The last dance is the deepest

As a kid I had an outsize man-crush on Michael Jordan. I didn’t own the shoes, but I got the t-shirt and a visiting relative brought me a VHS copy of Come Fly with Me, the 1989 documentary of his career. I watched it until the video player gobbled the tape by which time I could narrate the film start to finish while practising massively underwhelming layups. 

My basketball days are done and dusted as are (most of) my man-crushes, but news of Netflix’s release of The Last Dance was a ray of sunshine through the lockdown gloom. The series is about Jordan’s team, the Chicago Bulls’, bid for their 6th NBA Championship title – their last shot before the departure of several key players and coach Phil Jackson.

The team of that area was an extraordinary collection of talent; apart from Jordan, members included bad boy Dennis Rodman (who dated Madonna for a while), the mighty goggled Horace Grant, 3-point wizard John Paxon, and the subject of this post, Beam-me-up-Scottie Pippen. Pippen was the Robin to Jordan’s Batman; he was regarded by many as the number two player in the entire NBA. And by the time the Bulls were shooting for their 6th title in 7 years, relations between Pippen and management were a mess.

For those not familiar, the background to the story goes something like this:

  • In 1987, fresh from college, Pippen is presented with an 8 year $18m deal with the Bulls. He’s advised against such a long contract so early in his career, including by franchise owner Jerry Reinsdorf, but driven by a need for financial security (to take care of his family), Pippen signs anyway
  • Four years later the Bulls win their first championship title
  • From 1992 to 1997 they win another 4, with Jordan and the ever present Pippen becoming household names
  • By the 1997-98 season, Jordan’s earning $33.1m to Pippen’s $2.8m. That season Pippen was the 6th highest earner on the team, and the 111th highest in the league (this was a seven-time NBA All-Star)
  • Feeling undervalued and unappreciated, Pippen attempts to renegotiate his contract. Management refuse, leaning on the principle that once a contract is in place they never renegotiate
  • Relations go south, quickly. It impacts the team dynamics, then team performance. Pippen picks up an injury and rather than get it attended to in the off season, he enjoys his summer then has the operation as the new season starts, effectively taking sick leave rather than be immobilised during his holiday. It’s tit for tat.

The final episodes haven’t yet been released so we don’t know exactly how the saga ends (although we do know the Bulls won that final championship). We also know that this story is awash with lessons that are still relevant today. In honour of the team’s three-peat, here are 3 that stand out:

1. When context changes, the rules must too. Context is everything and when it changes, leaders have to adapt. The Bulls in ‘87 and the Bulls in ‘97 were completely different beasts; stadium attendance went through the roof, merchandising exploded, sponsorships ballooned… The playing field changed but management stuck to the letter of the law because…? They could. Legally they were entitled to act as they did but hiding behind the law revealed an extractive, short-term mindset that was out of sync with reality. We hear similar stories from clients negotiating with landlords who refuse to acknowledge the impact of the coronavirus on their tenants. Rigidly holding to the terms of a contract may allow them to extract maximum rent over the next few months but relationships with tenants will irrevocably deteriorate. We’re entering a period where good relationships – and the flexibility and loyalty they engender – are at a premium. Best of luck to landlords looking for tenants over the next 6-18 months.

Fixed rules about how business (or life) works are comforting; they provide structure and make life easier. When Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ manager, said ‘we don’t renegotiate contracts’ it freed him from the time- and energy-sapping business of evaluating whether that principle should apply in each specific case. He didn’t have to engage in negotiations or mull over a decision because the rule’s the rule and that’s that. As one of my teachers would’ve asked: how’s that working out for you Jerry? A star performer pissed off with management and bad vibes leaking into the team. Not so great, Jerry. 

Rigid positions undoubtedly have their place but leaders need to know when context demands flexibility. With the current seismic upheaval there’s a need to re-evaluate a lot; understand that putting everything on the table is exhausting and destabilising. Knowing what to hold constant and what to reassess is the task of the hour.

2. People aren’t machines. Contracts are black and white – binary, like the code machines run off. Humans are not. We’re made of blood and bones and strange mystical stuff like emotions that make us behave in non-linear ways (for more have a read of Dan Ariely’s excellent book Predictably Irrational). Paying the second-ranked player in the league the 111th highest salary is – surprise, surprise – going to ruffle some feathers. Even us mere mortals have highly sensitive radars for unfairness but in the world of the oversized ego of sports superstars, that dial’s as sensitive as a teenager’s heart. It’s hard to imagine how management thought Pippen would stoically put his feelings behind him and give his best anyway, driven, perhaps, by some nebulous notion of loyalty?

This isn’t about creating a kumbaya circle or pandering to the whims of prima donnas, it’s about paying attention to the person we’re working with in all their human wholeness, and considering how to provide what’s needed for them to perform at their best.

In this extraordinary time of lockdowns and stay at home orders, we see some leaders driving work forward like nothing has changed in their team’s lives bar the location of their laptop. This myopic lens will lead to trouble. Unlike machines, people aren’t so good at compartmentalising their lives into neat little buckets (there’s little research to say this is a good thing anyway). There are obvious competing demands like having to cook, clean, and home-school children in confined spaces, but also less obvious factors like the impact of social distancing on extroverts (my mother – severe), or the inability to exercise for aspirant basketballers (myself – severe) or just the simple fact that in many relationships, spending 24 hrs a day together with no escape adds no small measure of stress. Arguments about whether or not people ‘should’ be able to meet, exercise, or hide are a distraction. This isn’t about what ‘should’ be happening, it’s about the impact on individuals of what is happening. (From what I’ve seen, this is largely unrecognised, even by those individuals themselves).

One of our clients working in a high pressure environment recently devoted an entire team meeting for people to talk about how they were doing. Freestyle – just a chance to understand where everyone was at, no agenda and no discussion on project progress. They reported a boost in productivity directly after that session.

3. While money might not be the best motivator, it can sure do the opposite. Daniel Pink’s book Drive, exploring the science of motivation, highlights several studies indicating that beyond a certain baseline, money is not a great motivator (the primary motivational levers are autonomy, mastery and purpose). But compensation tells a story; comparison is easy and it sends a very clear signal about leadership’s view of relative value. If a star performer is rewarded like a mid-packer, suddenly money matters, in all the wrong ways. Bottom line: performance suffers.

We’re in a highly emotionally charged time; on a global scale, fear and uncertainty have spiked perhaps more than at any other time in the last 50 years. Perceptions are likely more influenced by emotion than cold reason compared with more stable times. When levels of uncertainty are this high, leaders are under a microscope.

In times of crisis, actions speak louder than words. Much louder. Anyone in an organisation who is being asked to bear some of the pain of this crisis will be scrutinising what’s happening up the hierarchy. I’d be a wealthy man if I’d invested a penny every time I’ve heard the phrase ‘people are our greatest asset’; now’s the time for leaders to prove it. How organisations behave toward their people in this crisis will set the tone of their culture once they emerge.

Wrapping up. Looking at the Bulls’ management practices through the lens of The Last Dance it’s hard to see anything other than a catastrophic failure on the part of leadership to appreciate the human elements of their enterprise. Granted, there’s probably more to this story than the documentary reveals but, sadly, their practices aren’t too out of sync with how we see some organisations operating today.

Some will point to their record as validation of their methods – they did win that final championship. True. How’d they go the next season?

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The last dance is the deepest

As a kid I had an outsize man-crush on Michael Jordan. I didn’t own the shoes, but I got the t-shirt and a visiting relative

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