When I was halfway through the riveting ESPN/ Netflix documentary series, The Last Dance, I suggested to my dad that he watch it to help fill the sport-shaped void in his life. “I don’t know much about basketball” he replied. I was quick to reassure him, “it’s a universal story that all sports lovers can appreciate.” Two days later he had finished all 10 episodes.
And then I realised it’s not just a universal story for sports. It’s a universal story, period. Success, failure, talent, ego, teamwork, culture, strategy, risk, legacy. It’s business 101.
So what can we learn from the greats of the game, whether basketball, football, rugby or any sport that brings people together in the pursuit of glory?
One of the many eye-opening scenes in The Last Dance shows Michael Jordan consistently scoring 50 or 60 points in the playoffs, winning the MVP award and still losing. It wasn’t until new coach, Phil Jackson, instilled a culture of true teamwork that Jordan could finally reach the promised land and win his first championship (passing to a teammate to score the winning basket.)
Like most all-time greats, Jordan had plenty of ego – but he knew he had to start trusting his teammates if he ever wanted to achieve his ambition. There are a few lessons here, but the most obvious being that no one can succeed alone. As businesses its vital to understand how we can collaborate, passing the ball until we have a better shot at the basket.
Watching The Last Dance, it’s clear that Michael Jordan was driven to the point of obsession – and expected the same commitment from those around him. Comparisons have been drawn to footballer, Roy Keane, the uncompromising captain throughout Manchester United’s most successful period. Both men shared an obsession with winning, and were prepared to bleed for the team if it gave them that extra 1%. Yes, they demanded that others raise their effort – but they made sure no one could accuse them of not giving their all.
Culture is set by the leaders within any organisation. If you really want to create trust and respect, never demand that others to go to lengths you wouldn’t be prepared to yourself.
Legendary manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is said to be one of the greatest ‘man managers’ of all time. He was a master of empathy – understanding that in a team of different personalities, what works for one will be disastrous for another.
He knew that some people need motivational speeches, and others an arm around the shoulder when things aren’t going so well. Some need to be challenged and pushed to realise their potential and some just need to be reminded of how good they can be. Over 25 trophy-laden years he rarely got it wrong – because the great leaders understand different personalities and how to get the best from them.
Arguably the most fascinating character in The Last Dance is ‘bad boy’ Dennis Rodman – one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history. He’s the guy who would jump the highest and fight the hardest to win the ball for his team – but you wouldn’t throw him the ball in the last seconds to win the game. He’s the perfect example of someone who made the team greater by his unique skillset, playing to his strengths and knowing his limitations.
As Einstein once said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” For businesses, it’s vital to identify the unique strengths (and limits) of the team and then figure out how to play to them.
The old adage is that it’s easy to get to the top – the hard part is staying there. Sports teams, like brands tend to go in cycles of success, creating dynasties that fade away once key members move on or retire. The Bulls lost Jordan, Apple lost Steve Jobs, and one day the All Blacks will lose Beauden Barrett.
The difference is, The All Blacks have always had a (conveyor belt of talent) succession plan. We went from Kronfeld to McCaw, Mehrtens to Carter, Osborne to Cullen – from great players to even greater players. For businesses, staying at the top means investing in the next generation – the ones who will sustain your success until it’s their turn to pass on the jersey.
There are many lessons we can learn from sports and team dynamics – because working together under pressure to achieve results happens every day in offices across the country. But the next time you hit a target, pull off a great project, or deliver a great presentation – just remember the great team and the winning culture that made it possible. And if anyone accuses you of watching too much sport, just remind them you’re doing research.