too have a role to play and accept that role in an effort to put the success of the team ahead of their own high-achieving desire to receive credit. Your Scottie Pippen is the glue that shows the rest of the team that each person plays a role and that, only when we assume those roles, can the collective unit operate at its peak efficiency.

There is another aspect of Scottie Pippen’s role that is relevant in the business world. And that is that often less is more. Despite his brilliance, Scottie wasn’t a very outspoken player. But when he spoke, the team listened. In the business world, there are far too many players who need to hear their own voice and speak up without providing additional value. This has a long-term tendency to discredit everything that is said. On the other hand, there are types that are often silent. But when this team member does speak up, you know you should listen. Scottie was this player. And you should have teammates like Scottie on your team also.

One amazing case in point example of Scottie’s unassuming yet effective approach to speaking up (in the form of trash talk) is detailed in this ESPN article entitled “Before ‘The Last Dance’ Scottie Pippen delivered the six words of trash talk that changed NBA history.”. It is worth a read.

Dennis Rodman – The Hardworking, Exceptional Specialist

Dennis Rodman was the soldier with an engine that never stopped that was willing to focus on the aspects of the game of basketball that, while vitally important, are often less glamorized. But that person not only takes on those tasks. He or she excels at them. Now, don’t get me wrong. Rodman’s off-the-court-life would never be characterized as non-glamorous. But his on-the-court-game was about doing the being the best at what he did, which was the less highlighted aspects of basketball. He was so good at rebounding, for example, he made what would otherwise be a very ordinary rebound a Sportcenter top 10 play.

“I want to do for rebounds what Michael Jordan did for dunks.”

Dennis Rodman

As one of the best defenders and rebounders in NBA history, Rodman was willing to take on the role that was necessary for this teams to win. In business, 90% of success is about execution after the strategy meeting ends. And execution is about the willingness to roll up your sleeves to do the dirty work, which is often not as glamorous as taking the last shot. But I have found that, in the business world, for every Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen on your team, you need 5 to 10 Dennis Rodmans, each of which is a specialist in his/her field of work. The absolute best at what he or she does. You should have a Dennis Rodman as a head of operations, in product development, and in analytics. Excellence in these behind the scenes roles will be the difference between losing in the first round of the playoffs and winning a championship.

Toni Kukoc – The Team Member with Diversity of Perspectives

Toni Kukoc brought a different style of play to the Chicago Bulls. In addition to his lefthanded game, Toni’s background as a European league player was different than the traditional American style of basketball. He was a 6’11” forward who, like many European players, could handle the ball and shoot like a guard. This diversity in this game created matchup problems for defenders. And this created opportunity for his teammates.

Toni Kukoc is the team member you need that brings a different background and set of perspectives into the room. Finally, empirical studies are showing that diversity (across all aspects – gender, race, professional background and life experience, among others) leads to greater corporate successes. Business leaders should embrace diversity and seek out teammates with varying perspectives.

Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Scott Burrell, Randy Brown, Bill Wennington, Jud Buechler – Role Players

Every great team has great role players. These are the guys that do just that – fill a much-needed role. While this can very by the size of a business or a team, generally speaking I tend to categorize roll players into two groups – both in basketball and business.

The first type of role player is the talented, more versatile role player. This is the Scott Burrell that give Michael Jordan a 3 minute rest and who you want to do the same things Michael did (but obviously just not at the same elite level). You need these teammates to execute at the direction of the multi-talented all-stars, typically in client or customer facing roles. These are the Ron Harper, Scott Burrell and Randy Brown types that have some of the same strengths as the all-starts and fill the depth charts behind your stars. They have a wider spectrum of performance. They may have talent that offers a high upside. But they may be less consistently high-performing so there is variability in their outcomes. They need coaching. But the potential is worth the effort.

The second type of role player is the variety that does one or two things well. These people are not multi-talented but they are critical nonetheless. These are the Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Jud Buechler types. They may not have as high of an upside from a raw talent perspective. But they are reliably consistent in what they do and continually deliver good outputs. These teammates may work for the Dennis Rodmans of your organization in the less glamorous yet highly important areas like operations and quality control. Importantly, these team members should have skills that complement one another. This diversity and consistency will create tremendous value as your business develops its brand.

The Last Dance has provided business leaders and entrepreneurs alike a timely instruction manual on what it takes to to overcome adversity and to lead your team to success. As I tie this all together, I want to reemphasize one point about Michael Jordan. He lived his life and played basketball with a mentality that failure was not an option. This doesn’t mean he did not fail. He did. He lost playoff series. He missed game-winning shots. He didn’t succeed at baseball. But his mentality remained steadfast through all of these challenges. He used the words of his critics as fuel for his engine in his quest to prove each doubter wrong .

While it is unlikely any of us was born with the natural gifts that Michael Jordan has, every one of us has the ability to conduct our lives as he did – with an absolute refusal to fail. And in this time of adversity, business leaders must summon the courage to “be like Mike”. Because, in my eyes, Air Jordan isn’t a term that refers to the literal heights that Michael could reach. It refers to the metaphorical heights he achieved in becoming the greatest basketball player the world has ever known.

If you enjoyed this article please share it or click here for more like it.

Click to tweet

Tags: ×

Leave a Reply