Leadership in the The Last Dance

“Phil, [Jackson]  you let this dude [Dennis Rodman] go on vacation, we not gonna see him. You let him go to Vegas! we definitely not gonna see him. 

Michael Jordon – Chicago Bulls

“When you see your leader working extremely hard in practice, you feel like, “Man, if I don’t give it my all, I shouldn’t be here.” 

Horace Grant – Chicago Bulls

Like coke addicts on spring break in Colombia, Lockdown 2020 has provided many challenges to prolific procrastinators like me. Few things have the power to cause a spiral into a time wasting vortex like the warm glow of the devil box. I have succumbed to its enticing embrace more often than I would like to admit, and few programs during this time have gripped me like the docuseries The Last Dance.  I entered this dance to watch the greatest team to ever play the game of basketball. The leader of that team is not only the greatest basketball player of all time but is a cultural icon. What I wasn’t expecting was a personal flashback to the 90’s. It was the 1990’s when I managed to squeeze a full four years of University into seven, I crisscrossed the country in my Jeep with my sidekick Tess chasing whitewater, and found my fashion sense, Carhartt and flannel. It’s finally coming back around.

Along with the trip down memory lane, I didn’t expect The Last Dance to be a masterclass in the contrasting leadership styles of Michael Jordan, the GOAT, and Phil Jackson, arguably the greatest coach of a generation.

Michael Jordan knew what he was about, what his goal was, and he was willing to sacrifice just about anything in order to achieve that goal; become the best, and win the most.  You wouldn’t out work him, and Jordan expected from his teammates what he expected out of himself, everything.  He also treated everyone the same, rode them hard and pushed them with crippling intensity.  If you survive a practice on a given Wednesday then you will survive the toughest of opponents on the biggest stage. Some rose to the challenge, while for others his style pushed them away. Those that thrived under his leadership dominated the game like no other team.

Phil Jackson wasn’t the greatest basketball talent during his basketball career, however as a coach he was able to draw the best out of his players including harnessing the biggest egos on the planet. Phil also knew what he was about, and knew his role, to win championships. The role of an NBA coach isn’t the personal development of young men, that role is much more for high school and college coaches. Phil didn’t coach all of his players the same, to get the best out of his team, some he encouraged,  others he challenged, and at a critical part of one particular season, one player just needed 72 hours in Vegas….  

Two very different leaders achieving greatness in two very different ways. Two leadership styles you would think should clash, harmonised to create a dynasty that may never be matched.

What kind of leader are you?  What kind of leadership do you respond to? Do you know your role?

Even the greatest players need a great coach. Who is coaching you?

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river

“Do something, anything, even if it’s wrong” – Pete

For the most part, whitewater rafting is a relatively safe and exhilarating activity. After all you can’t drown instantly… right? However, when things do go wrong, they get worse fast. On the rare occasions when things didn’t go as planned, let’s say the river is running at flood stage, and you have a full boat of exciting guests and when they ask you how long you have been a professional guide, when you say “six more days makes a whole week”, you are not lying to them. Hypothetically…let’s say in the middle of the biggest rapid on the river the raft seems to explode after hitting a monster hydraulic and is now upside down with everyone bobbing up and down in class IV+ whitewater… hypothetically. Some raft guides could have a tendency to freeze, you might call it “analysis paralysis.”  After climbing onto an upside down raft, eyes wide open, and mouth slightly gaped, a rookie guide from Arkansas might seem to slide back down the evolutionary chart a few notches. Motionless atop the raft just staring at the bright blue helmets bobbing in and out of site like a chaotic game of “whack-a-mole”, the situation only getting worse. That’s when, in the back of your mind, you would hear the words shouted at you daily during training,

“Do something, anything, even if it’s wrong.”  

Now, this is not to say factors shouldn’t be calculated, or options weighed. This isn’t a mantra to simply look busy, franticly attempting a half hearted rescue. In a given circumstance it meant every second that went by the situation was getting worse. Inaction compounded the situation, increased the risk of catastrophic result.

To succeed as a quality guide, we quickly learned to process on the fly, take action, make adjustments, and change plans as needed.  That might mean saving yourself first. Wait isn’t that selfish? Well, there is a reason your airline safety briefing tells you to put your oxygen mask on first.  A raft, an aeroplane, a business, it does the guest, costumer, or employee no good if the leader is out of commision. Putting yourself in a better position enables you to help others rather than being part of the problem.

Often, the root of “analysis paralysis” is a fear. The Kennebec river at flood stage, choking on the freezing water, literally up the river without your paddle it is easy to recognise where the fear might come from, however in the rest of life it might be the fear of a wrong decision, fear it’s not what a peer would do, or fear of failure. On the river, failure to act could lead to someone getting hurt or worse. As leaders we should be able to assess, act, and adjust to the changing circumstances at appropriate time scales. Experiencing fear is normal, but good leaders are able to remain calm and level headed and move forward in the face of fear. And when we experience failure it doesn’t define us as leaders, but becomes an opportunity to learn, adjust, and get better. 

If like me 2020 has not gone to plan for you, now is time to act, embrace the fact things are not going back to the way they were, seize the opportunity, start moving forward, and making course corrections on the way. “Do something… anything… even if it’s wrong.”

As a leader what is your greatest fear?  Hint: It’s not spiders.

What is the first step to overcome?

A good moan…

“have a moan…it’s good to get it off your chest”

– everyone

There is a misconception, that it is healthy to complain, whine, or just have a moan.

It’s a lie.

Groaning and moaning doesn’t breed joy.  Think about the happiest, most joy-filled person you know. How often do they complain? Or do they use their words to encourage, compliment, lift up, or highlight the positive side of life. Our hearts “leak” and if our focus is on what is wrong around us we “leak” negative. Retune your eyes and hearts to what is good.  There are plenty of negatives being brought to our attention in the world. Let’s change the channel.

What are you most grateful for today?

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned from the river.

“What the hella ya doin?” 

Pete Dostie, Owner, North American Whitewater

For eight years I guided whitewater rafts down some of the best whitewater rivers in the United States.  Few things go from fun to frightening or calm to chaos faster than a Class V whitewater trip. And if you worked for a rafting company, then you worked for a crazy person. My crazy person was Pete, and I loved him to bits.

From the first day of training to the last day as a seasoned guide, Pete hollered at me. “What the hella ya doin” in his East Haven Connecticut Accent.

Its meaning could be one of affectionate greeting or profound disappointment.  All depending on the tone, which sounded exactly the same.  However, on the river, it generally meant one of three things.

“What the hella ya doin” = Are your decisions and actions deliberate and with purpose?

Guiding whitewater, the difference between “best day ever” and “In the North Maine woods, all accidents are fatal” is the product of thousands of decisions made amid infinite factors, while sometimes clouded by bad decisions from the night before, all shooting for one outcome, “good times had by all.”   Every decision made had to have purpose and intentionality.  First-year guides tend work crews to death because they are constantly making small unnecessary decisions that take bigger necessary decisions to undo. The old geezers, processed the factors, knew when to make the right moves, and make them at the right time.  Least amount of effort for the maximum impact. This preserved the strength of the crew for when you needed it the most.

Effective leadership involves distilling the right information before making deliberate, purposeful decisions.

“What the hella ya doin” = Are you accountable?

Rookie guides love to blame the crew for a bad run, “couldn’t paddle”, “they’re too weak”, “too young”, “too old”, “too many”, “too heavy” or “they just wouldn’t listen.”  The experienced guides know the crew only goes where you guide them. True for work, churches, marriage and ministry, if there is a problem, it is always a leadership problem.  Any given ‘crew’ is right where the leadership led them. Blaming the crew discourages and costs valuable leadership equity. When things go bad, take extreme ownership of the situation. Humbly and appropriately communicate mistakes and then make better decisions. Likewise, when things are going well, focus the attention and praise back on the team. This will build trust and unity and a willingness to follow even when leaders make mistakes.

What the hella ya doin?” = What did you learn from the outcome?

Having all eight of your guests precariously perched on the tip of the only rock in the widest part of the river, while your raft is slowly being sucked under the surface and wrapped around the very rock to which you cling, the last thing you want to hear coming from the banks is “What the hella ya doin?”  A couple of hours later, back at the base it was followed with “let’s not do that again.” To not do it again is to know how you got there in the first place.  As leaders, we need to be keenly aware of what decisions, rightly or wrongly, that were made that led to mistakes we make, so as not to repeat them. As uncomfortable as outside feedback can be, it is imperative to allow respected voices to speak into our lives and point out our blind spots and help hone our leadership skills.  Feedback, good and bad, is invaluable to making us better leaders.

So amidst the biggest crisis the world has seen in two generations,

“What the hella ya doin?”

Take the First Step…

“The first step to becoming is to will it”
― Mother Teresa

Sometimes the path to overcoming fear, or a self-limiting belief is to just will the first step to happen. Waiting for the inspiration, passion, or “the want to” may never get it done. I have a fear of writing and a limiting belief that I am not a writer.  Even though I have written hundreds of pages of sermons I live in fear.  So in faith, this is my first step…  What is yours?

Welcome to the blog.