The Michael Jordan Fallacy

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Being a great basketball player doesn't make you a great tennis player. And being smart doesn't make you a great manager.

While stuck at home, everyone in the world seems to be watching the ESPN docuseries The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan’s final year with the Chicago Bulls.

The resurgence of interest reminded me of my own favorite Michael Jordan story. I had recently moved to Austin, and I happen to notice in the newspaper that Michael Jordan would be playing in a charity exhibition game in San Marcos, about an hour from where I lived. This was in 1993 or 1994, during his baseball period, so the game wasn’t hyped as much as I would have expected.

Since it was a charity game, numerous other professional athletes were participating, not just basketball players. There were a couple of NFL players and one track-and-field athlete, Charles Austin, who I knew of from the 1992 Olympics. As the game began, most of the players weren’t taking it very seriously, though it was clear that Charles Austin had played basketball in his youth. But one ex–Texas State player was going full speed. He had graduated from college the year before and was obviously using the game to prove himself against the great Michael Jordan. Maybe he thought he would impress someone and get a try in the NBA.

At first, Michael just ignored the player and loafed along in second gear. But eventually the kid got under Michael’s skin. A switch flipped. Suddenly, Michael decided to start trying.

With Michael now motivated, the game suddenly grew intense. Charles Austin was on the opposing team, and when a missed shot rebounded straight to him, Austin saw an opportunity to demonstrate his athletic ability. With no one between him and the basket, he took one dribble and launched himself into the air to throw down a thunderous dunk. Out of nowhere came Jordan, who met him at the pinnacle, palmed the ball, and took it away. It was like watching a grown man playing with a five-year-old. I don’t know if the other fans realized what had just happened, but I knew I was watching unmatched athletic skill.

 

Great Athlete? Yes. Great Tennis Player? Probably Not.

To say Michael Jordan was a great athlete is an understatement. He was the best I ever saw at the game of basketball. Never was that clearer than watching him in person at that charity game.

But as a baseball player, Michael Jordan was at best a minor leaguer. As a tennis player myself, I would bet everything I own that I would beat him on the tennis court. Does that mean Jordan is not a great athlete? Of course not. It means that athletic ability is a component of greatness in sports, but it is not the only requirement. Michael Jordan’s skill in basketball was honed over countless hours of practice.

It is true that if you aren’t naturally athletic, you will probably never be great at any sport. But athletic ability must be coupled with a great deal of practice and skill development if you want to be great at any given sport.

 

In Management, Skill Development Is Always Required

There’s a similar dynamic in the business world with people who are good in one area of the business, or generally deemed “smart.” I hear a lot of comments along these lines: “So-and-so is really smart. They’ll be great in that role.” This often refers to putting someone who is an exceptional contributor into a management position, or someone who has managed a small team into a job overseeing several layers of the organization.

There’s a mistake there that is very similar to assuming that Michael Jordan will be great at tennis. Sure, Michael Jordan had started at age five and practiced regularly for many years, he might have won Wimbledon, but he can’t win Wimbledon just on athletic ability. By the same token, you can’t take Bill, who’s a smart or competent salesperson, and assume he’ll do a great job managing a team of salespeople.

Bill might be “smart” and “good at sales,” he hasn’t worked on developing the unique skill of managing people.

Does this mean people who are really smart and capable individual contributors can’t be exceptional managers? Of course not. Just as with athletes, if someone is not very smart or capable, they are probably not going to be great at managing people. Being smart and capable is a great starting point, but practice and skills matter.

I’ve never met anyone who was a great boss on Day 1 in the job. Certainly, some people take to management more naturally than others, but management is a skill, not an assignment. And like any skill, it takes proactive development to reach high performance.

Building those skills is exactly why MGR360 exists. 

After many years leading and working in organizations of all sizes, we’ve seen the difference that proactively cultivated management skills make—not just on the bottom line, but in the life experience of employees. I hope you will learn more about how we can assist your company through training workshops and recruiting.  

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell

Joel has learned the value of great managers over a quarter century serving as CEO of both public and private companies. As CEO and cofounder of NetQoS, a network management software firm, he delivered 31 consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth and a $200 million valuation. In 2010, Joel cofounded Cache IQ, a storage software company that NetApp acquired two years later. He is the author of two books, The CEO Tightrope and The Manager’s Tightrope—a complete guide to the manager’s role. He currently serves as CEO of Khorus, a company he founded to provide a business management system for chief executives.

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