Why Michael Jordan would be a better Manager than Kobe Bryant

I love applying sporting analogies to business, and there is much that managers and leaders can learn from sport. There are many distinct parallels between business and competitive sport and it really doesn’t matter what type of sport you choose to take your lessons from.

I can’t think of a sport where it is not possible to observe leadership in real time along with examples of exceptional individual and team-based performance. The sporting field is ruthlessly unforgiving and participants are explicitly measured by the contribution they make to the team, or in the case of individual sports, to the final outcome of the match. I know a lot of managers who wish they could replicate that kind of performance culture in their own businesses.

Anyway I could go on and on about the similarities between sport and business, but that’s not the title of this article. I grew up watching NBA basketball and for me, the greatest player I ever saw play the game was Michael Jordan. However soon after Kobe Bryant debuted for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996 it became apparent that there was a new player in the league with the raw skill to potentially match Jordan. The question on Bryant then became one of longevity and his ability to win championships with the Lakers. The inevitable comparisons between Jordan and Bryant have continued ever since and fans are still divided on who is the greatest player of all time. Notwithstanding that Kobe is still playing, let’s consider some of the numbers around their professional basketball careers (Bryant has surpassed Jordan in the number of games played).

  • Jordan shot 49.7% from the field while Bryant has shot 45.3%
  • Jordan has led the league in scoring 10 times while Bryant has led the league twice
  • Jordan has 6 championships and Bryant has 5
  • Jordan won the regular season MVP five times and Bryant once
  • Jordan won six finals MVP and Bryant has won that title twice
  • Jordan also has Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year titles, while Bryant has neither
  • Bryant has more assists overall than Jordan but has played two more seasons

To be fair, it should be noted that Bryant did play alongside Shaquille O’Neal who was the primary scorer in the Lakers at the time. Bryant has also taken more 3 point shots than Jordan in his career, arguably impacting his overall game stats.

From the numbers alone it would seem that Jordan has the edge, and he does, but that’s not what I loved about his game and where I see the main difference between him and Bryant. Jordan was the better leader. He played in teams that at times, had no right to be in the play-offs. Jordan, whilst incredibly talented in his own way, had the ability to bring others with him. He knew that he could not always win a game off his mid-range jump shot and had to look to lesser players like Toni Kukoc, Scottie Pippen, Luc Longley, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr to ensure victory. These guys wanted to follow Michael and would have done anything for him just to contribute to the team effort. He knew the respective strengths and weaknesses of his teammates, involved them in the game, and made them better players as a result. He rewarded effort and contribution, and provided critical feedback when required. Leadership personified.

No game demonstrated Jordan’s ability to make heroes of others more than Game 6 of the 1997 NBA finals. The Bulls needed to overcome the Utah Jazz in order to take their fifth championship. With seconds remaining in the game, everyone expected Jordan to take the final shot of the game – after all he had 39 points already. During the final time-out Jordan leaned over and told Steve Kerr he would give him the ball and needed Steve to make the shot. Michael said, “this is your chance”. Kerr assured Michael he could make the shot.   Of course Michael passed to Kerr and he made the shot with 4 seconds left in the game taking the Bulls to another championship. Kerr recalled that moment and said of Jordan “he’s so good that he draws so much attention. And his excellence gave me the chance to hit the game-winning shot in the NBA Finals. What a thrill. I owe him everything.”

Not taking anything away from Kobe Bryant – he is an extraordinary player. Probably more talented than Jordan and certainly more of a pure shooter. He deserves all of the accolades that come with being one the best players in the NBA, but he is not the leader that Michael was. Championship coach Phil Jackson who coached both players, made a direct comparison between the two:

 One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael’s superior skills as a leader,” Jackson said. “Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he’d yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had.”

So what are the lessons here? I think they are pretty simple. Whilst many leaders will be able to win the game themselves, the best leaders will empower others to be part of the team’s success. They understand that leadership comes with great responsibility and without others, success is meaningless. If you need a reminder, watch the last 10 seconds of Game 6.

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