Becoming a Tyrant

It is one of the most emotional and finest moments in “The Last Dance”, Netflix’s documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls of the Nineties: The interviewer asks Michael Jordan if he thinks that the intensity at which he played the game has come at the expense of being perceived as a nice guy. Jordan looks a bit surprised and uncomfortable, he smiles, then pulls the corners of his mouth down, he blinks nervously. Then, he says:

Well, I don’t know. I mean… Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So, I pulled people along when they didn’t wanna be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t wanna be challenged. […] Once you join the team, you live at a certain standard that I play the game and I wasn’t gonna take anything less. Now, that means I had to go in and get in your ass a little bit. And I did that.”

Michael Jordan was, as his former teammate B. J. Armstrong puts it, “difficult to be around if you didn’t truly love the game of basketball.“ While being a loving son, husband, and father, Jordan showed a different side on the court. He was a heavy trash-talker, a bully, and even got into fights with teammates and, of course, opponents. He wanted to win at all costs and he knew that in order to win, he had to be a leader. For him, this meant “pulling people along” and being a tyrant at times. It was his mentality.

Steve Jobs talked a lot of trash, too. As Apple CEO, he was known for being cruel at times, yelling at employees and board members, and insulting business partners and, of course, the competition. People he didn’t like were most likely “bozos” to him and work he didn’t like was “a piece of shit”. Jobs was as unpleasant as a boss as he was successful.

So, do you have to be a tyrant to be a successful leader? There are still many people who believe this to be true. For them, strong leadership indeed means being authoritarian, controlling, harsh, and unforgiving. What those people don’t understand, though, is that they won’t be successful simply by being a tyrant. Many people, when confronted with authoritarian leadership, will react with resistance. People want to be in control of their lives and make their own decisions. So if you’re a tyrant, many people will push back – and ultimately, you’ll lose them.

But why were Jordan and Jobs still so successful then? At least, they both had a close circle of people who trusted and respected them and would go through fire and water for them. One answer to this question lies in the rest of the response Michael Jordan gave in the interview:

You can ask all my teammates: ‘The one thing about Michael Jordan was, he never asked me to do something that he didn’t fucking do.’ […] I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well.”

Michael Jordan might have been demanding, but he also demanded the same from himself. He wasn’t only the greatest player who ever played the game, but he also led by example, laser-focused on his goal of winning (yet) another championship. This inspired his teammates and provided them with a vision, a glimpse into the future, and thus a sense of purpose.

The same was true for Steve Jobs. He was known for meticulously preparing and practicing his presentations and walking the extra mile to get the details of a product right. And while he demanded a lot from the people working with him, he was also a strong communicator who believed in challenging ideas together. Believe it or not, he was even able to change his opinion. And most importantly: Many people who worked with him had the sense of working on something larger than themselves.

Both Jordan and Jobs were great leaders not because of but in spite of their tempered nature and demanding mentality. They might have deemed it necessary to be a tyrant at times, but what ultimately drove their success was that they provided people with a vision and a sense of purpose. Being a tyrant might be a strategy that can fix things in the short term and push people to get work done. But in the long term, being a tyrant isn’t that smart, because it undermines your authority and creates an environment of mistrust, frustration, and fear. So unless you are the next Michael Jordan or the next Steve Jobs (and chances are, you aren’t), you better abstain from becoming a tyrant. Instead, create a safe space for people to thrive. Trust them, help them excel and get better, create a sense of purpose – and inspire.


This is the 23rd post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.


1 Webmention