What People Teach Us: Michael Jordan – Never Judge Leadership By Its Cover

Leadership Lesson: Much like the message in the adage Don’t judge a book by its cover, it’s important to never take a scene – or relationship – at face value when it comes to leadership presence and effectiveness, because everyone has their own ideas of what a relationship is supposed to look like.

Recently, during an NBA game between the Charlotte Hornets and the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte’s shooting guard, Malik Monk, was hit with a technical foul for prematurely celebrating by running onto the court. Watching this play out from the stands was the team’s owner. He wasn’t too pleased. He showed his frustration. And he also happened to be legendary NBA player Michael Jordan, one of the greatest to play in the history of the game.

Jordan was visibly miffed at his player’s infraction. The camera captures the scene as Jordan is seen calling Monk over, admonishing him for drawing the technical foul.

As Monk turns in place to face the court, raising his hands to plead the case for his transgression, Jordan cements his frustration by trying to slap the back of Monk’s head. His first attempt misses its mark, but Monk seemingly feels the graze of the swing and ducks further, head level with shoulders now.

Monk then gets closer to Jordan and again repeats his gestures toward the court to restate his case, having sensed his boss’s real frustration. At this point, Jordan is finally able to find his mark with the second slap.

After all of this, Monk approaches Jordan, they whisper to each other and share a smile and a chuckle.

This article, though, casts the scene in a much darker light, rebuking Jordan’s behavior as an act of rage and physical violence, with the overall judgment that it’s a brilliant demonstration of what example of leadership isn’t.

But we all see things differently.

Where the writer saw a franchise owner wielding some sort of violent authoritative power over a young impressionable player, I saw an owner, yes, venting his frustration, but with a different intention and reason behind it. Jordan later called his slap a “tap of endearment.” I tend to see that side of it more than referring to it as some form of violence.

But, nowadays, things are painted in black or white. What’s supposed to work for me should work for you. What I do in my life, you should do in yours. The expectations I have, you should share.

Most situations shouldn’t fall into that mindset. Certainly, leadership should never be susceptible to that kind of naiveté. Leadership never looks the same from one person to the next. And it’s never received in the same fashion or with the same understanding from one person to the next.

Now, this post is not meant to justify any physical contact in a professional setting.

I repeat: This post is not meant to justify any physical contact in a professional setting.

If picking between using physical contact or not in a professional relationship, or any relationship for that matter, regardless of whether or not the environment plays out with the physicality of sport or not, to err on the side of caution, there should be no physical contact.

With that being said, what I want to get through here is the importance of understanding that leadership looks different to different people in different environments. The interaction between Jordan and Monk might not work for you and me. We might not appreciate our boss slapping the back of our heads. And, as a boss, we would probably never think of doing that to someone we’re leading.

But that’s us, not them.

To them it might work. We can’t look at every leadership relationship and approach through the exact same lens. No two leadership relationships are the same. How our relationships play out don’t all fit within the confines of the exact…same…box.

Related: How Do You Break Down Advice To Determine How It Applies To You?

The level of comfort we have with others, either as a boss or follower, will never mimic the level of comfort, accountability, love, expectation, courtesy, or even disappointment that may exist in other relationships.

Based on varying leadership and personality types, every combination of relationships is different. Jordan probably doesn’t interact that way with others in that same manner. And maybe Monk wouldn’t react the same way if someone else had slapped him – and, no, not just because Jordan is his boss.  (The writer of the article says Monk is laughing because Jordan is his boss and, essentially, he has no choice but to laugh and shrug off the situation. But Monk still has a full smile and is laughing as he walks away from Jordan, who at that point can’t see that lasting reaction. But I’m no body language expert, profiler, or specialist, so what do I know?)

My take on this is just based on what we see in such a public setting. 

The same way I say we shouldn’t judge this situation from one interaction, my full case can’t be made in one post. There are always so many other things to consider, such as:

  • For Monk (or anyone in his position)…
    • How does Monk truly feel about Jordan’s approach?
    • Is his smile and laughter genuine, where he understands Jordan’s intention?
    • Is Jordan’s approach OK with Monk?
    • In the end, does he feel genuine support from his boss?
  • For Jordan (or anyone in his position)…
    • How has Jordan interacted with Monk in other settings?
    • How does Jordan interact with others, especially other players?  
    • Has he considered Monk’s take on the slap approach? (If he didn’t before, now, with this situation, maybe he will.)
    • In the end, is genuine support his intention?

Leadership is never about a certain way it’s supposed to look. It all depends on what is right for the people living and experiencing each leadership relationship.

Related: How Is Your Organization Or Group’s Leadership Viewed Differently, Internally And Externally?

Leadership is not a blanket prescription. A leader’s style will not be constant across groups and people. A true leader’s greatest ability is understanding the audience she has in front of her, whether a group or an individual, and catering her style to the needs at hand.

Even when you transplant best practices from one environment to another, there’s a portion of time in which the new approach is in the experimental phase in which the determination needs to be made whether the expected benefit is transferable or not.

In the end, leadership never looks the same from one relationship to the next.

And it shouldn’t.

That’s the point of leadership – customizing your approach to who and what you have in front of you, understanding the limit of your boundaries and the impact of your methods.


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