From The Last Dance to The New Dawn

Parallels between great teams in sport and business by Keith Gordon:

It’s a big week this week.  Not only do the final two episodes of The Last Dance – the story of Michael Jordan’s all conquering Chicago Bulls of the 1990’s – air on Netflix, it is also the week that many people in Australia start to return to the workplace following an extended period of working from home as a result of COVID-19.  Such has been the impact of COVID-19, that those returning are the lucky ones – many others do not have jobs to return to.

What to make of The Last Dance?  I have loved every minute of it and have been captivated by the talent, tenacity and sheer will to win of Jordan.  I was so intrigued that over the last week I have read Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby.  The 700 pages of The Life gave great insight into what shaped the young Jordan; the enormous impact he had on sport and popular culture; and the characters he shared his basketball and business journey with.  Some of those characters he adored, others he despised.  There were no half measures with Michael Jordan.

Perhaps one of the keys to the championship success that the Bulls had across the 1990’s was the introduction of the ‘Triangle Offense’, a system developed by veteran assistant coach Tex Winter.  Winter had been unable to get traction with the Triangle with the previous head-coach but it was embraced by newly appointed head-coach Phil Jackson who would ultimately lead the Bulls to six championships.  In addition to the Triangle Offense which organised the players on the court, the other differentiator was Jackson’s deep understanding of the psyche of each member of the team which allowed him to tailor his leadership to ensure that everyone bought in and gave their best.

The Triangle Offense essentially required the most highly skilled players to share the ball with the less skilled players.  It transformed the Bulls from a team totally reliant on Jordan’s brilliance every night to one that leveraged that brilliance to also get the best out of others – the results speak for themselves and many consider the Bulls of that era to be the greatest basketball team of all time.

Back to the other big event this week – return to work for many people.  I have a sense that for many workplaces, the post COVID world will be a New Dawn in the way we work.  My question for leaders is have you been working on your Triangle Offense?

One of the consistent comments I have heard from senior leaders over the last few months is that they have been amazed at how their people have ‘stepped up’ during the COVID crisis.  People across organisations have taken on responsibility, been innovative, and performed at levels not seen before.  Why is this? Part of it may be that people are responding to adversity.  But a big part is likely to be that the shackles have been released and they are now doing what they have always been capable of.  In other words, they have been working in a system in recent times that has allowed them to be their best selves.

Leaders have a responsibility to create the environment that will allow all of their people to flourish.  Just as Jackson and Winter introduced the Triangle Offense to bring other players into the game, business leaders can create the system that allows those who have shone during COVID to continue to do so.  Some aspects of work that clients report have been working well during COVID include:

  • A heightened focus on clarity and prioritisation – it has been necessary to be very considered about communication to give employees clarity on the direction of the business and what’s really important;
  • Less bureaucracy and more empowerment – many clients have been making decisions faster and removing the need to refer everything to senior management; and
  • Connection – perhaps counter-intuitively, in many cases working remotely has brought people closer, or at least helped them understand the importance of really knowing their team members as people.

If these three things resonate with you as a leader, what are you going to do to ensure they are embedded as people return to work – how will you incorporate them into your new way of working – your version of the Triangle Offense?

We can choose our destiny coming out of COVID.  We can seek the comfort of the way things were and look to return to what we know or we can optimistically embrace a New Dawn – new ways of working which capture the value that everyone in the team has to offer and ensure that your team becomes the best team it can be.

Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketballer of all time.  But he was only one member of the greatest team of all time.  That team had a coach in Jackson that understood how to get the best out of everyone.  That is the opportunity that COVID has given to business leaders.  Don’t waste it.