Michael Jordan’s amazing — and disturbing — motivation

michael-jordan-yellingSports can often serve as a useful analogy for entrepreneurship. Both are high risk, high return fields where you can win, but losing is always a possibility, as well. Your success or failure is going to be played out in front of a curious public. Building a good team and a system is critical for long term excellence. And while lessons must be learned from failure, your memory must be sufficiently short term so that recent screw-up or strike out doesn’t erode your confidence.

Speaking of confidence, earlier this month one of the fiercest competitors in the history of professional sports, Michael Jordan, gave the world a glimpse into the mindset behind his sustained excellence. During his 20-minute hall of fame induction speech, Jordan inadvertently pulled back the curtain and showed us what powered his will to succeed. I think it’s insightful—and it wasn’t without controversy.

According to a vast number of sports pundits—including Adrian Wojnarowski from Yahoo Sports, Rick Reilly from ESPN, and Terence Moore of Fanhouse—Jordan shot an air ball. Wojnarowski takes him to task: “This wasn’t a Hall of Fame induction speech, but a bully tripping nerds with lunch trays in the school cafeteria… Jordan wandered through an unfocused and uninspired speech at Symphony Hall, disparaging people who had little to do with his career, like Jeff Van Gundy and Bryon Russell. He ignored people who had so much to do with it, like his personal trainer, Tim Grover.”

Ouch. I don’t think Jordan’s speech came across as quite that mean-spirited, but something about it is definitely odd, even unsettling. As an NBA fan, it definitely wasn’t the speech I wanted to hear. Jordan would’ve appeared more gracious if he had spent time talking about competitors he enjoyed playing against, or the friendships he formed, or the people who taught him something along the way. (Even his praise of Dean Smith and Tex Winter referenced episodes where they doubted him and he showed them up.) That’s the speech that we all would’ve liked, but Jordan didn’t oblige, and as a result we get some interesting insight into what makes him tick.

In Jordan’s world slights loom large, grudges need to be settled, competitors need to be not just beaten but humiliated. This was the sense I began to get around 6:40 into the speech, when he references Leroy Smith and “dots on my board” that served to motivate him. Evidently, Jordan kept a large board, and it had a lot of dots. Whether it was the media, which initially said he wasn’t as good as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who gets lambasted at 11:50 into the speech, Jordan felt it necessary to remind us of all of the naysayers and doubters he encountered over the years, how they served to motivate him, and how he had the last laugh.

These old slights and everlasting grudges seem to be how Jordan mustered the motivation he needed to strive for excellence. No doubt Jordan’s failures (losing to the Pistons in the late ’80s, the White Sox debacle, the playoff loss to the Orlando Magic in ’95) served as motivators for him, too, but he didn’t mention them here. Maybe he didn’t want to highlight any of his career disappointments on such a public stage? If so, that would be odd, since his reputation is pretty much bullet proof. No one remembers his failures (e.g. running the Wizards) because they are dwarfed by his massive legacy of success (6 championships and 5 MVP awards).

Jordan resembles Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. Achilles was a legend in his own lifetime, driven by his legacy. He was the ultimate warrior, obsessed with slights. All his contemporaries acknowledged that he was greater than the man in charge, Agamemnon (or Reinsdorf, in Jordan’s case), but he still needed reaffirmation of that fact. For Achilles, killing Hector with two armies watching wasn’t enough; he had to drag his body around behind his chariot. So maybe it’s no surprise that Achilles’ modern-day NBA equivalent took an unusual victory lap.

While umbrage from past insults might be the motivating catalyst behind Jordan’s competitive edge, I don’t think that motivation is a one-size-fits-all matter, either in sports or business. The most creative people whom I’ve had a chance to work with seem to be driven by intellectual curiosity and the prospect of financial reward. The Kaufman Foundation’s study, “The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur,” bears out my generalizations; building wealth (75% of respondents) and capitalizing on a business idea (68%) are the top two reasons reported for starting a business.

But that doesn’t mean that ego isn’t a factor. I’d say that there’s a healthy dose of ego for most high entrepreneurs I’ve met over the years, albeit not to the point of narcissism—and certainly not to the extent of creating fictionalized enemies and slights for motivation. But the Kaufman data is self-reported, and it only captures the average. Could it be that the Michael Jordans of entrepreneurship look something like the man who disappointed fans with his hall of fame speech? I hope not.

8 thoughts on “Michael Jordan’s amazing — and disturbing — motivation

  1. Pingback: 6 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Phil Jackson « Eric M. Jackson's Blog

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