I recently completed my third viewing of the 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance,” detailing the Chicago Bulls’ 1998 championship season, and highlighting Michael Jordan’s entire career. I have never considered myself a Michael Jordan fan, per se, but any sports fan has to appreciate his accomplishments (maybe not New York Knicks fans or Utah Jazz fans). And while not necessarily a Michael Jordan or Bulls fan, I am amazed by this documentary and how it captures the sacrifices needed to win at the highest levels. I’ve watched one three-minute scene, which appears at the very end of Episode 7, probably 30 times.
In this particular scene, the documentarian who is interviewing Jordan in the present day, asks Michael if he’s afraid that his now infamous level of intensity has come at the price of being perceived as a ‘nice guy.’ He’s somewhat taken aback by the question and rolls through several facial expressions before beginning to speak. I interpret one of those facial expressions as, ‘My goal was never to be perceived as a nice guy, my goal was to win championships, so why should I care how I was perceived?’
When he does finally respond to the question, he provides a goosebump-inducing answer that leaves me in awe every single time I watch it. He responds:
Winning has a price, and leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged.
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. [But if] you ask all my teammates [they will say], “The one thing about Michael Jordan, he never asked me to do something that he didn’t do [himself].”
I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well.
I’m not suggesting we treat our coworkers or our employees with the harshness that Michael Jordan treated his teammates, but the important message here is: if you are trying to achieve something extraordinary, you are going to need to do extra-ordinary things. You can’t show up to work at 8am every day, put in the bare minimum effort, clock out at exactly 5pm every night, and then complain at the end of the year that your organization isn’t growing. Tim Grover, Michael’s physical trainer, said at one point in the documentary, “I always had to be careful with him in the gym because I knew if I asked him to do 10 reps, he would do 12. He always did more than I asked of him.” Michael always knew the price of winning, and he was willing to do whatever it took, regardless of the sacrifices needed.
This mentality started young. At one point in the documentary, Roy Williams, a North Carolina assistant coach, told the story of a conversation he had with Michael when he first joined the Tar Heels. Michael said he wanted to be the best player who had ever played for the university, to which Roy said, “If that’s your goal, you’ll need to work harder than you did in high school.” And Michael objected and said, “What do you mean? I worked as hard as everyone else did in high school!” Roy slyly replied, “Oh, I’m sorry – I thought you just said you wanted to be the best to ever play here…” Michael thought about it for a moment and with determination in his eyes he said, “I am going to show you – no one will ever work as hard as I work!” And he carried that mentality through his entire career.
Also captured in this clip is his outlook on leadership. We have all heard the many stories of the star athlete or the star employee who has the attitude, ‘I’m clearly more talented than the rest, therefore I don’t need to work as hard. Everyone else needs to work hard to try to catch up to me, but I can take it easy…’ That was never Michael’s attitude. You can see that he is often out front in every exercise or every drill, pulling his teammates along. As he said in this quote, he never asked others to do things that he didn’t do himself.
A big part of the documentary covers the shift Michael needed to undergo from focusing on scoring titles during his first 6 seasons in the NBA (where he won no championships), to embracing his teammates and understanding he needed to play “team ball” in order to achieve his ultimate goal of being a champion. He understood that he couldn’t do it solely on his own — but he also realized that those around him didn’t have the discipline or the mental toughness that he did, so he went to work on making those around him better basketball players. Bill Wennington, Michael’s teammate from 1993–1998, was quoted in the documentary as saying, “He was pushing us all to be better, because he wanted to win. And guess what? It worked!”
Those looking to achieve greatness must understand that winning requires a consistent and herculean effort to get better every day, over a long time period. You can’t put in extra effort on Monday and then take Tuesday and Wednesday off, then put in a little extra work on Thursday, etc. and then expect great things to happen. “Winning has a price,” says Jordan, and leaders must hold others accountable and ensure everyone around them is living up to the standard required to achieve the collective goal of the group. And unfortunately, many times, for organizations to succeed, it is more important that coworkers and employees respect their leader, rather than think of them as just a ‘nice guy.’