I once heard the illustrious basketball player Michael Jordan discussing his public image with a group of journalists. At one point, he answered a question concerning what he thought people did not know, or what they misunderstood, about him. One particular element of his answer struck me, and stayed in my memory: that people tended to think of him as a great natural athlete. What bothered him about this perception was that it somehow underestimated all the hard work he did to become the outstanding player he became.
Often, when I speak to groups about the “born vs. made” question, I refer to a famous Nike commercial where we see images from Jordan’s past on the screen, as he reflects about his own impact on the game. This advertisement begins with the statement, “Maybe it’s my fault”, and it ends with “BECOME LEGENDARY” written in white letters on a black background.
If you are not familiar with this particular video clip, I suggest you watch it. You can find it here.
To date, I have seen this 60-second spot more than a hundred times. Each time I watch it, I am reminded how much its message applies to one of the core concepts I emphasize about leadership: that becoming a leader, or attaining proficiency at any activity, is far more about practice and persistence than about innate talent. As such, it is interesting to study some of the lines from the advertisement, and to take a deeper look at what the protagonist is telling us.
“Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I led you to believe it was easy when it wasn’t.”
When someone looks as natural as Michael Jordan with a basketball, or Tiger Woods with a golf club, we think it must be the result of inborn talent. But this is always a false impression. Greatness in sport, or in any other field, is something that takes years of hard work, attention to detail, and determination.
“Maybe I made you think…that my game was built on flash and not fire.”
I often comment that, in our modern image-obsessed society, we tend to choose our leaders for the wrong reasons. We are impressed when they are flashy and charismatic; we can easily fall into the trap of following media stars rather than people of true moral fiber. Jordan reminds us that his success was built more on character and determination than on chic or panache.
“Maybe I led you to believe that basketball was God-given gift and not something I worked for, every single day of my life.”
When Phil Jackson, former coach of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, describes this star player’s work ethic, he speaks with admiration of Jordan’s drive, his desire to improve every day in practice. Jackson says that Michael would simply exercise with greater concentration than anyone else, that he would work himself “into a lather” with his intensity, and that he would push himself ever harder whenever things got more difficult. Even when he had become the premier player in the game, he rarely took a day off from his demanding practice routine.
Years ago, when I coached high school basketball, I attended a camp where the legendary coach Bob Knight made a presentation. Knight spoke of the expression “the will to win”, which he said always made him laugh. He commented that on the day of the game, under the lights and in front of the crowd, it is easy to have the will to win. What is more difficult, he told us, is to have the “will to practice” each and every day. In the quiet moments outside the limelight, does the player truly have the will and the determination to strive for constant improvement?
“Maybe I destroyed the game, or maybe you’re just making excuses.” To me, Michael Jordan is challenging us all to “become legendary”, or to reach our full potential. We should not limit ourselves by thinking that becoming great requires natural gifts. We can all improve our game every day through practice, attention to detail and perseverance.
My message to people who would like to bring their “leadership game” to new levels, to have more influence in their world and in their organizations, is basically the same as Michael’s to the young players. Challenge your excuses. Accept responsibility for changing the things you long to change. Above all, remember that leadership skills are not gifts of birth; we can all develop them through practice and determination.