Leadership Lessons from “The Last Dance” Documentary: Episode 1: “This will be Phil’s Last Year”

by Joe Sesso on April 22, 2021

In June of 1997, the Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz to claim their fifth NBA title in seven years. They had again proven to be unstoppable. And while Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Coach Phil Jackson all wanted to come back to defend their title the following season, there was one person standing in their way and holding up that opportunity. That person was Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause.

Jerry Krause had been the Bulls General Manager since the mid 1980s and had engineered a great team around star player Michael Jordan. Krause was responsible for hiring Phil Jackson, drafting Scottie Pippen and signing Dennis Rodman as a free agent, among many other moves that helped build the Bulls dynasty. Krause was a savvy but shrewd GM. He often spoke without a filter and some of the things he said made him an unpopular figure in Chicago. His infamous statement, “Organizations win championships,” created much controversy that generated public ridicule from Michael Jordan and others. In addition, Krause was also vilified for the way he treated coach Phil Jackson.

During the 1990s player and coaching salaries skyrocketed. As Phil Jackson’s value as a coach grew, his relationship with Krause soured. Whether this was because of Jackson’s rising salary or not is up for debate. But one thing cannot be debated; Krause wanted Jackson out of Chicago. He even openly courted college coach Tim Floyd as Jackson’s successor, placing even more stress on an already tense situation. The future of the Bulls hung in the balance.

But Michael Jordan was very open about his position: If Phil didn’t come back, he wasn’t coming back.
In the end, Krause conceded and signed Jackson to a one year contract. But it came with a stern message. This was to be Phil Jackson’s last year. Period. Krause told Jackson, “You could go 82-0 this season and it’s still your last year.” The Bulls didn’t go 82-0, but they did win their sixth title in eight years. As promised, Phil Jackson was replaced by Tim Floyd as the new head coach after the season.

Let’s conclude by discussing Jerry Krause’s leadership going into that 1997-98 season. There are two main points I want to address in this post; Krause’s comment, “Organizations win championships,” and his treatment of Phil Jackson.

1. Organizations win championships? While it is true that winning a championship is an organizational effort, from the players on the field to the coaching staff to the front office that makes player personnel decisions, should Jerry Krause as a leader have made that comment? The answer is no. Great leaders accept blame and deflect praise. The players were the ones that the fans had connected with. They were the ones that actually had to play the games in front of millions of people in the stands and on and TV. Krause’s comments were a no-win situation for him. The players were offended and the fans found another reason to dislike him. It only worsened his public image.

Krause did a great job of building the team, and he may have felt a little envious of the players and coaches getting all the attention. Great leaders don’t get envious. They feel pride because they know that if the team wins, they win. Krause only had one person to impress – owner Jerry Reinsdorf – and Reinsdorf was very impressed with him. Reinsdorf knew that Krause was the architectural genius of that team, and that’s all that should have mattered to Krause.

2. “This will be Phil’s last year”: If you want to put unneeded stress on your team and create a toxic environment, tell someone that they could go undefeated and they still wouldn’t be welcome back. This is leadership at its worse. There are three main reasons why a team or company would replace a successful coach or manager. They are listed below, as well as if Phil Jackson met the criteria to be let go.

a. Poor performance: This is probably the most common reason to be dismissed of one’s duties. Prior to the 1997-98 season, Phil Jackson had won five championships in his eight years as coach of the Bulls, and averaged more than 60 wins per season. He had the highest winning percentage in the NBA during this period and had won more championships than any other active coach in the NBA. Poor performance was DEFINITELY NOT a factor.

b. Creates a toxic environment: If a coach or manager creates a workplace environment that is toxic, it is grounds for termination. If the coach or manager perpetuates internal conflict which is affecting team morale or culture, it can damage the team in the long run. But Phil Jackson was extremely popular with the players. His “Zen Master” persona was the stuff of legend, and he consistently got the best from his players. Michael Jordan went so far as to say that if Jackson didn’t return to the Bulls, then he wasn’t returning either. So you can cross this reason off the list as well.

c. Exhibits Behavior on or off the Field that is Detrimental to the Team: If a coach gets arrested or says something offensive against someone or a group, it can damage the reputation of the organization. Phil Jackson didn’t do this either.

In the end, Krause got rid of Jackson because he didn’t like him. As a leader, you might not like everyone you work with, but you have to do what’s best for the team. The players clearly loved playing for Jackson, and the Bulls continued to win championships. What was best for the team in that moment was to retain Jackson. And while Krause eventually gave in and signed him to a one-year contract, the comments that he said to the public in the aftermath of the drama were completely uncalled for. Great leaders don’t take their private grievances public. Jerry Krause was undoubtedly a great General Manager for the Bulls, but he wasn’t a great leader.

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