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The Leadership Styles of 5 NBA Legends

What's the difference between a world-class professional and a world-class professional who also happens to be a world-class leader. 10 Rings. Just ask Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. How 5 NBA legends used distinct leadership styles to reach the highest echelons of their profession.

Transcendent team leadership is the hallmark of every great organization. Be it the 95-96 Chicago Bulls or SpaceX here in 2014, the teams that go down in history all have one thing in common: Someone led them there. There 5 All-Timers are our starting lineup for an NBA Leadership Dream Team.

The 2014-2015 NBA season is upon us, which means it's time for the Ambition Blog to deviate from your regularly scheduled programming, capitalize on current events and look to five of the greatest NBA players of all-time and how their unique leadership styles impacted both their own individual quests for greatness and their franchises' journeys to multiple NBA Titles.

No man has ever won an NBA championship on his own (though Allen Iverson came admirably close in the 2000 NBA Finals). Championships require a team effort and effective team leadership. So what does it take to lead a championship team? Let's find out with a comprehensive breakdown of 5 NBA legends and the leadership styles they employed to dominate the NBA.

A Special NBA Edition of the Ambition Blog

Leadership

The five players chosen, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Lebron James, represent the highest echelon of basketball greatness. At one time or another, all five players dominated their profession. Not only that, their franchises dominated the NBA during the pinnacle of their careers.

So what makes this Starting Five such a compelling use case for leadership? While all five of these players were great leaders, they all had wildly disparate leadership styles. They say there's more than one way to skin a cat -- well, there's also more than one way to lead a team to transcendental greatness. 

Michael Jordan's Leadership Style

"His way is to befriend [competitors], to soften them up, to try to make them feel like he cares about them. Then he goes out there and physically tries to destroy them. For some reason, league-wide, it's important to be liked by him. I have no idea why." Jeff Van Gundy

"He wants to cut your heart out and then show it to you." Doug Collins 

"Limits, like fears, are often just an illusion." Michael Jordan

Jordan Leadership: The Apex Predator

How transcendent was Michael Jordan? De facto Jordan historian and New York Times writer David Halberstam recalled the words of sociologist Harry Edwards, who “talked about Jordan representing the highest level of human achievement, on the order of Gandhi, Einstein or Michelangelo.”

Like his contemporaries in industry, science, art, you name it, Michael Jordan succeeded at the highest possible level for an enduring period, and raised the level of his profession to heights before unseen. What drove him, it is well-documented, was a relentless, borderline sociopathic competitive drive.

Impossible to equal, Jordan's tenacity caused the quality of his leadership to be characterized by an Apex Predator sensibility. Either you went along with his program, furthered his ultimate cause of winning, or you were finished. 

Bill Simmons succinctly summarizes Jordan's treatment of his teammates as follows:

"Jordan weeded out weaker personalities and relentlessly pushed the ones that might have helped him. Really, it wasn’t hard. Jordan’s teammates needed to come through for him … or else."

The psychological impact of Jordan on his teammate has since made for stories that only add to his legend.

Embattled early-90s teammate B.J. Armstrong once went to a library and checked out a book on geniuses so that he could better understand his demanding team leader. Jordan sidekick and fellow all-time great Scottie Pippen struggled with living his career in Jordan's shadow, and became so incensed when, during a critical playoff game that took place while Jordan was on sabbatical, the Bulls Coach did not call for him to take the final shot, he walked off the court. 

Jordan's leadership ultimately was fueled by a mixture of fear and healthy respect -- a style only someone with his rare gifts, aptitude, intensity and clutchness could pull off. Unless you are the Jordan of your particular industry (Fact: You're not, there can only be one G.O.A.T.), I and any leadership expert would advise against following the Jordan style of leadership. 

Magic Johnson's Leadership Style

"He can reach from the top to the bottom to inspire an entire team, and he`s done it and done it and done it. It`s not inspiring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It`s inspiring the seventh and eighth man." Jud Heathcoate

"Whatever team you put Magic Johnson on, whatever its makeup, it will win." Jim Murray 

"Ask not what your teammates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammates." Magic Johnson

Magic Leadership: The Ambassador

Earvin "Magic" Johnson earned his nickname -- his very leadership style reflects the term. 

Passes that made defenses disappear, a flair for the dramatic, and an enthusiasm and passion for the game that carried over onto his teammates, competitors, and the NBA at-large -- Magic, along with Larry Bird, took the NBA to new heights in the 1980s.

Great leaders make great ambassadors, and you couldn't ask for a better ambassador for the game of basketball than Magic Johnson in the 1980s, when he led the Lakers to 5 NBA championships. 

Perhaps more than anything, Magic's appointment as Co-Captain of the 1992 Dream Team, the greatest basketball team of all-time, signifies the respect and admiration he commanded from his peers. In the 1980s, he was the NBA's ambassador to the American public. In the 1992 Summer Olympics, he was the game's ambassador to the world.

How did Magic accomplish this? By leading in a consummately friendly, good guy fashion. He was the anti-Jordan, a player whose teammates didn't fear him, but rather, followed his example and learned from him. Magic Johnson taught you. He motivated you. He coached you. A true floor general, Magic could quickly get the vibe of his teammates and know how to optimize that vibe.

Magic is the one player on the list where the opening quotes above really do say it all. The true test of a great leader is whether he can create winning teams while working with a variety of skill levels and backgrounds.

Magic sure did -- in high school, his team won the Michigan state championship. In college, he took Michigan State to the National Title. He entered the NBA and promptly led the Lakers to the NBA Championship, winning an NBA Finals MVP in the process. He was a 21-year old rookie. 

Over the next 8 seasons, Magic would go on to win four more NBA championships, and two more NBA Finals MVP awards. As if that wasn't enough, he would go on to beat HIV, lead the Dream Team to a Gold Medal, and become a full-fledged mogul and media personality.

Through it all, Magic led. In every sense of the word. He existed on the cutting edge of every major basketball development between 1979 and 1994. In the end, Magic's tenure as the reigning Ambassador of hoops could be characterized with one word: Magnetism.  

Larry Bird's Leadership Style

"If you put all of us in a room--Magic, Jordan, myself, and Bird, Bird would probably be the guy who walked out of the room at the end of the day." Isaiah Thomas

"I would be all over him, trying to deny him the ball, and all Larry was doing was yelling at his teammates, 'I'm open! Hurry up before they notice nobody is guarding me!' Then he would stick an elbow in my jaw and stick the jumper in my face." Dennis Rodman

"A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals." Larry Bird

Bird Leadership: The Pack Leader 

Larry Bird was equal parts clinician and warrior, one half-Socrates, another half-Douglas Patton.

Cunning, ice-cold, witty, clutch. There is no single, defining trait of Larry Bird's game -- it was the arsenal, the variety of ways that he would beat you, that characterized the man known as "Larry Legend," and his leadership. 

Bill Simmons once recited a vintage Larry Legend anecdote, which opens with the Bulls ticket staff screwing up his complimentary tickets for a random regular season game, and concludes with a pissed-off Bird torching the Bulls for 44 points, scoring the game's opening 5 baskets, and telling Doug Collins he'll "take it easy now" after raining 33 points in the first half.

Simmons eloquently conveys the story's significance as a defining vignette of Bird, the competitor:

"You don’t get the nickname 'Larry Legend' because of Game 7s, you get it because you brought it on those random November nights in Chicago because someone messed up your tickets. That’s a very specific kind of art, a genius crafting his performance with anger and competitive drive. That’s the final level of basketball."

The forces Simmons describes driving Bird are the very ones that drove Jordan, and indeed, Bird led with a similar mix of passion, anger and determination. Yet, there was one very distinct, prominent aspect missing from Jordan's leadership but inherent in Bird's -- humor. 

Bird was notoriously witty, the Ric Flair of in-game smack talk. The effect of this trait was compounded by Bird's very persona, a soft-spoken, Indiana farm hick with a drawled accent and skin perpetually the color of mayonnaise. 

The final keynote of Bird's leadership manifested in his play, which was defined by clutch moments and transforming ball movement into human art. The man seemed both impervious to pressure and unrestrained by the limits of human eyesight and muscle reflex. Bird was the ultimate team player who also wanted to be "the guy" when the situation called for it. That's leadership.

Bird's overall game and persona endeared him to his teammates and made him perhaps the greatest kind of leader, one who rose others to his level, instilled a culture of toughness and cooperation, and made the game fun for those lucky enough to play alongside him. 

Bill Russell's Leadership Style

“Russell single-handedly revolutionized this game simply because he made defense so important.” Red Auerbach

“If we played Boston four on four, without Russell, we probably would have won every series. The guy killed us. He's the one who prevented us from acheiving true greatness.” "Hot Rod" Hundley

"One thing you want to do is make your opponents know they can't win.” Bill Russell

The Cornerstone

An oft-used expression about Bill Russell also says all you need to know about the man: Bill Russell may not be the greatest basketball player of all-time, but he's the greatest winner of all-time.

And really, who are we to argue? 13 seasons. 11 Rings. 2 won as Player-Coach. Bill Russell didn't just win championships, he consummately dominated the NBA.

You can trace the path of destruction Russell and his Boston Celtics wreaked back to the innate leadership qualities of No. 6. Russell led by psychological, emotional and physical example. Pure and simple.

Psychologically, his toughness in not just enduring, but transcending racism by itself puts him in an echelon of his own. But the mental prowess extended onto the Court as well, where Russell utilized his shot-blocking abilities and legendary aura to psych out opponents. 

Emotionally, Russell always played with a controlled anger, allowing the game to become an outlet for years of built-up aggression born out of a life spent battling racism, skepticism and hostility from society at-large. Russell's ability to bond with teammates and create a sense of trust and camaderie on and off the court is what enabled the Celtics to become borderline unbeatable throughout his career.

Physically, Russell provided a backend defensive support system like no other. Russell was, literally and figuratively, the ultimate last line of defense on the basketball court.

His play instilled confidence in his teammates and gave them in-game tactical advantages, such as his famous shot-blocking innovation of swatting the ball towards a teammate racing up the sideline, creating an easy fast break layup. His aptitude, even downright zeal, for neutralizing the opposing team's star player made him the paragon of accountability.

Like Jordan, Russell transcended the game. Unlike Jordan, Russell lacked transcendent talent (Russell was actually undersized for a player at his position, at 6'9). In terms of how they led, Jordan and Russell couldn't have been further apart.

And in the end, fair or unfair, it's Russell that is in possession of nearly double the number of Championship rings that Jordan has.  

Lebron James's Leadership Style

"Like Magic before him, LeBron loves playing at home. Loves seeing the arena covered in white, looking out at the fans after big plays, stomping around and screaming and feeding off the noise." Bll Simmons

"I’ve never seen anyone with his size and strength combined with such quickness and such a generosity of basketball spirit. It is almost as if he is tortured by the reality of his individual greatness. LeBron is not comfortable doing it by himself. He has learned to take over when it is necessary, but it does not come naturally to him." Bob Ryan

"I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go." Lebron James 

The Justice League Leader

When all else fails, sometimes you just have to put the team on your back. Sometimes you have to be the one to drive the final nail in the coffin. Sometimes you have to chase down your opponent from the length of the court and block the ever-loving hell out of his shot in order to regain momentum. (Pours one out for Jason Richardson).

Lebron James is the most scrutinized player in NBA history, beyond question. He has earned more praise and more criticism than anyone who has come before him. His steady ascent from childhood prodigy to undisputed King of the Sports World has been a sight to behold. With Lebron, you're not a spectator, you're a Witness.

The career arc has been fascinating, a Herman Melville novel played out on the hardwood. Lebron is Ahab, and the Whale has been expectations. And yet, during the first act of his career, there were still these moments. What there wasn't, of course, was a single NBA Finals victory.

Fairly or unfairly, Lebron has spent much of his career being labeled as someone who shrunk away from the moment, someone who couldn't lead his Cavs team (and its decrepit talent) to the mountaintop. The lack of a Finals win was most glaring, especially considering what Allen Iverson did with an even less-talented squad against the otherwise unstoppable 2001 L.A. Lakers in Game 1 of that season's Finals. (Pours one out for Tyronn Lue).

Then the move to Miami. An alliance with perennial All-Star Chris Bosh and All-Decade player Dwyane Wade. A gut-wrenching loss to the Dallas Mavs in the 2011 Finals, followed by two straight Titles and a record fourth consecutive trip to the Finals this past year.

The controversy surrounding the Decision and its smoldering aftermath certainly changed the way Lebron carried himself. In Miami, Lebron could vacillate between operating as a force unto himself and a deferential teammate. He attended post-game press conferences exclusively in the company of Dwayne Wade. He was now one of the guys. The best guy, to be sure, but not the guy.

The funny thing is, amidst all the proclamations of "choke artist" (a lot of people evidently never watched the '07 Eastern Conference Finals), "Robin," and so forth, Lebron did actually continue leading, just in more subtle ways. Dictating tempo, shutting down the opposing team's best player, committing random acts of individual greatness.

People tend to see the defining image of NBA leadership as being Jordan's last shot in the '96 Finals, or Kobe leading the '00 Lakers to a momentum-shifting Game 4 Overtime win against the Pacers en route to their first Championship.

But sometimes, leadership looks like the last video that I linked to: A combination of hustle, clutchness, teamwork, and individual, once-in-a-generation brilliance. That, my friends, is a great leader's arsenal, and Lebron has it. 

What kind of leader will Lebron be in the third Act of his career? We're about to find out.

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