Can we learn to “Last Dance”? Agile High-Performance Teams

Michael Jordan’s Netflix series “The last dance” had 6.1 million viewers during the COVID-19 lockdown. At first glance, you might think this docuseries is simply an account of Michael Jordan’s career and the Chicago Bulls’ extraordinary 1998 season, but it is much more than that. The way the story is portrayed through multiple perspectives. We see the complexities of the team’s dynamic and most importantly, we get to see the human side of a legend alongside his dazzling team members.

Purpose, drive, collaboration, leadership… As I made my way through the series, the link to the business environment became clearer and clearer. This is not just a sports documentary; this is a masterclass of Agile High-Performance Teams. We have much to learn about the Last Dance.

An irrefutable requisite to be classified as a high-performing agile team is that it must deliver exceptional results time and time again – irrespective of the changing context or challenges it may encounter. Agile High-Performance Teams are such a special rarity that they become admired and respected across organizations and even fans. These teams repeatedly exceed customers and management’s expectations.

The Chicago Bulls are one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties, winning six NBA championships between 1991 and 1998 with two three-peats. The Bulls are the only NBA team to win multiple championships while never losing an NBA Finals series in their history. They are quite simply one of the best examples of a high performing agile team.

While the results of the Chicago Bulls may seem magical, there was plenty of art and science behind it. To build an agile high-performance team, a combination of techniques, tools, methodology, skills and of course mindset is required. But most importantly, it is about people management and the capability to develop people.

So, here are my 5 takeaways from “The Last Dance” linked to high- performing agile teams:

1. Michael Jordan: From individual contributor to team player

Excellence comes from the continuous improvement of each team member. Even the best players have things to learn. “Move the ball, Move the ball! There is no ‘I’ in team.’ I said, ‘There’s an ‘I’ in win.’” claimed Jordan. The concept of a triangle offense did not sit well with Jordan when he first heard about it as it was going to take the ball out of his hands.

Jordan was a supremely talented player, nevertheless, it was only when he managed to balance his ruthlessness, pettiness and confidence with collaboration and trust in other team members, did the world really see the team’s astonishing potential, as well as the emergence, of arguably, the greatest to ever play the game. Scottie Pippen was the wingman that enabled Jordan’s leadership, but it took him a long time to realize it.

In the Last Dance, this was perfectly summarized “I didn’t win without Scottie Pippen, and that’s why I consider him my best teammate of all time. He helped me so much in the way I approached the game, in the way I played the game. Whenever they speak of Michael Jordan, they should speak of Scottie Pippen.”

2. Michael Jordan: The winning mindset of the fiercest competitor

“Clyde was a threat; I’m not saying he wasn’t a threat. But being compared to him? I took offence to that” claimed Jordan. Coming into the 1992 NBA Finals against Portland Trail Blazers, Jordan was heavily compared to Clyde Drexel. While he respected Drexler as a competitor, Jordan clearly thought he was a superior player and used those comparisons as motivation to beat Drexler and win his second title.

There was no defeat in Michael Jordan’s mind, for him every failure was an opportunity to learn and to ensure that the next opportunity would be a success. “I was a little upset I didn’t get the MVP that year and they gave it to Charles Barkley. Ok, you can have that, I am going to get this.”

The 1993 MVP selection of Charles Barkley proved to be the extra lighter fuel beneath Jordan’s competitive fire. Known for his late-game heroics, Jordan revealed his mentality in difficult situations and why most of the time it ended in glory for him – “Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken?”

3. Michael Jordan: Basketball legend, epic team leader.

“My mentality is to go out and win at any cost. If you do not want to live that regimented mentality, then you do not need to be alongside me.” Michael had his sights firmly set. He wanted to become legendary, the best basketball player in history. He not only held himself to extremely high standards but in turn, also held his teammates to the same standards.

Michael was a natural leader. His strong vision and passion permeated throughout the team. It became a shared dream, a vision and ambition that excited and energized each member of the team and pulled them closer together. Michael Jordan’s leadership revolutionized their desire and capabilities while pushing them to achieve more than what they ever believed possible. “I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they did not want to be challenged. But I earned that right because my teammates who came after me didn’t endure all the things that I endured.”

4. Phil Jackson: The power of the Triangle

“I wasn’t a Phil Jackson fan when he first came in. He was coming and taking the ball out of my hands.” Phil Jackson taught Jordan the value of passing the ball and showed Pippen the value of supporting others from the side even when he was perfectly capable of playing a leading role himself.

Phil knew the team dynamics and the strengths and weaknesses of his individual players. He understood their personalities and individual motivations and frustrations and somehow managed to balance individual needs with the team’s goal. “Phil, you let this dude (Rodman) go on vacation, we’re not going to see him.” Jordan was rather skeptical about Rodman leaving, but Phil allowed Rodman to take a 3-day break because he knew this was important for him to remain motivated and engaged. Thanks to Dennis Rodman’s defense the team was able to defeat their hated rivals, the Pistons.

Jackson’s coaching style was Agile, and it was also clearly exemplified in his preferred triangle offense. Jackson always wanted to build a strong team and made sure no one became, or felt, more important than someone else. In his team, everyone worked together to reach a common goal.

5. Michael Jordan: The why is the answer to the how

Leadership has a cost, and as such it is easy to lose your way. “I was nervous. I had not played competitively in a long time. I felt naked because my father wasn’t there.” — Jordan on returning to play in the 1994-95 season for the first time after his father was murdered.

Nevertheless, Jordan always found a reason and a purpose. He played for his father or for his fans, or for his dearest friends. His purpose compelled him to take a stand and act, even when sick or demotivated. It inspired him to keep going in the face of adversity and to stay committed.

“The game of basketball has meant everything to me. It’s my refuge, my peace. It’s been the place of the most intense pain and joy that anyone can imagine. I hope that it’s given the millions of people who I have touched the motivation to follow their dreams.”

In businesses, can we learn to “Last Dance”?

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