What "The Last Dance" Teaches Us About Leadership in the World of Elite Sport

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Applying this to the masses, many athletes would not find themselves in an environment like Jordan’s, where controversial leadership tendencies are condoned.”

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Netflix’s ‘The Last Dance’ has captivated audiences around the world. It tells the story of the 1990s Chicago Bulls, commonly referred to as one of the best teams in sporting history after winning six NBA Championships in an eight-year period.

The team was led by Michael Jordan, arguably the most influential sports star of all time. While his excellence as a player is undeniable, what is less clear, and something being hotly debated by sport psychologists is whether his leadership style is optimal. Throughout the documentary, it becomes apparent that Jordan was feared by his teammates, that he threatened them, got into physical altercations on occasion, and was branded a ‘jerk’ and ‘asshole’. He proclaimed that he had earned the right to push players in the ways that he wanted to, and that if players did not want to follow this, that he was going to put them through hell. 

Sport psychologists understand that elite performance requires teams to make major sacrifices, exhibit extreme discipline, and oftentimes experience challenges and disappointment in order to experience growth. However, when does a team leader go too far?

Some may argue that the harsh reality of achieving elite performance is that anything goes, and you must push at all costs for success. They may also claim that the Bulls’ results speak for themselves. However, this is a hypothetical debate, and we will never know if you kept Jordan’s work ethic, discipline and drive to succeed, but eliminated his bullying and tyrannical tendencies, whether the Bulls would have been as successful. 

Nonetheless, we can look to other examples of teams famous for their sustained success, and see that their leadership and locker room culture was unlike the 1990s Bulls. FC Barcelona, a club that has been studied by coaches and psychologists, which has a rich history of sustained performance levels and high expectations, illustrates an alternative form of leadership and culture. As record-signing, Zlatan Ibrahimovic found out in 2009, the club is committed to a culture that values team unity, combined sacrifice and commitment to their vision. With global superstar Lionel Messi, and numerous other international stars, Ibrahimovic was shocked to see the sacrifices individuals made for the team. Was Messi a leader? Absolutely. But, he employed influence through his actions, and set an example of how to be successful without relying on threatening, imposing fear and bullying his teammates.

The world of professional sport is a moneymaking business, and as a result, a huge priority is placed on winning. This can lead to environments which allow controversial characteristics and egos to shape team culture. The 1990s Bulls were a team desperate to win, and with a fractured relationship between the locker room and front office. As Jordan’s profile grew through leading the Bulls to impressive on-court results, the Bulls were willing to allow his personality to shape the culture of the team, despite his controversial tactics. However, as can be seen from FC Barcelona, this doesn’t have to happen. It isn’t a precursor to success. 

Applying this to the masses, many athletes would not find themselves in an environment like Jordan’s, where controversial leadership tendencies are condoned. Instead, bullying and threatening teammates would likely jeopardize their ability to progress in sport by affecting their relationships with teammates and coaches. Beyond this, the negative repercussions that can come from leaders who exhibit these types of behaviour can have impacts on both performance levels and mental health. In ‘The Last Dance’, we do not see these potential repercussions because they are masked by the images of the six championships. 

Today, one of the main responsibilities of sport psychologists is to manage the intense requirements of elite performance with one’s mental health. This responsibility is nicely illustrated by the views of John Amaechi, a former NBA player and current psychologist: “yes, there is a fee to be paid for greatness, but that fee does not have to include the trauma of everyone who accompanies you on that journey.” 

From a sport psychology perspective, Jordan’s mindset and leadership skills should not be rejected entirely. He exhibited numerous traits that are essential to elite performance, and is an icon of sporting success. However, in its totality, his leadership style included aspects which are not pre-requisites to achieving success. As a result, we should recognize that despite the Bulls storied success, Jordan’s form of leadership is not necessarily something that would work or be encouraged in today’s sporting world. 

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