In the early 90s, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen formed one of the most dynamic duos in NBA history. Their Chicago Bulls teams won 3 straight NBA titles and became the elite standard in the league. Jordan is still regarded by many as the greatest of all time, and Pippen also ranks among the league’s best ever. Together they won 6 championships, adding a second “three-peat” in the later 90s. What took place in between, however, provides a valuable lesson in a critical element of success for any team: COMMITMENT.
When Jordan abruptly retired in 1993, it was widely assumed that Pippen would become the “alpha dog” of the Bulls, and with the other key members of the team in place, they could sustain their run of dominance. For the bulk of the season that was largely true. However, with the score tied late in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a final play was called during a timeout which called for a different player, Toni Kukoc, to take the final shot. Apparently incensed at not being given a chance to win the game himself, Pippen refused to re-enter the game. Kukoc made the shot to secure the Bulls’ first win of the series. But any joy the victory should have brought was dampened by the surprise and dismay of Pippen’s teammates at his behavior in such a crucial situation. From that point on, questions lingered about Pippen’s standing as a leader and a team player. While Chicago managed to stretch the series all the way to a Game 7, the Bulls failed to advance, and their run of titles abruptly ended.
Even when high functioning teams have trust at their foundation, and engage in active, productive conflict, success is not guaranteed. The decisions that are made as to what ideas to implement need the buy-in of all team members to avoid being derailed. The goal of having productive debate: giving everyone their fair chance to make their voice heard, should make commitment easier; however, people are people; egos and personalities still come into play. As the leader of such a team, constant care needs to be taken to ensure that all members understand their roles and how their individual performance contributes to the team.
The larger the team, the more it’s likely that an individual’s ideas and opinions will be passed up at some point in favor of others that seem more likely to succeed in meeting the goal at hand. Every member of the team must be willing to “disagree and commit” for the good of the team.
Phil Jackson, the Bulls coach during Pippen’s tenure, had one focus: winning the game. Maybe he needed to explain his logic more clearly to Pippen, so it seemed like less of a slap in the face? A simple “Scottie, they’re going to expect it to go to you, so we need to switch things up to go through Toni,” might have gotten him on board. Clarity around decisions is essential to promoting buy-in, and it’s the leader’s job to make sure things are clear to the team.
Regardless of what Jackson did or didn’t communicate, if Pippen’s goal was what it should have been in that moment, to win, he needed to buy into the call and support it, whatever his role would be. That’s every team member’s job. Someday your number will be called and at that moment, you’ll want to know that your teammates are all-in with you, just like you were with them.
This is the third part in my series on Team Dynamics. You can read about Trust and Conflict in my prior posts.