“When you see the footage of [me riding with Scott Burrell], you’re going to think that I’m a horrible guy.” Even the great Michael Jordan was nervous before “The Last Dance” aired, knowing we will see behind-the-scenes footage of him expecting excellence from his teammates. We live in a world where people’s feelings are (too) accounted for, and MJ knew what was normal in the 90s is often considered bullying and unacceptable in the 10s/20s.
“But you have to realize that the reason why I was treating him like that is because I needed him to be tough in the playoffs, and we’re facing the Indiana’s and Miami’s and New York’s in the Eastern Conference. He needed to be tough, and I needed to know that I could count on him. And those are the kind of things where people see me acting the way I acted in practice; they’re not going to understand it.”Michael Jordan, The Athletic
Your mileage may vary on Jordan’s leadership style, but the results are undeniable. The question is – can such results be achieved with a different style of leadership? The answer is – yes. We can talk theory all we want, but there’s a guy who can speak on the topic with authority. Robert Parish won playing on teams with two very different styles of leadership. Parish will always be remembered as a Celtic, winning multiple titles with Bird and McHale. What most people forget is that in his final NBA season, The Chief joined the Bulls. There, he famously let Michael Jordan know he won’t be getting the Scott Burell treatment.
“I told him, ‘I’m not as enamored with you as these other guys. I’ve got some rings too,’ At that point, he told me, ‘I’m going to kick your ass.’ I took one step closer and said, ‘No, you really aren’t.’ After that, he didn’t bother me.”Robert Parish, ESPN
But that doesn’t mean Parish had a problem with Jordan’s style; he respected it. The logic behind it makes sense. If you can’t take Jordan’s challenge and pressure in practice, how are you going to perform in a Game 7 in a packed MSG against Starks and Ewing? That being said, if he had to pick, there was no doubt who Parish thinks was the better leader.
“Everybody got their own style and the way they lead. Michael was in your face, he challenged his teammates. Larry was our leader (with the Celtics), and he led by example. You know, he wasn’t a vocal leader, he let his play dictate how we should play. I think Larry’s style and philosophy makes the best leaders because if you are a yeller and a screamer, after a while, your voice fall on deaf ears, and players just kinda tune you out, don’t hear what you got to say. I respect both leadership styles, but I prefer Larry’s style the best. Cause you know, some nights you don’t want to hear what he got to say, speaking of Michael.”Robert Parish, NBC Sports
The truth is probably, like always, in the middle. The Bulls did have a lot of fluctuation on their roster, possibly because MJ would burn people out. Still, it comes down to assessing who responds to which kind of motivation. Some guys need a pat on the back and a Bird-like leader who leads by example. Others react to guys like MJ, who will generate conflict to fuel their performance.
Both leadership styles have one thing in common. You can’t demand of others what you don’t do yourself. Jordan and Bird both had higher expectations of themselves than others, and that’s why they had the respect of their locker rooms. That’s a lesson a lot of “leaders” in today’s NBA are still grappling with.