June 19, 2020

Ten Quick Leadership Lessons from The Last Dance

The Netflix series is more than a sports documentary. It is a study of a champion’s mindset. Here are ten quick leadership lessons I took away from it.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Netflix documentary series The Last Dance recently wrapped up.

The show follows the uber-dominant Chicago Bulls basketball team featuring mega-star Michael Jordan as they attempt to win their sixth NBA championship in their last season playing together.

The all-access footage is an intimate look at a team on the verge of creating history by winning three back-to-back NBA championships for the second time (aka the “threepeat”); a previously unaccomplished feat. It has been riveting to watch, not just from a sporting or historical perspective, but also from a performance psychology and leadership perspective.

If you’re not a fan of basketball or sports, don’t let that put you off. The documentary offers incredible insight into the mindset of a champion. It is a must-watch for anyone who wants to knows what it takes—and means—to be a winner and a leader.

Mega-star Michael Jordan may be the MVP of the series. Still, he is not the only person who’s winning mentality is on display. Basketball is a team sport, and everyone on the court had a role to play in the Bulls’ success. Head coach Phil Jackson, who led the Bulls to all six of their championships victories, notably displays incredible strategic outlook along with zen-influenced philosophies that contributed to the team’s historic achievement.

Here are ten quick leadership lessons to take away from the series:

  1. Just because you’re working towards a group goal doesn’t mean you don’t have to take any personal responsibility. This attitude was exemplified by Michael Jordan saying:

“There’s no I in team, but there is an I in win.”

2. Success is fleeting. Just because you’ve had a taste of it doesn’t mean you’re set for life or no longer have to prove yourself. As Phil Jackson said: 

“You can only call yourself a success while you’re doing a successful act. You have to do it again.”

3. Performing at the highest level requires dedication, hard work, and unwavering commitment to the task. You have to be prepared to make sacrifices in other areas of your life.

“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.”

Michael Jordan

4. You have to step outside your comfort zone to achieve greatness. As a leader, you have to push others on the team outside of their comfort zone too, even if they might not appreciate it:

“Winning has a price. 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.”

Michael Jordan

5. To maintain the consistency and drive required to come out on top requires intrinsic motivation. And you must be prepared to do whatever it takes to sustain it. There is a legendary anecdote about how, after a relatively poor personal performance against the Washington Bullets (a game the Bulls still won), Jordan invented a story that opponent player LaBradford Smith came up to him at the end of the game and said:

“Nice game, Mike.” 

It turns out this encounter was entirely apocryphal. MJ conjured it up as motivation to get himself in the zone so he could perform at the level required to win the remaining playoff games against the Bullets.

6. You need to be completely present if you want to achieve your true potential. Turns out MJ had a special gift for this that made a crucial difference:

“Most people live in fear because they project the past into the future. His gift wasn’t that he could run fast, jump high, or shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. That was the separator.”

Mark Vancil

7. Along with being present, you have to have laser focus when it’s crunch time. Mark Vancil, the author of Jordan biography Rare Air, said of MJ:

“He wouldn’t let anything get in his head that he didn’t want to be there.”

8. You have to have confidence and belief in yourself. MJ summed this up in typically no-nonsense fashion, saying of himself:

“Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?”

Indeed, after Jordan created history by making the winning shot in the final game to secure the Bulls’ sixth title, Phil Jackson asks him, “Can you believe it?” To which, Jordan coolly replied:

“Yeah, I can believe it.”

9. You have to have no quit in you. And you must maintain a continual desire to prove yourself, even after achieving greatness. Despite Jordan’s Bulls creating history by being the first team to win the threepeat before being disbanded, he was still hungry. When asked if it was satisfying to leave at his peak, MJ said to the contrary that it was maddening.

“…because I felt like we could have won seven. To not be able to try is something I just can’t accept.”

10. All of these traits of mental toughness, dedication, and focus, count for nothing if you don’t possess an underlying optimism at the start of your journey. To commit yourself to a goal in the first place, you need the belief that the impossible can be achieved and that incredible success can grow from humble beginnings. Otherwise, why would you even try? This final thought is best summed up by MJ, reflecting in a Phil Jackson-esque zen fashion on what the Bulls accomplished :

“Start with hope. All you needed was one little match to start that whole fire.”