Every boss can benefit from Phil Jackson’s coaching
Don’t try to make a Michael Jordan out of a Dennis Rodman
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, I proudly admit I’m a bandwagon fan of the Chicago Bulls. Even as a short-term, former sports news editor (who doesn’t understand how I managed to pull that off), I still don’t care about sports. But you better believe I had all kinds of Chicago Bulls paraphernalia from 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998.
And I am firmly planted in front of my television to watch ESPN’s new documentary “The Last Dance” every Sunday for the next few weeks. There’s something about the stories of certain basketball players that fascinates me even if I don’t care about the sport. It’s the reason I’ve read all of the following books the year they released — Dennis Rodman’s 1997 book “Bad As I Wanna Be,” Lebron James’ 2009 book “Shooting Stars” and Dwyane Wade’s 2013 book “A Father First.” Even though I never had any desire to own a pair of Jordans, I still followed the story of James R. Jordan Sr. and monitored the Dominick’s lawsuit.
While I’ve always known a little bit of this and a little bit of that about certain athletes, I never had much interest in coaches. That includes former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, although I’d heard glowing reviews about him. So imagine my surprise (and probably a lot of other viewers) to find out that Jackson was as interesting as former Chicago Bulls championship player and Kim Jong-un’s oddball friend Dennis Rodman.
If you’ve gotten through the first four episodes of “The Last Dance,” then you already know about Rodman’s request for a 48-hour break — in the middle of game season. While anyone who even knows an inkling of information about Rodman wouldn’t find his request out of character, Jackson actually allowing it was what really threw me off. It’s also the kind of leadership technique that bosses in Corporate America can learn from.
While workers these days are firmly planted in place at home (due to the coronavirus outbreak 2019, or COVID 19) and co-working spaces are fighting with its own members to avoid giving refunds, let’s rewind to work days before January 2020. Remember when employees were almost elbow-to-elbow in shared desks, and cubicles were being dismantled? Employees who wanted to work in those small phone booths were considered antisocial, regardless of privacy being a huge perk decades prior.
Courtesy of a rise in tech jobs and a cultural change (thanks to Millennials), new-age bosses were trying their hardest to force employees into sitting in “Kumbaya” circles and being instant friends. Workers would finish their 9–5 jobs only for emails to go out inviting them to after-hour drinks, softball games, on-the-clock baby showers and wedding anniversary parties, and of course those dreaded “surprise” birthday parties in the conference rooms. For the more social coworkers of the bunch, these (required) celebrations are the best part of their days — even more than Folgers in their morning cups. But for Achiever personality types who are hell bent on getting work done and having a life (and friends) outside of work, a forced work-friend mentality is nothing more than a distraction — and annoying as hell.
For management teams who are determined to make their employees enjoy all the things they do and have the same work motto as them, any subordinate who doesn’t immediately smile, wave and jump right into the activity is “not a team player.” This is the person who gets the write-ups and the lectures and concerns about “not fitting into company culture.” And too often, employees who simply have different work styles are underestimated or frustrated that they cannot get the job done the best way they know how — and enjoy.
Phil Jackson’s approach to leadership is one of the easiest and best examples to showcase how to manage a plethora of personalities on one team. We already know Michael Jordan is an overachiever, a winner, deeply driven, and believes there is no “i” in “team” but an “i” in “winning.” Scottie Pippen is somewhere in the middle — not always a people pleaser (considering he sat out several games due to a ruptured tendon in his ankle and that cringe-worthy seven-year contract dispute) but definitely a reliable support system. Then here comes the Dennis Rodman of the group who wants to do everything the exact opposite of how the rest of the team wants it to be done.
He would be the type of employee in Corporate America who could easily get fired for being ornery and ditching all of the company get-togethers the minute he can find an exit door. This type of worker needs nothing more than the need to breathe and enjoy his life on his terms. He didn’t need to be everybody’s friend on the team, but he did need people to respect his talent.
What leadership can take from the Rodmans on their teams, or the 48-hour break (that was more like 96 hours), was that Jackson gave Rodman the opportunity to be his best self at work by being himself. It’s easier for those with a leadership position to try to force-feed their way of getting a job done into their employees’ mouths. But natural-born leaders recognize that every employee — even those who aren’t power forwards with five championship rings — may require a different method of getting the same job done.
With Jackson, the goals were simple: Have a phenomenal team that can work together to play the best basketball they possibly can — and smoke every other NBA team that crossed them. No one pondered about whether Jackson was a good leader; the way his team worked individually and collectively gave them all the story that they needed. Jackson didn’t get so lost in the details that he needed Dennis Rodman to work exactly like Michael Jordan, or Michael Jordan to work exactly like Scottie Pippen, or Scottie Pippen to work exactly like John Paxson, and so on and so forth. (Clearly that doesn’t mean that bosses should just let their employees disappear in the middle of a big work project to hang out with Carmen Electra, ride motorcycles, do drugs and go nuts. But humor me.)
What leadership can take away from Jackson’s leadership is this: Allowing employees the flexibility to be their own best selves can also result in their best work for the company. By letting go of that rope just a little bit and not trying to force them into being carbon copies of each other, long-time and top-notch leadership may be pleasantly surprised to find they have an even better worker than they thought they had — four laps ahead of the rest.
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