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TOPIC: Michael Jordan Didn't Manage People. He Lit Them on Fire

Michael Jordan Didn't Manage People. He Lit Them on Fire 3 weeks 3 hours ago #387495

  • jerseyshorejohnny
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THE CAPTAIN CLASS

Michael Jordan Didn’t Manage People, He Lit Them on Fire

Jordan berated teammates, who called him a jerk. But ‘The Last Dance’ offers new clues to what was behind the bullying.



By Sam Walker / WEEKEND WALL STREET JOURNAL

May 16, 2020

Eight episodes into “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part docuseries about the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s, the same old question continues to bedevil us.

Was Michael Jordan a brilliant leader, or a merciless tyrant?

In the time I’ve spent studying leaders, I have never succeeded at stuffing Michael Jeffrey Jordan into any categorical box. We’ve all worked with talented, demanding people. But very few of them were hypermagnetic global icons. The only other name that comes to mind is Steve Jobs.

It’s indisputable that both men possessed thermonuclear competitive drive and pushed their organizations to unprecedented success. And yet, was that because of or despite the fact that they scared the hell out of people?

“The Last Dance” is a Jordan-sanctioned production that occasionally sands down its protagonist’s rough edges. But it does a surprisingly thorough job of showing how punishingly high Jordan’s standards were and how he ridiculed anyone who failed to meet them. “He was a jerk,” former teammate Will Perdue said in the film. “He crossed the line numerous times.”



Both Jordan, and Steve Jobs, were staunchly unapologetic about this. “My job is not to be easy on people,” Apple’s co-founder once said. “My job is to make them better.” Or as Jordan put it: “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So, I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled.”

I have long argued that while Jordan was an otherworldly athlete with many outstanding leadership traits, he was a defective captain. He failed to restrain his basest impulses and put himself above his team. But “The Last Dance” suggests it wasn’t that simple. Love him or hate him, nobody on that team sacrificed more than he did.

The best way to evaluate Michael Jordan’s leadership is to travel back to Dec. 19, 1990: the day the Bulls decided to stop losing. At the time, nobody thought this ninth-place team was a contender. Jordan was in his seventh season under his fourth coach and had never been to the NBA Finals. The night before, he’d dropped 33 points on the Detroit Pistons, but none of his teammates cracked double figures. The Bulls lost by 21.



The following day, however, Chicago stopped playing like a one-man band. Five players, including Jordan, scored in double digits, kicking off a stretch of 12 wins over 13 games. By March, the Bulls had the best record in the NBA. They went on to win their first championship.

The only possible explanation for this turnabout I could find came from a brief item in the Chicago Tribune. “The Bulls have named center Bill Cartwright a co-captain along with Michael Jordan, who had held the job by himself.”

Cartwright, an 11-year veteran, seemed like a curious choice. He was Jordan’s polar opposite; a quiet, modest, brooding, unflashy grinder who rarely smiled or sought the spotlight. He could score 20 points a game if called upon but was perfectly content to focus on defense.

Two years later, Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules” revealed something else about Cartwright: Jordan openly hated him. He had opposed the trade that brought and started calling him “Medical Bill” on account of his creaky knees. Jordan’s abuse continued until Cartwright threatened him.

As a captain, Cartwright’s job was to rebuild something Jordan had constantly undermined: the team’s connection and camaraderie. He was a mentor to younger players, who called him “Teach.”

“My role was to be an anchor,” Cartwright said in a 2016 interview for my book, which profiled leaders of elite sports teams. “It was about stability. I’m the guy who was always there early for practice, stayed after, talked to guys and took care of myself.”

So far, “The Last Dance” hasn’t mentioned Cartwright’s influence on the Bulls. It focuses instead on coach Phil Jackson’s effort to install the “triangle,” an offense designed to give Jordan’s teammates more opportunities to score. In the documentary, Jordan said he resisted the idea. “I didn’t want Bill Cartwright to have the ball with five seconds left.”


“The Last Dance” suggests that Jordan’s eventual acquiescence to the triangle made the Bulls unstoppable. But I suspect it was Cartwright who convinced everybody else to buy in. A few years later, in a book, Jordan all but acknowledged this. “Bill made the difference,” he wrote.

On the elite teams I’ve known, the real leaders are rarely superstars. They work quietly, in and out of public view, doing the messy, thankless, unglamorous jobs that bind teams together. “The Last Dance” hasn’t changed my mind about that. Michael Jordan may have been the biggest personality and most valuable player on the Bulls. But he wasn’t the most valuable leader.

Truth be told, I thought the reason Jordan was so good at being monstrous is that he was, in fact, a monster. His toxic acts didn’t seem the selfless, calculated work of a leader. I figured they were his natural impulses, and that he failed as Chicago’s sole captain because he couldn’t restrain them.

The first clue that I might be wrong came from the documentary’s footage of Jordan celebrating his first NBA championship. I watched as he hugged the trophy while sobbing like a baby. Will Perdue came on next to describe the team’s reaction. “We were literally stunned,” he said.

Until then, he explained, nobody was entirely sure Jordan was human. The only emotions he’d ever displayed were “frustration and anger.”

There was more crying at the end of episode 7. Jordan had just said, more defiantly than defensively, that if anyone who watches “The Last Dance” dislikes his tyrannical behavior, that’s their problem not his. “Look, I don’t have to do this,” he said of the interview. “I am only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game.”



Then, out of nowhere, his eyes welled up. “If you don’t want to play that way,” he said, “don’t play that way.”

I could be wrong, but I don’t think Jordan was faking the emotion. After watching this scene several times, I started to wonder: Is Jordan really a tyrant at heart, or just a normal human being with ordinary feelings? Perhaps he was just incredibly, even heroically good at stifling them.

Being Michael Jordan was clearly an exhausting job. He had to be “on” at all times in public while playing basketball better than anybody, ever. What seems obvious to me now is that for him, being the sole leader of the Chicago Bulls was an impossible ask. Nobody has that much bandwidth.

Marcus Aurelius once said: “The blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” As a leader, Jordan must have thought that was the only contribution he could make. He wanted to light a fire and shove his teammates into it. So, he played the bad cop, the merciless agitator. He buried every emotion that wasn’t aggressive or propulsive.

It’s hard to imagine how lonely that must have been. The rest of the Bulls could lean on Bill Cartwright for emotional support, but Jordan was on his own. He was pretending to be a gargoyle, and gargoyles don’t show vulnerability. They don’t always look cuddly on television, either.

Michael Jordan’s leadership wasn’t enough to turn the Bulls into champions. And sometimes, he pushed too hard. But I never appreciated its cost; how selfless and isolating it was, and how much discipline it required.

I finally understand why he never apologized for any of it.

—Mr. Walker, a former reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, is the author of “The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership” (Random House).
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Michael Jordan Didn't Manage People. He Lit Them on Fire 2 weeks 6 days ago #387519

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The dissertation I didn't complete was on leadership. The one I finished was on clinician attitudes and labels and race. One of the main instruments used in leadership research is the Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire-XII, which has 12 subscales. Much of the foundation work in leadership studies in the United States comes from research on B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber crews in the Eighth Air Force in WWII. The main differentiation in the original studies was between task vs. person focused leadership, later broken out in to 12 sub-factors. Not watching "The Last Dance" but the description sounded reminiscent of leadership theory. I do watch Wicked Tuna and that seems like it was written by people deep in to leadership theory with editors told to keep behavior styles consistent with the sub-factors.
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Michael Jordan Didn't Manage People. He Lit Them on Fire 2 weeks 4 days ago #387627

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fuchsia wrote: The dissertation I didn't complete was on leadership. The one I finished was on clinician attitudes and labels and race. One of the main instruments used in leadership research is the Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire-XII, which has 12 subscales. Much of the foundation work in leadership studies in the United States comes from research on B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber crews in the Eighth Air Force in WWII. The main differentiation in the original studies was between task vs. person focused leadership, later broken out in to 12 sub-factors. Not watching "The Last Dance" but the description sounded reminiscent of leadership theory. I do watch Wicked Tuna and that seems like it was written by people deep in to leadership theory with editors told to keep behavior styles consistent with the sub-factors.

So what are your thoughts on best leadership qualities ? I'm a believer in lead by example ( dont ask of others what you wouldn't do yourself ) and self empowerment and more of a people person

I prefer not micromanaging or being micromanaged
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Michael Jordan Didn't Manage People. He Lit Them on Fire 2 weeks 3 days ago #387659

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Biggest no-no for me is leader insecurity combined with "now I got you, you son of a bitch" game (Erik Berne's "Games People Play") where leader on the edge of incompetence tries to defend their shaky position by showing their ability to punish.

Skilled boss who takes the time to coach up workers is what I prefer. Proudest people achievement of my work was that four of my former deputies went on to become Training Directors.

My greatest weakness was dealing with administrative "mickey mouse" and I always had at least one deputy who was really good at it and detail focused. Complementarity matters and you can hide one or two players who can't shoot or play super D.

Leader dishonesty still makes me crazy, putting in a policy that is doomed to fail because it looks good.
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Michael Jordan Didn't Manage People. He Lit Them on Fire 2 weeks 3 days ago #387668

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fuchsia wrote: Biggest no-no for me is leader insecurity combined with "now I got you, you son of a bitch" game (Erik Berne's "Games People Play") where leader on the edge of incompetence tries to defend their shaky position by showing their ability to punish.

Skilled boss who takes the time to coach up workers is what I prefer. Proudest people achievement of my work was that four of my former deputies went on to become Training Directors.

My greatest weakness was dealing with administrative "mickey mouse" and I always had at least one deputy who was really good at it and detail focused. Complementarity matters and you can hide one or two players who can't shoot or play super D.

Leader dishonesty still makes me crazy, putting in a policy that is doomed to fail because it looks good.

interesting. We have sane exact dislikes. Friend of mine took someone on his team to kind of help run the team from an operational POV and the guy while I get along with him he is absolutely poisonous to their team. He’s always trying to catch people in a gotcha thing to justify his own self worth. Never in a million years could I work with someone like that. Literally just brought someone on my team a week ago who while we overlap skills in some areas ( you kind of have to have someone with similar beliefs in managing money ) my biggest weakness would be using tech to be more efficient and streamlining things from an operational perspective ) and that is this persons greatest strength by far. Totally agree with leadership dishonesty. Not just from your example you listed ( I can deal with a failed plan but I hate when people hide from accountability )

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