The 5 Biggest Leadership Lessons from ESPN’“The Last Dance”

Success leaves clues, and if you study those lessons and intentionally put them into practice, you put yourself in a position to achieve similar results in your own journey.

You can learn much by watching champions.

You’ll learn how to raise your own style of leadership, and you’ll learn certain actions to avoid.

ESPN’s ten-part documentary The Last Dance highlighted the Chicago Bulls final championship run during the 1998 NBA season. The show focused heavily on Michael Jordan, arguably the sport’s greatest player of all-time, and various team members. Forget sports, it was one of the most enjoyable documentaries I’d seen because throughout the entire dominant run by Jordan’s Bulls were lessons on what it takes to achieve greatness.

It’s not about luck or one tipping point. It’s the culmination of many things, that with the right leader, can be pushed to greatness. These five leadership lessons from The Last Dance transcend sports — they’ll help you capitalize on opportunities in your career and life.

Two key moments stood out to me about the importance of winning vs. the importance of getting all the credit.

When you care about winning, you get the wins & attention: I recently wrote about the 1985 season when Jordan was benched due to a minutes-restriction — despite the game literally being on the line and him playing lights out. Jordan could’ve pouted and whined about being unable to play in the closing seconds, storming off the court after teammate John Paxton hit the game-winner. But he didn’t.

Instead, you saw Jordan rush the court to celebrate with his teammates about the win. Jordan was great, but Jordan cared about one thing above anything else — and that was winning. He twice in the NBA Finals trusted other teammates to hit game-winning shots. He didn’t have to always take the final shot, because if he believed his teammate was open and trusted him to make it, he would pass because he just wanted to win.

Compare that with the mindset of his general manager Jerry Krause.

When you care about the attention, you get neither: One of the central themes throughout the series was the Bulls’ players & coaches animosity toward Jerry Krause, the team’s general manager. Despite being the one who built the winning teams through the draft, free agency, & select trades, Krause is also highly criticized (and hated) for breaking up the championship roster.

As noted in the series by those close to Krause, the GM personally despised the fact that the players and coaches received all of the credit for winning titles and he, an instrumental piece of the team, didn’t. He got to a breaking point following the 1997 season and proclaimed that even if the team went 82–0, he wouldn’t bring back head coach Phil Jackson, signaling that he wasn’t going to bring back the star players either after Jordan swore he wouldn’t play for a new coach.

Krause wanted to win a title without Jackson, Jordan, and wingman Scottie Pippen to prove his own greatness to people who didn’t give him enough credit. Unfortunately, Krause and the Bulls haven’t even come close to sniffing a title, much winning their own conference championship since that 1998 season.

*There’s a reason I included Krause vs. the choice by Scottie Pippen to bench himself during the 1994 playoffs. Both chose a me-first attitude at that moment, but Pippen owned his mistake and apologized to his team. Krause never admitted he shouldn’t have ended the championship team after 1998. A key characteristic of a leader is someone willing to admit when they’re wrong.

There’s a great clip toward the end of episode seven where Jordan is asked about his leadership style. The Bulls star was known to be “a tyrant” in the locker room, depending the absolute best out of his teammates. He would bully them, berate them, and push them harder.

Jordan believed that it was his responsibility as the leader of the franchise to set the standard of excellence. To be a member of the Bulls organization, you had to meet that standard.

“So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates who came after me didn’t endure all the things that I endured. Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn’t going to take anything less. Now if that means I had to go in there and get in your ass a little bit, then I did that. “

Michael Jordan

Some teammates would curse Jordan but turn around and praise him for the teammate he was for this simple fact: as hard as Jordan rode his teammates, he didn’t ask anything of them that he wasn’t doing himself.

Talk is cheap, especially within a locker room or office culture. Too often we ask others to do the work that we ourselves aren’t willing to do.

But not great leaders.

A great leader is someone who’s willing to set the example in their effort and actions first before asking their team to do the same. They can’t tell others to be great and not first be pursuing that same standard of excellence. You set the example with your life — not your lips.

Great leaders are the hardest workers on their team.

Former Bulls player BJ Armstrong was interviewed about The Last Dance and shared the one thing that many of us forget when watching the greatest player ever: that fame has a price. Jordan struggled, especially during that 1993 season, with the increased attention and media following that came with being a global icon. He couldn’t just go watch a movie or grab dinner with teammates without it being a circus of attention.

Armstrong shared with NBC Sports that despite the global fame, Jordan still wanted to be “just one of the teammates,” and did his best to not take away attention from his team. He was keenly aware of the team dynamics, each player’s needs, and as Armstrong remembers, did his absolute best to never take away from that.

“I don’t want to interfere with the team,” he’d tell them, because Jordan knew that in a sport like basketball, it takes a team to win a title. We > me gets the job done.

Many stars today still get that — that we win together — but not all of them do. For example, like when one top-5 active player gets mad that they’re not given more credit for the team’s championships.

Chicago security guard John Michael Wozniak stole the show in episode 6 after he beat Jordan in a game of quarters and then showed off Jordan’s famous shoulder shrug for the camera in victory.

One aspect of the show that I believe was overlooked by the general fan watching was how Jordan treated the arena staff each and every night. He was gracious, respectful, and even would play competitive games with them.

Compare that with a boss I had in my mid-20s.

He would order the women in the office to make his iced tea, and then to clean up the mess of sugar packets from the conference table when he was finished. He was never willing to pick up after himself, and any person below him on the organizational chart, was subject to disrespect. It wasn’t leadership. Heck, it wasn’t even good management.

Great leaders know better and do better. Your position on the organizational or depth chart shouldn’t determine how I treat you.

Trust is the foundation of all great relationships. Great leaders build their winning teams one relationship at a time, and then trust their team to deliver.

Losing teams and cultures lack trust.

In a trust-less culture, everyone is out for their own reward. No one cares about the team. Frankly, no one trusts anyone else on the team to do anything but look out for themselves. Internal fighting runs rampant because “I only care about getting mine,” just as you only care about getting yours. I won’t help you, and you won’t help me.

I would imagine every one of us has seen that in locker rooms or offices — maybe even at one of our previous jobs.

Twice, with the championship on the line, Jordan passed to an open teammate who promptly hit the game-winner. That crucial trust factor wasn’t built overnight, but over time. It was forged during practice, games, and over the course of a season. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was important.

There can be no championships without trust because there is no championship culture without trust.

Inevitably after most of my workshops, I’m asking the question “what if my boss isn’t this type of leader? How are we supposed to win if they don’t embody these traits?”

It’s a great opportunity to remind them (and maybe even you still reading) of where leadership begins.

In the mirror.

Leadership starts with the person we see in the mirror. It’s not about talents you were born with, but about skills you intentionally develop and grow over time. We each have the capacity to be a leader, but it’s up to us if we are going to build our capacity for it.

If you don’t see these traits being exhibited in your office, then start displaying them. Take initiative for your company and coworkers by setting the example. Step up to be a leader, regardless of what your job title may be.

Every great culture change starts with one person choosing to be the difference.

Be the one.

I help organizations cultivating a WINNING mindset to compete every day. If this sounds like a focus that your team members and company needs, I would love to discuss my workshops and keynote options to determine the best fit for your organization. Click here to start the conversation.

Chief Encouragement Officer for @CompeteEveryDay | Keynote Speaker | I teach people how to #Compete so they can win their work, workouts, & life.