When I was just a boy, around the time I began high school, I was constantly reminded of basic pro social behaviours that as adults we accept as universal truths – treat others with respect, be kind to one another, be polite, bullying is wrong. So, you can imagine my astonishment when I first came to understand the global icon known as Michael Jordan.
There’s a story that during the 1992 Olympics, Jordan loved playing table tennis against the other team USA staff and players. One of these players, Christian Laettner, happened to be very good at the game and beat Jordan one day. Jordan was very upset, threw the paddle, and didn’t talk to anyone for a couple of days. Unbeknownst to the others he then secretly ordered a table tennis table to his room and practiced religiously. Three days later they had a rematch and eyewitness accounts are that Jordan beat Laettner easily.
Jordan was known to be antagonistic during team practices. He would push and challenge his teammates, often verbally and physically intimidating them. This meant he would frequently ridicule, pick on and provoke teammates he thought lacked ‘commitment, determination, seriousness’. In one practice he got into a heated argument with a teammate Steve Kerr, widely known for his humility and mild manners, which ended in Jordan physically assaulting Kerr. His coach, Phil Jackson, immediately removed Jordan from practice. Jordan would later go on to repair his relationships with Kerr and the two of them would remain great teammates for many years and win three championships in the mid to late ’90s.
These two anecdotes reveal much about Jordan’s ambitious, diligent, aggressive, and apparently arrogant character that drove his eventual success. It also offers insights into what drove some of his leadership behaviours, positive or otherwise.
There’s no doubt about it. From an individual career achievement perspective, Michael Jordan is among a pantheon of all-time greatest athletes. Viewed on paper, Jordan’s success is unassailable. Five-time NBA most valuable player award winner, six NBA championships, two Olympic gold medals, and 1990’s cultural icon.
With the recent documentary ‘The Last Dance’ and the Los Angeles Lakers winning the 2020 championship reigniting the conversation around Jordan and his legacy, I thought it’s time we took a look at his leadership through the lens of scientific theories and research, to better answer the question: Was Michael Jordan a good leader?
To explore this question, let’s look at a few established scientific theories and ideas on leadership and management. In particular the prominent ideas of:
- Growth Mindset, to assess whether Jordan embodied a mindset for success;
- The Full Range Leadership Model (FRM), to assess whether Jordan demonstrated leadership behaviours conducive to maximizing the people around him; and
- The well known constructs of Burnout, to assess whether Jordan’s leadership style could have resulted in sustained success.
Originally developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, Growth Mindset is the idea that people occupy mindset’s relating to the malleability of skills and attributes ranging from Growth to Fixed (Dweck, 2012). Where a person with a Growth mindset may see skills and attributes of themselves and others as changeable via work and effort (i.e., you can be smarter if you work harder). People who internalize a Fixed mindset believe that traits and skills are largely fixed (i.e., doesn’t matter how hard you work you won’t become significantly smarter). Through her research, Dweck found that occupying a Growth Mindset not only led to a myriad of better individual outcomes (i.e., embracing challenges, resilient to setbacks, learning from criticism) it also led leaders to create more prosperous, sustainable, and innovative organisational cultures (Dweck, 2012) So powerful is this concept, that CLA is currently in the midst of developing our own Leader Mindset Indicator (LMI)™ to assess leaders’ mindset. So, this begs the question, how would Jordan score on the LMI, did he occupy a fixed or growth mindset? The LMI examines a leader’s mindset along four factors: appraisal of failure, learning, perseverance, and overall leadership. According to this framework, Jordan would likely have apparently demonstrated a strong growth mindset.
During Jordan’s career, he frequently demonstrated a growth-oriented appraisal of failure. He frequently saw failure as an invaluable learning experience, forming the building blocks to his ultimate success. In one of his most famous commercials, Jordan recounted how all of his failures were in fact the reason he ultimately succeeds. It is however interesting to note that while Jordan viewed his own failures as a gateway to success, he was less forgiving of failures from his teammates. In terms of learning Jordan clearly believed that people’s skills were malleable and could improve from development. This assumption underlined his tendency to relentlessly challenge and push those around him to become better athletes. Although he pushed his teammates, knowing that they could improve when he applied pressure, Jordan also tended to be highly outcome focused. As such, he gave his people the space to develop only on his terms, instead of giving them room to make mistakes, take risks, and learn in their own way. Jordan also was famous for his perseverance. From anecdotal evidence, Jordan was a leader that inspired his people to push forward when faced with obstacles. Indeed, one of Jordan’s flaws was perhaps that he over-persevered from a leadership perspective, failing to adjust his approach based on situational factors. Overall, though Jordan seemed to occupy a belief that people could improve through practice and dedication he also placed a strong emphasis on performance and outcomes, rather than emphasizing effort and learning.
The FRM suggests three classes of leadership styles. Transformational leaders who engender trust, develop leadership skills in others, demonstrate self-sacrifice, and focus on objectives that transcend the immediate needs of the group. Transactional leaders who primarily engage the self-interest concerns of their team via exchanging reward for cooperation and compliance. Lastly, non-transactional leaders who do neither and typically may demonstrate avoidance behaviours. Research demonstrates that transformational leadership is best associated with a range of performance and job satisfaction outcomes followed by transactional and finally non-transactional (Dumdum, Lowe & Avolio, 2013). So, which of these three classes of leadership styles did Jordan most align with?
Reflecting on his leadership style it’s clear that Jordan wasn’t a passive or avoidant leader, quite the opposite, many accounts of his behaviour noted that he was visually present and overly assertive to the point of bringing a dominating presence.
Further, it is also clear that Jordan demonstrated clear tendencies of the transactional leader. There are many accounts of Jordan’s intense scrutiny over his teammate’s mistakes, irregularities, and deviations from his expectations. These transgressions are often punishable by verbal or physical abuse. While meeting Jordan’s expectations meant more playing time and being part of perhaps the best professional sporting team of the ’90s. It is clear then that Jordan demonstrated leadership behaviours consistent with a transactional style.
Additionally, it would seem he also demonstrated behaviours aligned with transformational leadership, for instance, many of Jordan’s peers recount how his tenacity and work ethic was endlessly inspiring. Jordan would also, in his own way, coach and develop those around him to make them better basketball players. The caveat here is Jordan would frequently undo much of his good work by overplaying his strengths. Though he displayed a sense of confidence that built respect and trust with his people, many of his teammates at the time recounted an air of fear and tension that surrounded Jordan. For instance, in ‘The Last Dance’ documentary Scottie Pippen recounted that the year Jordan retired for the first time in 1994 the Chicago Bulls team seemed happier. Further, while Jordan did spend time coaching his people, they were always on his terms. Jordan wasn’t interested in letting his players become the best version of themselves, but the best version of themselves that could compliment his skill sets and his talents. Lastly, while Jordan inspired by uniting his team around a collective mission to win a championship and would work endlessly toward it, he failed to acknowledge that those around him were individuals, with unique needs, abilities, and aspirations. Playing with Jordan meant subsuming parts of your own identity in order to achieve ultimate professional success. It was a sacrifice many were willing to make, but needlessly so. As such, it would seem that the same traits that led him to become a transformational leader also derailed his path to truly embody best leadership practices, and his teammates were worse off for it.
Lastly, viewing through the lens of longevity we are presented with the most contentious perspective of Jordan’s leadership. It is likely that through Jordan’s leadership style and personal temperament he would have exhausted his people to the point of burning them out. Burnout refers to a significant organisational hazard that stems from prolonged unmanageable workloads resulting in emotional exhaustion. Research indicates that burnout impacts the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of professionals around the world and ultimately results in increased physical and mental health issues and reduced work performance (Leiter & Maslach, 2015). There are many pieces of anecdotal evidence of Jordan’s fierce and relentless leadership style causing widespread burnout among his team and within himself. For instance, Steve Kerr has frequently remarked, during interviews over the years, at how exhausted those Chicago Bulls teams were from the constant scrutiny, high expectations, and physical toll of playing professional basketball. Jordan himself often cited ‘exhaustion’ as a primary reason he retired for the first time in 1993. As such, while Jordan’s leadership style was able to lead teams to six eventual championships it’s likely that his style was not conducive to sustained success and would have resulted in widespread burnout. It is to his benefit then that he took a one year hiatus in the middle of his consecutive championship runs which allowed him and his team the opportunity to recover.
In sum, what do we say about Michael Jordan? He is one of the most successful and influential athletes in the world. His achievements as a professional athlete were a significant cultural landmark of that era. To this day it is difficult to think of the ’90s without picturing Jordan in that red, white, and black jersey. After some personal reflection and viewing some of the leadership research, my conclusion is that Jordan, like so many of us, embodies tendencies and temperaments that both enable and hinder his success. While his drive, determination, ambition, and outward self-confidence inspired many to his cause, he also had a tendency to be egotistical, bully his teammates, and instill fear. He was relentlessly hard working and deeply serious about his craft, but he could also be arrogant, self-righteous, and seemed to relish in the power he had over people.
Jordan’s leadership style did eventually lead his team to the ultimate success in his field. But did it justify the way he treated his teammates? In other words, does your end justify the means, or is the means by which you achieve your end the priority? Your answer to that question may determine your view of whether Jordan was a great leader or one of the worst. In any case for that boy who looked up to him and was inspired by his determination and resilience, it’s reassuring to know that at the end of the day even Michael Jordan, is still human.
Dumdum, U. R., Lowe, K. B., & Avolio, B. J. (2013). A meta-analysis of transformational and transactional leadership correlates of effectiveness and satisfaction: An update and extension. Transformational and Charismatic Leadership: The Road Ahead 10th Anniversary Edition 2013 Jun 27 (pp. 39-70). Bingley.
Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Hachette UK.
Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2015). Conquering burnout. Scientific American Mind, 26(1), 30-35.