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8 reasons business has little to learn from 'The Last Dance'

On Monday, one of the most compelling sports documentaries ever broadcast came to a thrilling end. I’m talking, of course, about The Last Dance, the story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. In case you don't know anything about it, see this two-minute video. As Jordan says, "Winning has a price. Leadership has a price."

View this two-minute excerpt from The Last Dance

It has sparked endless fascinating debates (if you like sport) such as which other athletes have similarly dominated their sports. We came up with this short list— Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Michael Schumacher, Don Bradman, Wayne Gretzky and Messi/Ronaldo. But I’m sure you’ll have your own.

Why was The Last Dance so fascinating? In part, it was an insight into the pursuit of excellence in its purest form. Jordan’s ambition, drive and tenacity were at times both beautiful and inspiring, but also brutal and intimidating. Or maybe it was the shock of hearing a sports star talk in such honest terms. How we all dread the post-match ‘interviews’ with today’s players. Whatever the question, you know you’ll get the trifecta: it’s not about me, it’s about the team; credit to the oppo’ – they ran us hard; and, we’re just taking one game at a time.

For those in the business world, earnest debates have ensued on what we can learn from Michael and the Bulls. The answer, I’m afraid, is very little. Sport is a terrible metaphor for business. Here are eight reasons why.

1. Chicago simply got lucky

One of the greatest athletes of all time landed on their doorstep and they promptly won six titles. They won nothing before Jordan and have won nothing since (in fact, the post-Jordan Bulls have never made the Finals and missed the Playoffs 10/21 times). Yes, they had a great coach in Phil Jackson (he won a further five titles with The Lakers) but he couldn’t win without Michael. With just five players in a team, basketball is unique amongst team sports in that one great player can have such a huge impact. Even Jordan’s soccer equivalent, Lionel Messi, couldn’t lead an ordinary Argentinian team to World Cup glory. This isn’t the story of a great team—it’s the story of a uniquely gifted individual.

In case there is any doubt as to Jordan’s worth, here’s the Chicago Bulls 1997-98 season roster. Jordan was paid more than the rest of the team combined.

2. Winning is different from succeeding

Sports teams exist to beat the competition. Businesses, on the other hand, succeed by delighting their customers. It helps if they are better than their competition but being different and standing for something is equally important. Apple devotees love the beauty and creativity of their product suite, those who wear Nike’s Air Jordans identify with the street appeal of both brands, but sports fans just want their team to win.

And they don’t care how ugly this is. Jose Mourinho came in for much criticism when managing Chelsea for his tedious style of play (go 1-0 up and then 'park the bus') but the criticism only came from non-Chelsea fans. Oh, what The Kop wouldn’t have given at the time for a turgid 1-0 Liverpool win!

3. There’s no ‘I’ in Team but there is in Win

The employees of a sports team are a world apart from those of a business. Firstly, they have an exceptionally short playing life. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average football career in the NFL (Not For Long) is just 2.66 years. This means players are singularly focused on maximising their personal earnings in the shortest period possible. Second, they need to build their personal brands to complement their playing incomes. The result is a bunch of narcissistic mercenaries. Third, most sports operate a salary cap, meaning the best players have their earnings limited by law (Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith would have earned far more if the NRL operated a free market). The most pernicious effect of a salary cap is that it reduces the incentive to find and train young talent.

Business employees, on the other hand, can look forward to careers measured in decades, with performance peaking well into their 50s. Companies, free to pay their staff whatever they consider them to be worth, are incentivised to recruit and train young talent. Culture really matters in business. It’s not just the fancy buzzword of the day—culture promotes loyalty, growth and stability.

4. Coaches are not CEOs

Because staff and players have such different motivations, the mentality of business managers and sports coaches are poles apart. The best business managers are great listeners, who nurture their talent with patient, supportive guidance. In contrast, the most effective sports coaches are tyrants. The only comparison to the business world are turnaround situations, where decisive, ruthless and often unpopular leadership is required. Sports teams are essentially narcissistic mercenaries run by tyrants.

5. Mavericks don’t work in business

It was fascinating to watch how Jackson and Jordan gave special treatment to the talented but idiosyncratic Dennis Rodman. They needed him and were prepared to make allowances. It’s challenging for a business to do this as it tears at the fabric of their culture.

6. Ownership matters

Businesses are run to maximise the capital of the owners. Period. The owners of sports teams (often individuals) do so for a variety of reasons. These include avoiding execution (Russian oligarchs buying English Premiership teams), conferring legitimacy (Middle Eastern regimes with dubious human rights records) and vanity projects (the ultimate toy for every self-respecting billionaire). The profit motive rarely figures. This means that the key metrics for success of sports teams and businesses are so different. One has to feel sympathy for the long-suffering fans of Sunderland F.C. (the subject of an equally compelling sports documentary Sunderland Til I Die). Their club is owned by a cash-strapped cowboy fan, whereas their bitter rivals Newcastle are on the verge of seeing their beloved club transferred to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Such is the lottery of sport.

7. The separation of revenues from profit

Businesses are often owned by thousands of small shareholders, whose rights are protected by a board, which appoints a CEO to make the decisions. The key appointment for owners of sports teams, on the other hand, is the coach. Most teams don’t have a Jerry Krause-like figure who wielded real power (mainly, it would appear, by keeping his stars at each other’s throats). Business leaders are incentivised to grow revenues whilse keeping a very keen eye on costs, whilst coaches care solely about revenues (winning)—profit growth is Someone Else’s Problem. This separation of ownership of revenues from costs is unique to sport.

8. Legacy matters in business

Both Manchester United and the Chicago Bulls were great teams for a period, but when their stars left, they headed straight into the wilderness where they remain today. A successful business CEO, on the other hand, is defined as much by her legacy as her results while in power. Succession planning is at the forefront of the mind of every decent business leader.

 

So enjoy The Last Dance for what it is - a fascinating sports documentary, expertly directed by Jason Hehir, on the pursuit of excellence and of one of the greatest athletes of all time.

And for those business leaders who crave leadership lessons from the sporting world, read Legacy instead, James Kerr’s brilliant book of the greatest team of all time - The All Blacks.

 

Jonathan Hoyle is CEO of boutique private wealth firm, Stanford Brown, and a sports fan (especially Manchester United and the Manly Sea Eagles). He can be found on a Saturday afternoon playing soccer for Manly Allambie O-35s Div 4. Every game feels like the World Cup Final.

 

21 Comments
Adrian Wild
May 26, 2020

Great read Jonathan, though I do think there is a great deal of 'I' in most successful CEOs.
You could add the excellent cricket series The Test to this analysis, for the leadership lessons of Justin Langer and Tim Paine - and a useful guide to crisis management/ recovery.

Matt
May 25, 2020

In the interest of a balanced conversation regarding sport and business I would like to refute a few of your points. I would counter your points with the following:
Chicago got lucky. A quick read of Michael Mauboussin’s “The Success Equation” highlights the role luck has in many facets of life, including business. A simple example are the profits Rio and BHP currently generate from iron ore. How much is this due to their good luck and Vale’s bad luck (not forgetting those who were killed)?
Winning is different from succeeding. Did VW delight their customers with “Diesel gate”? If this statement were true then the Banking Royal Commission would not have existed. Further, what drives these companies is the need to outperform their supporters (investors) with superior profits and returns.
There is no I in team. What is the average tenure of a CEO at a publicly listed firm? Also, what behavior do short-term salary incentives generate? Jensen’s theory on agency cost addresses many of the issues of there being an “I” in incentives.
Coaches are not CEOs. I do not think anyone would call Phil Jackson or Steve Kerr a tyrant. While this may have been true in the past it seems that today a great coach must be great communicators, motivators, and people managers; everything a CEO should be. There are plenty of examples of tyrants losing their players and being sacked.
Mavericks do not work in business. Musk? Gates? Bezos? Forrest? In today’s world mavericks probably have an even greater chance of succeeding as incumbent companies are too risk averse.
Ownership matters. What is the score of CEOs creating vs destroying shareholder value in Australia? Under your assumption, NAB should have performed as well as CBA.
Separation of revenue. I would suggest that a majority of successful teams have a Krause-like figure in the background. Building a successful sporting club involves on- and off-field excellence. While no one will admit it now Krause did put together the team – did he bring in Jackson despite Jordan’s protests? Ultimately, winning at sport is about making your team more powerful, which comes with more dollars in the bank.
Legacy matters in business. The very essence of a successful sporting team is to transition through time. While the Bulls have not achieved this, the Celtics and Lakers have in the NBA. The Ferrari F1 team has had multiple reins of dominance, and as much as it pains me to say, even Collingwood has regenerated itself multiple times. Ultimately, sports clubs are businesses and have a legacy. Plus do not forget why Jordan made the documentary, to protect his legacy.

Manuel Damianakis
May 24, 2020

Great article Jonathan. I enjoyed the series and agree little of it could be taken as a management guidebook. One thing that would be hard to debate is that he definitely left his mark on the game and sport in general. It would be nice to think that gifted individuals can also do that in business. Though hopefully with a lot more compassion & humility!

Adam Grocke
May 24, 2020

I think you're missing the point.. is a leader not someone who helps their team succeed and someone who maximises individual and team potential? I’d suggest not one single player regrets being on that team. I’m sure they now truely appreciate being pushed to the limit when at the time it felt unfair. The bulls had a succession problem and that’s why they aren’t successful. They didn’t evolve post MJ with a new approach to winning championship.

Now these’s a business message for you :)

Andrew Rutter
May 24, 2020

Great article Jonathan. Totally agree. Also a fellow Man U tragic. Never the same since the Ferguson era.

Adam Turk
May 24, 2020

Interesting points. How would a Steve Jobs fit into the analysis? By all accounts a genius maverick who was a very dominant tough person to deal with and often brutal to work with. Elon Musk? Maybe also

Also Jose’s first Chelsea team was very attacking team his second stint far more functional. Fabio Capello got the sack after winning the League with Real Madrid due to style of play. There are many examples of managers with good records but sacked as not popular due to style of play. Sam Allardyce a regular victim of this. The end for these examples didn’t justify the means.

I think that for those touched by ‘genius’ get to play by different rules as you can carry/tolerate a maverick when they are integral outcome (success)desired. There is a net benefit. For most us mere mortals this doesn’t apply and this type of behaviour is a net negative and can be a disaster in a team or company.

Loved the doco and it is quite clear that without Jordan success wouldn’t have happened. Did the end justify the means? I think on reflection most of his team would say yes. But this only works if you are a Jordan. In sport and business few of us are and we have to maximise an average talent and talent pool.

Brad Karp
May 24, 2020

Brilliant article and an enjoyable read on why sport is a poor metaphor for business. I agree that coaches are not CEO’s - but I do however think that Jurgen Klopp’s leadership style at LFC, for example the way he connects with his team, his humility, and how he takes accountability for his actions, is directly applicable to business leadership and there are lessons to be learned as we watch this legend in the making. To balance my comment, I will add that another outstanding coach was Sir Alex Ferguson, who exhibited amongst many other quality traits, great communication skills and emotional intelligence ... crucial for any CEO to be an effective leader.

Chris
May 24, 2020

Manchester United is an interesting example. Sir Alex Ferguson was the person who took that team to a LONG reign in the league and competitions, but he also needed his "all stars" - Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Peter Schmeichel etc. and he built a whole team around the player(s), but there was sufficient critical mass that it worked if one of them left or was injured for a long time.

Nowadays, the team is built around ONE player and when that player leaves, the team falls apart. Preston North End were a force in their day, but they sold all their best players and languished for YEARS.

Today, Chelsea and Man City have effectively "bought" premierships by buying the best players from wherever, at any price (even if they aren't happy in their new club; hello Angel Di Maria) because the owners (rich Thai, Russian billionaires and now, Emirate and Saudi princes) don't care what the figure is. It is now about ego and having a sports team as a status symbol, not winning.

(n.b. City, prior to vast sums of money being injected in the 2000's, were an absolute JOKE during the 1990's glory days of their cross-city rivals and hadn't won anything in 18 years).

Warren
May 24, 2020

There are plenty of CEOs whose motivation is lining their own pockets with multi- million dollar salaries, bonuses ( not all performance based), parachutes and even garden leave payments when tenure is cut short for whatever reason, while shareholder value stagnates. These wannabe leaders of business often run small & mid cap companies, possess huge egos but deliver little except unto themselves.

Martin K
May 23, 2020

The Captain Class: The Hidden Force that Creates the World's Greatest Teams by Sam Walker is another great book to read about applying sports leadership to a business context. His conclusions also align with your observations about Chicago. They won only when they had a superstar in Jordan. Sustained winning that doesn't rely on superstar talent requires effective leadership and the principles on the field can apply off field as well.

Peter Worn
May 22, 2020

Quality thought piece Jonathan. It can be tempting in business to be seduced by the sporting metaphors as they are closer to our hearts and easier to visualise. So much in business is intangible. I'm sure you have read Simon Sinek's 'The Infinite Game', it unpacks your sentiments around the difference between playing to win versus success

With only five players on the court at any time, it is not surprising that one player's performance can heavily influence a basketball game. They can be devastating with the ball but also as a decoy, more so than any other team sport.

It breaks my heart, but yes, you are correct the All Blacks are the most successful sporting team in history. Too many greats to name. I strongly encourage anyone interested to watch the "All or Nothing" Documentary on them on Amazon Prime to understand why.

For the record, I think Jackie Robinson is the most influential American sporting figure of all time. Netflix should do a documentary about his life, what he achieved in baseball but more importantly, in retirement.


Jonathan Hoyle
May 24, 2020

Thanks Peter. Yes, I have read The Infinite Game - an excellent read, as is all of Simon Sinek's output. Thanks for the tip on the All Blacks documentary.

Alexander Stitt
May 21, 2020

Thanks, Jonathan. An entertaining and pithy article and comparison. Maybe you have "behind the scenes" knowledge from the time of "The Last Dance", but the job of the screenwriters on that project was to ramp it all up, true or not.

Kym Bailey
May 21, 2020

Sales businesses, for example, are built on a "win at all costs" philosophy and especially if it is transactional based with no desire to obtain repeat business. (Just 1 example)
Having spent many years around junior basketball in spare time, whilst working in the business world, I can't agree there is a chasm between the 2. Sadly sport allows ego to thrive unchecked and there are many examples of very poor behaviour excused by "emotion" . The business world is only just coming to grips with the concept of emotional intelligence and trying to control it's 'animal instincts'. CV-19 has shone a light into human nature that reveals there is still a long way to go.

Geoff
May 21, 2020

I would always cringe when the business I work for (large financial services) wheeled in this or that athlete to lecture us about success. Thankfully they don't do it much any more.

Jonathan Hoyle
May 21, 2020

Jack, no disagreement here. But it's increasingly rare for a business leader to behave as a tyrant, no matter how talented he or she is. It gets short term results, but little else.

Toby Potter
May 21, 2020

Enjoyable article Jonathan.
Apart from the unsurpassed excellence of the AB's and their "No Dickheads" rule, there is another powerful analogy from another great NZ sporting team, the America's Cup yachtsmen of 2013. "Does it make the boat go faster?"

Jonathan Hoyle
May 24, 2020

Thanks Toby. Re your America's Cup team, i am sure it was great but i focused on sports that more than 0.0001% of the world's population watch :).

dy
May 21, 2020

So after Jordan and the others are gone Chicago is left with nothing...........all about the players and nothing about the club or supporters. Could easily name a few CEOS like that but probably get sued.

And interestingly Luc Longley refuses to comment on this 'great' documentary...........so yes, there is 2 sides to every story.

Jack
May 21, 2020

Let's not kid ourselves that everyone in business is an angel. Some of the most successful CEOs ever are tyrants, building teams based on a strong desire to win, not to be popular. People follow them out of respect for their business ability, and to make money, not love.

Chris
May 24, 2020

Agreed. Watch Dan Pena's videos about Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie etc. and the very colourful language he uses.

 

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