Home Leadership What ESPN's 'The Last Dance' Taught Me about Being a Leader
What ESPN's 'The Last Dance' Taught Me about Being a Leader

What ESPN's 'The Last Dance' Taught Me about Being a Leader

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By Brian Freeland, Ed.D.
Dean, School of Health Sciences, American Public University

I am a huge basketball fan, and it has certainly been a very difficult time for us basketball fans in 2020. First, we lost one of the greatest basketball players of all time when Kobe Bryant died in January. Then, the collegiate basketball championships known as March Madness were cancelled and the NBA season was suspended, both due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Start a health sciences degree at American Public University.

With sports fans around the world looking for basketball on television, ESPN chose to release an original series titled “The Last Dance” earlier than initially scheduled. The 10-episode series follows the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and star player Michael Jordan during their dynasty era in the 1990s.

The premiere of “The Last Dance” on ESPN aired on April 19. I noticed that evening that my social media feeds were full of people sharing their excitement about this series and reliving the memories of watching those outstanding Bulls teams and particularly Michael Jordan.

But my initial reaction was to resist. I refused to watch on opening night. I was not a fan of those Bulls team and in particular of Michael Jordan.

How could I be? Jordan had caused me a lot of anguish as a basketball fan growing up. When I was a youngster, a Jordan-led University of North Carolina team consistently beat my favorite college basketball team, the University of Virginia. Then, Jordan led the Bulls to their first NBA championship in 1991 by beating my favorite NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers.

So I wanted to take a stand! I was not going to watch opening night! Nope! Well, I was unable to hold off for very long. I needed to watch some basketball, and I do have a ton of respect for what Michael Jordan and those Bulls teams accomplished.

It took me less than 24 hours after reading on social media how great the first two episodes were. So I hopped on the ESPN app the next day to check out what all the fuss was about. Within two minutes of watching the series opening episode, I had goosebumps from the vintage footage of Jordan highlights combined with classic ‘90s hip-hop music. I was hooked.

I anticipated reliving many memories of the six NBA titles the Bulls won and seeing behind-the-scenes footage. What I did not anticipate was how many leadership lessons I would be able to apply to my job in higher education.

As a former athlete and coach, I am fascinated by how many leadership strategies learned through sports can be applied to the “real world” and the workforce. By watching “The Last Dance,” I came away with the following takeaways that can be applied to managing teams and being successful in any career.

Find Teammates Who Complement Each Other

A quality team involves a diverse group of individuals that have different strengths. Putting together a quality team is like putting together a puzzle. You must find the right pieces to complete it. Individuals on a team must have strengths to complement one another.

For the Bulls, their defensive stoppers were Jordan and Scottie Pippin. Pippin was the type of teammate who put his arm around players when they were struggling; Jordan used the tough love approach to motivate his teammates.

Steve Kerr and John Paxon were the shooters, while Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman provided the team with solid rebounding and interior defense. Putting together a complementary team of individuals is important for any team to succeed, whether it’s in sports, business or education.

Remember, finding the right fit can take time. It took the Bulls six seasons with Michael Jordan before the Bulls found the complementary pieces to win their first championship.

Maximize Each Player’s Strengths

Once the Bulls found the right fit, they understood how to maximize their strengths and they played a style of basketball that complemented those strengths. A leader should determine how to maximize the strengths of each member of the team to deliver a quality product. Rather than working independently, the team must work as a unit to maximize individual strengths and ultimately deliver a better product.

As a Leader, Build Strong Relationships on the Team

I was impressed at how Phil Jackson, the Bulls’ legendary coach, was able to build quality relationships with players who had very strong individual personalities. Jackson made it a point to learn about his players and he demonstrated that he cared about them both on and off the court. That is a great lesson for any leader.

Trust in Your Teammates

Michael Jordan admitted that one of the biggest changes he made after his first few seasons in the NBA was to trust his teammates. Jordan had such a competitive drive to win that early in his career he often felt it was his responsibility to will his team to win, even if that meant forcing shots. If he was going to lose, then he wanted to be the one responsible.

Jackson taught Jordan to trust in his teammates, and it paid off with six NBA championships. As a leader, there have been times when I have felt it was better to complete an entire project myself rather than involve others, because I believed I could complete the project faster and better. Learning to trust others and maximize their strengths builds leadership qualities that will only improve the team and its ability to achieve continued success.

A Good Leader Does Not Rest on Past Successes

Michael Jordan found ways to motivate himself. He was famous for taking someone’s actions or words and turning them into motivation that enabled him to reach new heights as a player. Jordan remained motivated to compete and give 100 percent every game, even after all the championships and accolades.

Good leaders must not rest on their past success. Finding ways to motivate yourself as a leader and continuing to strive for success on a daily basis are what sets great leaders apart from merely good ones.

Great teams are not always perfect internally. There was plenty of conflict among the Bulls during their championship years. There were disagreements, frustrations and even conflicting agendas. However, the Bulls had the right complement of players, strong relationships, trust in each other and motivation to be one of the best dynasties in the history of sports.

About the Author

Dr. Brian Freeland is the Dean of the School of Health Sciences at American Public University. He holds a B.S. in Health and Physical Education from Radford University, an M.S.S. in Sports Management from the United States Sports Academy and an Ed.D. in Sports Management and Leadership from Northcentral University. Brian has over 20 years of experience coaching youth and high school basketball players.

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