Michael Jordan on Management
I’ve never been what you would call a rabid fan of any particular sport or team, but I was a great fan of the Chicago Bulls basketball team during the Michael Jordan era.
The fact that I’ve drifted away since those halcyon days demonstrates, I suppose, that I’m a fair weather sports fan rather than a perennially loyal, diehard one.
It may also say something about people from Chicago, and our puzzling long-term deficit of championship-winning professional sports teams.
The Michael Jordan era in NBA basketball overlapped with the accelerating globalization of information, including sports coverage. In earlier times, if you lived overseas, it was impossible to get real-time information and images on your home town sports teams. The NBA was the first professional league in the U.S. to get serious about the “export” market, including making broadcast rights more widely available around the world.
In any case, one of the remarkable things about watching Michael Jordan play basketball, and the Bulls in that era generally, was that you didn’t need to be a basketball fan to appreciate or enjoy watching it. Being a fan gave you extra insights and dividends, but was not a requirement for entry into the fun and the spectacle. Jordan was the most spectacular performer of the group much of the time, but it was a team of extraordinary athletes who not only excelled individually but because of incredible teamwork.
Team sports, of both the amateur and professional variety, inspire and excite an amazing number of individual followers around the globe, and they have developed into a huge global business. Some, like NBA basketball, World Cup Soccer, and the IRB Rugby Sevens, have legions of followers in dozens of countries.
Most sports, however, are local or at best regional, popular in countries and places with common historical or political ties. Cricket is wildly popular in England, South Asia and Commonwealth countries, for example. Baseball is very popular in North and Central America, Japan and Taiwan. But neither inspire large groups of fans outside these areas, partly because they require a higher level of knowledge of the sport as an entry ticket to the enjoyment of watching it, and at the best of times they are not as exciting and dynamic to watch as great basketball, football, or rugby.
As the global sports market has grown in the past 10 years, so has the taint of scandal involving banned substances and other abuses. When the stakes are higher, the temptations are greater, and the bad guys are hovering around the edges looking for opportunities.
That’s another reason why I have fond memories of Michael Jordan and the good old Chicago Bulls. He was genuinely a nice guy, someone young people could look up to as a role model. There was a refreshing humility about his image.
Speaking of deficits, it seems professional sports is lacking in great sustainable role models nowadays, although Yao Ming comes to mind as an exception to this — a very positive role model.
But I digress. My real point in mentioning Michael Jordan is to mention the day he taught me a management lesson without realizing it. Of course he couldn’t have known. He was in Cleveland, where the Bulls were playing the Cavs in a hotly contested semifinals game; and I was in Singapore, participating in a telecommunications expo and conference. I was pretty busy, but he was a whole lot busier than I was when the lesson actually took place.
My head was full of a common concern facing entrepreneurs on the way up: cash flow issues. The economy had taken a serious wrong turn, our company’s revenues had plunged, operating capital was extremely tight, and failure to come up with a solution soon might have had fatal consequences for the business. Meanwhile, as the boss, I found myself torn in too many directions at once and debating how best to prioritize my time and energy. This was arguably the biggest crisis I’d faced as an entrepreneur.
As I walked from one end of the exhibition hall to the other, I saw that one of the telecom company exhibits had a whole wall of TV monitors, and that they were broadcasting the Bulls-Cavaliers semifinals game live. I stopped to watch.
The game was in the final few minutes. The Bulls were down by something like 9 points — not an impossible deficit to overcome in the time remaining but a very, very challenging high-odds situation. In the ensuing frenetic back and forth, the Bulls narrowed the margin to 2 points, but with only three seconds remaining on the clock.
It looked like a Cleveland victory after all.
Following their final time out, it was the Bulls’ ball, at half court. All eyes, and virtually all five Cleveland players, were glued on Michael Jordan. The pass came to Jordan, who was between half court and the three-point perimeter, surrounded by Cavaliers.
With one second remaining on the clock, Jordan launched an off-balance rocket from nowhere, bagging the three-pointer and winning the game. Bulls basketball at its best.
As I walked back toward our exhibit, a light bulb went off in my head regarding the question I’d been wrestling with on how best to set my own priorities in solving our business crisis. Suddenly it seemed very simple. What we needed was a late-in-the-game three point play, and the ball was in my hands.
Apart from other bits and pieces, we’d recently submitted proposals and price quotes for two major projects. Winning either of them would yield enough revenue to get us through the immediate cash flow crisis, so I decided to focus almost exclusively on getting at least one of these projects.
And fortunately, we did.