History Funnel: Endgame of an Empire

Published on April 26, 2019

The Business Background

As not everybody is familiar neither with the legendary Bulls nor the latest Netflix documentary, let’s start with a quick introduction. The Chicago Bulls have just won 5 championships, almost in a row, and they are on their way to defend their title and win the 6th one. This winning team was not created overnight of course but instead it was brought together by the very efficient but not charismatic General Manager Jerry Krause. Krause was hired by the majority owner Jerry Reinsdorf long before the 1st title ending up in Chicago and it was he who brought Phil Jackson initially as Assistant Coach and then promoted him as Head Coach. On top of that he also bought Scottie Pipen and Dennis Rodman down this long road. All these great pieces of the puzzle played a pivotal role to create a dominant team for the years to come along with the mighty star of Michael Jordan. And at some point, the 1st title came and then the 2nd, the 3rd and so on. 

Fast forward to the last season after winning 5 NBA titles, the relations of the General Manager and the Owner with all these key persons have deteriorated a great deal creating a chasm difficult to fill.

Alienating the Architect

Phil Jackson was the architect of this masterpiece and the person who was invited twice for an interview by Jerry Krause so as to be recruited by the Bulls as Assistant Coach. Therefore, someone would think he owes him a great deal but instead has characterized their relationship “a circus” during the last 2 seasons! Other than taking many absurd statements dismissing the role of the Head Coach in this great success, GM Krause also tried to groom the next coach by going fishing with and inviting to his stepdaughter’s wedding while Phil Jackson was fighting the good fight for the 5th championship. GM Krause wanted desperately to take bigger credit for the successes by dismantling this dominant team so as to rebuild it. 

The ownership reaction in all this? Reinsdorf met with Jackson in the final hour before the last season to offer him the chance to fight for 6th title by underlining that he will not coach the Chicago Bulls after this season no matter what. This totally demotimotivating conversation between Reisndorf and Jackson lasted a few seconds and made clear that the most crucial part of this magnificent team would leave after ending the season no matter how successful the outcome. 

So, the owner Reinsdorf correctly bypassed GM Krause as he knew he wanted to replace coach Jackson for the coming season but failed to go all the way to prevent the disaster by sacking Krause. All in all, the owner did not play it right with coach Jackson as you either stick to the GM decision and replace coach Jackson or you fire the GM. To make matters worse, Reinsdorf changed his mind again after Jackson won the 6th NBA championship but then it was too late.

In business we often say, “if something is not broken, don’t fix it” and it was the responsibility of the owner Reinsdorf to set this straight with his GM before it was too late. He failed miserably.

Forcing your Brightest Star to Retire

This actually happened even by knowing that the brightest star of this team, and in the history of basketball really, Michael Jordan, has repeatedly said that he will not play for another coach on the Chicago Bulls. Meaning, the owner Reisndorf told coach Jackson, the architect of repeated successes, that he must leave after this “Last Dance” season no matter how successful the outcome, when he knew that Michael Jordan will not be part of this team in this case. In a few words, the owner Reinsdorf knew that with one move he would alienate both the winning coach and the biggest star of his franchise.  

To make matters worse, General Manager Krause gave an interview saying that no player alone can win the championship aiming at Michael Jordan just before a crucial game with the challenger Utah Jazz adding fuel to this quarrel. The most striking thing is that the void between the General Manager Krause and Michael Jordan became obvious right from the start as both sides were antagonizing each other instead of creating a united front to beat the opponent teams. When Michael was asked what would be the biggest obstacle in winning the championship, Jordan looked up to the window of Krause’s office and smiled ironically.     

The aftermath is that the best player and greatest asset retired prematurely and not only both management and ownership knew about it, their actions caused it! Not being able to identify the single point of failure of this dynasty that was coach Jackson, as Michael Jordan said many times “if he goes, I go”, is probably one of the poorest leadership moves in the history of the game. 

Demotivating your most Loyal Soldier

GM Krause went on antagonizing also the “Robin in Jordan’s Batman” Scottie Pippen by refusing to talk about his long and poor contract before its ending, regardless that the value of Pippen has skyrocketed. The bitterness of Pippen escalated after the first championships of the Chicago Bulls when Pippen realized it’s true value both as a player and as a valuable unit of the winning team. Their relations deteriorated so much that Pippen was verbally insulting Jerry Krause on many occasions.

Pippen injury was the way to express his disappointment by not taking the surgery during the summer break but instead he preferred to enjoy his vacations and do the operation at the beginning of the season leaving his teammates hanging out to dry. Even when he did get back, he had a fight with Krause which led to prolonging his absence from the games.   

Leadership is not only about giving financial rewards as Pippen wanted but also to show your appreciation for someone’s contribution. Krause failed in this area as well by sugar-coating the new recruit Kukoc instead of taking care of your current crew. When you lead an organization and you constantly disengage and demotivate your most loyal players/employees, it’s a slippery slope that ends badly for you and your venture.

The Business Bottom Line

It’s clear that this “Last Dance” seemed less as a struggle to defend their title and more as if an ongoing civil war went on inside Bulls organization. Players and coaches versus Management and ever-absent Ownership. Regardless of this awful sabotage on behalf of leadership, the team did win this last championship by “repeating a three-peat” which turned them to legends!

You don’t need to be a leadership expert to grasp the fact that the direction that the GM and owner have decided had no consensus nor acceptance to any stakeholder of this team: fans, press, players and coaches. 

When your General Manager is failing not only to inspire but also to protect your company’s assets and future, you send him home or you are as guilty as he is. By trying to impose their will with pettiness, both Krause and Reinsdorf ended up misjudging the company’s assets by thinking they are past their productive years and eventually mismanaging the assets and future of the organization.        

The chasm between management/ownership and this victorious team became that great that the greatest player ever Michael Jordan went to retirement, Pippen got traded to another team right away, Dennis Rodman was dismissed and coach Jackson took a break before returning victorious as the coach of another successful franchise! To note, making the greatest player ever to go to retirement is probably the highest watermark of human achievement in bad leadership.

This is an updated version of the original article.

Born and raised in Greece, Thomas Katakis is a business executive with 14 years of experience in 5 blue-chip companies and an insatiable lust for art, sailing, history, and travel.

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