Leadership Lessons from Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls has created one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties, winning six NBA championships between 1991 and 1998 with two three-peats. It teaches us quite a lot about leadership, strategy and organization development.

I am a Chicago Bull’s fan when I was young; however, in the past, the impression always stayed at the superficial level – winning, ring, cool stuff and even physical fighting. Recently I watched documentary from Netflix, The Last Dance, around Chicago Bulls Dynasty, Michael Jordan and their last season 97-98; I started to really understand those fancy memories, rationalize the team dynamics, and recognize the legendary Chicago Bulls’ Six Championship were not built on super starts, but rather, strong leadership, flexible strategy and diverse organization culture.

Here is why.

Articulate your strategy: help your team to connect and imagine

The documentary’s catchy name – The Last Dance, in fact, is the over-arching theme of Chicago Bulls’ playing strategy for season 97-98. A decision was made by the management that they would let go coach Phil Jackson and disband the team after season 97-98.

“Phil always looked for a theme for every season, and given that it was the last year we were gonna be together — management had already made that decision — in typical Phil fashion, he had a name for it,” former Bulls guard Steve Kerr said.

“I talked to the players about particularly how important it was for us to really be together in this last run that we were going to have,” Jackson said. “So I called it The Last Dance.”

Why does a theme matter? A theme like “The Last Dance” helped every player to paint vivid picture for journey ahead and connect the journey to himself: how did the last season look like? What is there for me personally? Why I should play hard? A 10-page-slide-deck strategy makes all sense; however, it only works if audience internalizes it by imagining the future and connecting oneself to the future.  

If you are crating out a great strategic plan, think about an overarching theme, or a few simple words to help your team to imagine the journey ahead and remember them into the heart. It can make all the difference.

Diversity and Inclusion: high bar for the leaders as well as the players

Dennis Rodman is really an outlier in NBA world –  his artificial hair color and piercings, regular clashing with opposing players, high-profile personal life, e.g. dating Madonna and be friend with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. However, when he was playing at Chicago Bulls, Coach Phil and Michael Jordon gave him ample space to “fool around” and be himself. Dennis Rodman’s being himself is not easy to handle; it could be going for a holiday in Las Vegas when the game is on; or being absent for training and going for wrestling game during NBA Final which leaving the team with 300 freaking media to manage.

“I just think that Phil realized that I need to always do me, just go to do what I do; you know, like the playoff game, I went to go wrestle;” Dennis said, “If I did this, I go over here, if I do that, I got to go do this. They’re gonna get 100% when I’m on the court.”

Diversity and Inclusion is easy to talk but difficult to do. It requires a big heart from the team leaders; Jackson grew up in a portion of North Dakota where he experienced Native American culture firsthand; therefore, he understands the criticality for Diversity & Inclusion. On the other hand, to really create a diverse and inclusive culture also held high standards to the team players themselves – everyone should know their strength and find the role to play.

Dennis Rodman discovered he was good at rebounding; he worked tireless to perfect it and is considered as one of the greatest rebounders in the NBA history. Scottie Pippen was not playing under Jordan’s shadow but found his unique position in the court and blossom into one of NBA top players. Another example, Steve Kerr,holding the highest career three-point field goal percentage in NBA history; he also talked about how he tried to build trust with Michael Jordon and be a trustable player when Jordan needed him.

After leaving Chicago Bulls, Dennis Rodman joined Los Angeles Lakers and was soon let go; after that, he joined Dallas Mavericks, but again very quickly he alienated the franchise with his erratic behavior; that is almost the end of his NBA career.

Winning strategy is to Create Options

Basketball is a game play, but when you got a superstar in the team, things became tricky.

Before Chicago Bulls dynasty years, Michael Jordan was already the best player in the league. The coach, by then, Doug Collins, made the playing strategy to get Michael Jorden have the ball. While the strategy indeed made Michael Jordan as a superstar with winning scoring titles and MVP trophies, such heavy relying on one person sometimes makes the team weak – the tougher the game, the weaker it become. Between 1988 and 1990, the Chicago Bulls were eliminated three times in a row in the playoffs by the Detroit Pistons; the Pistons had a strategy called the “Jordan rules”; which means to play super tough and physically, to prevent him scoring points and make the overall morale down.

When Phil Jackson was on-boarded as coach, he decided to change the strategy.

He said to Jordan “I am not worrying about you but we gotta find a way to make everybody else better’ we gotta create other threats.” Michael Jordan eventually started to realize that “I do not have to have the ball in my hands all the time.”

Coach Phil leveled all the players up and made “Triangle offense” as core in their playing strategy. The essence of Triangle offense, in my view (“laymen” view 😊) is to create Options.

  • All player took position well to create space so that everyone was able to pass the ball quickly to the other 4 players.
  • If the defense focused on Michael Jordan (2-on-1), it created space for other players in Chicago Bulls to shoot points; if the defense weighted equally on all players, Michael Jordan can win 1:1 or 1:2 and shoot points.

Take a quote from Antifragile, “Options, any option, by allowing you more upside than downside, are vectors of antifragility. “

End goal is to win but to profit

As heart-breaking as it could be, NBA franchises are built not just to win championship, it’s built for profit, as the ultimate goal. If winning championship changed the game of profitability, the players could be traded, coach could be get-go and team could be disbanded.

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