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Breaking Down Michael Jordan’s Competitive Leadership Style

Is NBA superstar Michael Jordan’s leadership skill set one we should encourage all emerging athletes to follow, to be modelled after? While many debate who is the ‘GOAT’ of the NBA, it’s overtly obvious that Michael Jordan dominated the league in his time and put on the show of all shows on the court. He brought his Chicago Bulls to six championship wins in 1991 and 1998 with two three-peats. After watching The Last Dance, an ESPN/Netflix docuseries, viewers got an unseen glimpse into ‘Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.’ The 10-episode docuseries focuses on the road to the final championship for that group in 1997-1998. ESPN interviewed over 100 people who detailed Jordan’s intense Pacesetting leadership style. The docuseries does not shy away from Jordan’s extremely competitive nature causing questions on his harsh leadership among Bulls’ teammates. 

Michael Jordan clutching a NBA Finals Trophy showing that his leadership produced results as written in sports leadership books.
Michael Jordan after winning his first NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls in 1991. Credit: Getty

How does competitiveness shape a leadership experience?

Michael Jordan’s long-time agent, David Falk, has crafted the Jordan image to what we know today. Falk is considered the most influential agent the NBA has seen, helping popularize the NBA with over 100 of his clients. Immersed in the sporting world, Falk said in FalkTalk: Behind The Dance hosted by Twenty3 Sport + Entertainment group, “In my life, I have met a lot of very competitive people. I have never met anyone as competitive as Michael. In everything he does.” As demonstrated in the docuseries, Jordan created fake or fabricated stories in his head to fire himself up to not just beat, but destroy his competition. Falk calls this the “terminator gene.”

“He doesn’t just want to beat you, he wants to destroy you. When you put him on the court, he will go after you and that’s why he won.” 

David Falk, Michael Jordan’s agent

As a leader whose ability was above and beyond his teammates, Jordan’s fiery nature on the court was meant to inspire tunnel vision for his team. In Jordan’s mind, there was one road to winning championships. In FalkTalk, Falk remarked that “some of the guys on the team wouldn’t have even been in the league because they weren’t that talented but Michael got on them and supported them.” He says the Bulls were a good team, but “single-handedly with Pippen’s help, [Jordan] lifted them. Six out of six.” All six championships were won with three notable names, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and legendary coach Phil Jackson. 

This leadership style is described as Pacesetting. 

The Pacesetting leadership style is all about high standards and motivating everyone in the team to reach those standards. The Pacesetting leader can achieve great results but must have a competent and motivated team, otherwise, they may lose the trust of their team as their standards can’t be consistently met. Falk explained that Jordan recognized that to win a championship, the bottom of the roster players needed to be on board and he found it his job to bring the rest of the team to his level of competitiveness. Falk who spent time around that Chicago Bulls dynasty says “that’s what it took with the collection of personalities to win.” In The Last Dance, Jordan admits he was tough on his teammates, but that he didn’t ask them to do anything that he wouldn’t have done himself. Pacesetting should be used only when you know you have teammates who can keep up.

To learn more about the Pacesetting leadership style, check out our Igniting the Leaders of Tomorrow course.

If we dissect Jordan’s leadership skills, he had a powerful way of bringing the team up to his intensity level. And if his teammates didn’t match his energy, as Jordan said in the documentary, they should just get out of his gym. It’s blatantly obvious that Jordan had extremely high expectations of his teammates. With his single-minded focus towards winning a championship, he set a precedent that this is how hard you work if you want to win championships. One explanation for this brash leadership style leading to rings is that Jordan knew his audience: the most elite basketball players in the world. In the NBA, finals appearances and championships required blood, sweat and tears. Jordan’s world was a high-intensity environment with everyone working towards one goal: Winning the NBA Finals. Endowed professor of sport management at the David. B Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University, international author, and Leaders of Evolution advisory team member, Rick Burton said the Bulls were a unique melting pot of leadership. 

“Michael Jordan required a complete commitment to excellence from his teammates but other contributing factors like Phil Jackson’s coaching style and important players like Bill Cartwright and Steve Kerr played crucial roles in how all of the pieces fit together for the Bulls. One takeaway must exist: You can’t win six championships in eight years without leadership that worked for the members involved.”

Rick Burton, Author & International Rick Burton, author and sport management professor

Breaking down Jordan’s captaincy

How does Jordan’s leadership style translate to his captain abilities? Sam Walker, the author of The Captain Class, has researched and studied ‘the most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it.” And he refutes the notion that Jordan is an elite captain.

The Captain Class: A new theory of leadership, a sports leadership books written by Sam Walker.

Walker’s first time he stepped into the ‘private sanctum’ of a professional locker room at age twenty-five, happened to be Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Walker has carefully noted how elite athletes spoke to one another, noted their mannerisms, watched their body language and observed pregame rituals. He researched to find out why teams could find greatness, what spark caused this.

Walker said the on the surface, Jordan’s leadership record seems impressive, “He was tough, focused, and dogged on the court, playing and practising with relentless intensity.” But Walker explained that MJ doesn’t match his idealistic captain. “He was a relentless competitor. But Jordan led mostly by needling and belittling his teammates, who lived in perpetual fear of his famously sharp tongue. When Jordan lost confidence in a player, he would lobby the management to get rid of him.” Walker said Jordan rarely laboured for the betterment of his team, but only for himself. “He ran the Bulls’ offence as he wished, the exclusion for his supporting cast, and judged everything the Chicago Bulls organisation did by how much it helped him.” Walker shows how the Pacesetting leader can be draining to some team members. Just as the name describes, the Pacesetting leader expects everyone to keep up and match their level of intensity. While the Pacesetting leader is extremely driven, it can have its toll on some team members if there isn’t a balance.

That balance was Bill Cartwright according to Walker. His research and theory held Cartwright as the ultimate captain of the Bulls.

“The Bulls hadn’t been able to take their turn until Bill Cartwright joined Jordan in captaincy.”

Sam Walker, author of Captain Class

Cartwright told Walker, “It was about stability. I’m the guy who was always there early for practice, never late, stayed after, talked to guys, and took care of myself. It was more about the example for the young guys.” Cartwright put the work in and provided practical communication. He was, in short, the kind of Captain Class presence the team hadn’t had with Jordan alone. After winning his first NBA title Jordan finally acknowledged Cartwright’s contributions, saying “Bill made the difference.”

Walker wrote Jordan deserves to be celebrated for his athletic ability and will to win. However, Walker made it clear in The Captain Class that Jordan’s Pacesetting leadership style may have resulted in championships, but the notable balance of Bill Cartwright allowed to the team to be able to keep up with Jordan.

To learn more about the Pacesetting leadership style and other styles, take our course Igniting the Leaders of Tomorrow.

student leadership, athlete development, Learning Management System

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Emma Henzes

Enjoys telling stories through digital media and loves to travel trying the local food. While she is out of her athletic prime, Emma still loves to stay in shape and watch live sporting events with her family and friends. If you can’t find her at her laptop working for Leaders of Evolution, she’s probably at the beach.

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