I don’t think talent has very much with anyone’s ability to lead. I’m a firm believer that leadership is a skill, not a rank. But within the traditional model of leadership, talent certainly gives you the credibility to lead, a mistake we make all too often.
I’ve always felt that when a bad player speaks up and says something with an edge we call it an attitude problem, but when a talented player does the same thing we call it leadership. We have to be careful with how much freedom we give our most talented players to “lead” because we can lose credibility as a coach.
I’ve made the mistake plenty of times as a head coach, where I’ve reacted poorly to something a bad player says or does, and I realize I probably wouldn’t have reacted the same way if one of my better players did the same thing. We tend to give our more talented players the benefit of the doubt. We say that they are trying to lead, they really want to win, or we call it competitiveness. We immediately go to their positive attributes and use them to rationalize whatever behavior they are displaying. It’s a mistake, and one that can hurt your team in two ways – by allowing bad behavior from one of your players, and by suppressing any leadership you might get out of some of your other players.
I’ve thought about this a lot in response to everybody’s thoughts about Michael Jordan in “The Last Dance.” It’s interesting to see everyone taking the best of what Michael put out there and using it as evidence of his “leadership style.” The narrative comes across like this is how we should all lead.
The most important element of MJ’s leadership style was his talent. Being the best player in the league and arguably the greatest to ever play provided him with a lot of cover to do or say whatever he wanted. Most “leaders” don’t have that luxury. It’s not as if Michael had a leadership approach that was nuanced or developed. He was the best player by far, and a ridiculous competitor, and what he said and did is really all that mattered. That allowed him to get away with whatever he did that really wasn’t acceptable, simply because he was Michael. Very few of us have that luxury.
What other leader would get away with any of that behavior? He was relentless in the way he made fun of the General Manger, and he did it in front of the team. He hammered his role playing teammates in practice. He punched one of them in the face (was it Will Perdue, I though it was Steve Kerr? Or was it both?). He clearly was a prick whenever he wanted to be, or when he didn’t get his way. Would we accept that type of behavior out of all our leaders? We accepted it from MJ – as a matter of fact it seems like we praise it – because of his talent.
This isn’t to take anything away from MJ’s ability or accomplishments. I’ve said he’s likely the greatest competitor I have ever seen, and honestly I have no problems with some edgy behavior that takes place amidst the intensity of competition. I have a ton of respect for how much Michael cared about winning, and his relentless approach to competing. He also got a ton out of his teammates and clearly was the driving force behind their six titles. However, I’m not sure we we should be celebrating his leadership approach without taking into account his elite talent, and the amount of credibility that bought him. He could do and say things that most of us never could, with any repercussions.
Being extremely talented doesn’t make you a great leader. But it can help give you the credibility you need to lead, something I think we need to get over. I think MJ made his team and his teammates a lot better, the ultimate sign to me of a great leader.
But whether or not you feel Michael Jordan was a great leader, we can’t overlook the fact that his talent had a great impact on his ability to lead. His “style” had a lot to do with being the best player.