Management Musings

The Irony of Becoming a Popular Leader

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” is a famous line from John Ford’s acclaimed film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The idea is that when the fictional story is better than what truly happened, it was better to publish the folklore. One of the most fabled sports commercials ever produced featured Michael Jordan in the 1991 Be Like Mike Gatorade advertisement. The company’s then-CEO, William Smithburg, asserted at the time, “Michael is perfect to represent Gatorade. His positive international image will help Gatorade further build its market.” Whether the commercial increased the company’s beverage capital is for someone else to determine, but the “Jordan ethos” depicted in a series of clips harmonized to a jingle is both powerful and clear:    

Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
Like Mike
If I could be like Mike

My impression of the commercial when I was an adolescent was that everyone aspires to be not just a great athlete like Mike, but a universally beloved figure who transcends their sport. Admittedly, even decades later the song stirs something in me to want to chug a bottle of the orange flavor and run out onto a court. The fantasy of being anything like Mike, however, quickly fades beneath the arc of my foot-and-a-half vertical jump.

The 2020 docuseries The Last Dance conveyed a profoundly different side of Jordan. Using previously unseen footage, together with the scores of interviews conducted for the film, it takes viewers behind the façade of the Jordan brand to show a truer Michael Jordan. Some of the comments made about the linchpin of an NBA dynasty that won six NBA championships were unexpected given the scale of his heretofore universal likability, which was rivaled only by Muhammed Ali and Pelé. A common theme was that he was not pleasant to be around unless (like him) you unequivocally loved the game, and he was generally feared by his teammates, with one commenting, “Let’s not get it wrong—he was an [expletive] …a jerk …and crossed the line numerous times.” Even more jarring than this characterization was when Jordan becomes emotional in response to a question about how the documentary might contrast his previous public persona: “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So, I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenge people when they don’t want to be challenged. Once you join the team, you live at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn’t going to take anything less.…You ask all my teammates the one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t [expletive] do. When people see this, they’re going to say he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant. Well, that’s you because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well.…That’s how I play the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way—don’t play that way.” His fervor was palatable—so much so that he abruptly ended the interview segment—and it speaks to the passion and competitive nature he exuded even decades after retiring from the game. The reaction was doubtless related to his all-consuming desire to win and justifying the means to achieve this end at any cost; if a callus thickened the wound he sustained from a lifetime of adversity, it was evidently still sensitive to the touch.

When we juxtapose his teammates’ comments with the message of that Gatorade commercial, can we see how his leadership philosophy (or at least his description of it) relates, if at all, to the contemporary court manager? Can court leaders be loved for the work they do without actively seeking out affection or compromising their ability to lead the organization? And when the veracity of events and circumstances surrounding leaders are made clearer, what can we learn from the non-fictionalized experiences of those who ascended to legendary status?   


Toni was making her famous taralli for the holiday season and promised that she would invite me over so that I could learn how to improve my own batch. She’d already shared the recipe with me, but the two times I’d attempted to bake a few dozen resulted in stupendous failure. I imagined having better success if I observed her process, just in case the culprit wasn’t the “hard water” I had been blaming. I arrived in the morning and saw that she had already started baking.

“You told me you were starting at eight?” I questioned.

“What time is it now?”

“Ten after,” I stated, checking my watch. “When did you start?”

“About an hour ago,” Toni replied.

“As much as I’m looking forward to sampling the ones you’ve made, that isn’t going to help me on my next attempt.”

“Understood. But I plan to make a couple of more batches and figured we could munch on these while we mix, knead, and shape the next set,” she said, peering into the oven. “Your timing is impeccable.” She removed a baking sheet of taralli and walked over to the nearby kitchen island. Using a metal spatula, she scraped the treats into a glass bowl. “Come and get them while they’re hot.”

“They look and smell great, Toni.”

“Hopefully they taste just as good. And I have a new tea that I was saving for us to try. Pour us a cup,” she said walking over to the table holding the bowl.

“Is this licorice?” I guessed.

“You would be correct—licorice spice. I haven’t tried it, but it caught my eye the last time I was at the grocer and figured we had to try it.”

“One sugar or two with this variety?”

“Let’s go with none because we can always add it if needed,” Toni reasoned. She sat down, took a bite of a taralli, and concluded, “You know—I think it might be your oven.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Experience mostly. But ovens are like people—they each have their own personality. I bake these for about fifteen minutes a side at 375. You might need to adjust the time or temperature or perhaps both. It would’ve been better if we did this at your place so that I could have gotten a better sense of your appliance.”

“Let’s plan to do that the next time mine turn out bland,” I joked, taking a bite of one I’d pulled from the bowl.

“Ha! You’ll get there—just keep at it.”

“These are sensational. Really delicious!”

“Thank you—try the tea. It’s superb,” she commented.

I took an initial sip and immediately agreed, “I might have a new favorite.”

She smiled as she savored the earthy, naturally sweet flavor of the licorice and then stood momentarily to gaze out the bay window. Tracking the movement of a squirrel scampering up the trunk of the maple tree in her front yard, she wondered aloud, “I don’t know what it found, but I imagine it’s going to tuck itself into the remaining foliage of the canopy for a safe place to eat it.” She let out a sigh sitting back down. She took another bite of the taralli in her hand, nodded to herself as if agreeing with her statement, and then turned to me, “How’s the popularity contest going at the courthouse?”

“Ha!” I laughed. “That’s basically what it’s turned into.”

“Based on what you’ve been telling me, I’d think some of your coworkers were still young adolescents in high school.”

“Well, whatever the age, the court administrator isn’t winning, although she should be, given the vast improvements that have been made. The worst part is that I’m equally contemptible because they regard me as her go-to manager.”

“But there’s progress being made,” Toni confirmed.

“Yes, and the chief judge is very happy with what we’ve instituted thus far.”

“Give it more time then. Have faith in what you’re doing.”

“It’s just frustrating because we could be much further along if we had more of a commitment from these other folks.”

“I understand,” Toni replied.

“Did you ever manage a popularity contest?” I asked. “Because I don’t ever recall you being preoccupied with the love and affection of others and yet seemed to always have it.”

“Two things: First, I probably didn’t always have it from everyone. And second, which is the more important point, I couldn’t tell you for certain because I was never preoccupied with that kind of thing. That’s the key.” She clicked her tongue and pointed to me.

“Not being distracted by it?” I asked.

“My focus was always on the work, which is not to say that I ignored the people around me or didn’t respect them as individuals. But I was indifferent to their personal feelings about me. If you’re doing right by the organization’s mission and working toward its vision, then you’ll need to trust the process. And that means you’ll often need to prioritize what you’re trying to accomplish over the affection of others.”

“So, all things considered, do you think it’s better to be loved or feared?” I asked, thinking of Machiavelli’s work of political philosophy The Prince.

“I actually don’t think Machiavelli’s treatise applies to modern workplaces—certainly not his view that a leader should seek to be feared because it is comparatively immutable and can be more reliably controlled than love. This zero-sum mindset only works in a monarchy or other autocratic structures, and I think managers do themselves a disservice by thinking that way. I prefer my own treatise, which is that you should seek to have the affection and care of others for the right reasons.”

“Right reasons?” I asked.

“This means that I have the buy-in and respect of folks around me because of their commitment to reaching a collective goal. If they ‘love’ me,” she stated using her fingers to quote in the air, “it’s because they trust that I will represent their interests.”

“And you do because it’s the right interests aligned with the organization’s mission,” I concluded.

“Correct. In this scenario, there’s accountability and likability—at least from those who are there like you to make a difference. Otherwise, you’re putting the proverbial cart before the horse. If your focus is just on securing the reverence of others, you’ll inevitably fail to meet your ambition. Instead, if you center your commitment on the goal—horses first,” she stated pointing her finger in the air, “the admiration of those who matter will meet you at the finish line.”

“You were probably not much different than you are now when you were an adolescent,” I guessed.

“It’s becoming more difficult for me to remember that far back,” she joked. “But I do recall always being goal oriented. I didn’t care about being ‘popular’ when I was supposed to care about that sort of thing, and so you can imagine how much less stock I put into others’ perceptions of me when my aspirations were tied to actual responsibilities.”  


As a basketball player, everyone loves MJ, arguably the greatest who ever played the game. Not unlike other legendary persons across the gamut of industries, the love was an effect (not the cause) of reaching a goal. In The Last Dance, the same teammate who referred to Jordan with an expletive also commented, “As time goes on and you think back about what he was actually trying to accomplish… [h]e was a hell of a teammate.” Another teammate observed, “He was pushing us all to be better because he wanted to win. And guess what? It worked.” When the possibility of failure severely afflicts someone and success is substantially more meaningful than the mere perceptions others may have, the individual’s perspective on achieving a goal is suddenly transformed. The pain Jordan endured from losing (even if accompanied by superficial camaraderie), vastly outweighed any concern he may have had about someone not liking him. He cared more about winning than anything else. The love for him inevitably followed the win.

Toni would suggest that the experience of being a leader is not binary—meaning that it is possible to lead and still be liked (or at least not hated). But a veritable leader should not collaborate in something that knowingly violates her own integrity just for the benefit of being liked by others (cart ahead of the horse). Toni would argue that love derived from acquiescing to mass opinion is superficial: this level of admiration will also vanish as quickly as failure is made clear. Her counsel suggests that to be everything you have the potential to become necessarily means trusting that those who are similarly committed and in earnest want the best for you and will appreciate you in the end.

There are techniques that Toni leveraged to strengthen her connections without compromising her focus on results. She was present in the company of others and always made a point of interacting with as many people as possible. When she did communicate, she routinely directed the discussion away from herself and asked questions about the other person’s life. And she did it because she had a genuine interest in the experiences of others. Toni was better with faces than names, so she would repeat the name of a person at least dozen times after meeting them and connect it to something that was mentioned in the conversation to help her remember it the next time they met. Later, she greeted that individual by name and asked about an issue or family member she recalled from their previous meeting. Almost always it created an instant connection with the person; how could you not like someone that makes you feel heard and seen? For these reasons, individuals gravitated toward her because of the accessibility and temperament she displayed. Toni also understood intuitively that people like other people who they believe regard them favorably. She was generous with her compliments and gratitude. At the same time, she seldom, if ever, spoke publicly about an individual’s character flaws, even those she knew disliked her. But she did all this not to curry favor, but to connect with people—to build her coworkers into a team.

To be a court leader means to be in a position of importance, recognizing the enormous seriousness of our actions. Legends are not made from forgoing what you know is the best decision because it may be too difficult or might ruffle feathers in the short-term; instead, the Michael Jordans of court management harden themselves against the initial resistance that naturally accompanies transformative changes and abandon the concern of being “liked” on a personal level. The manager can certainly survive if all she seeks is to be liked, but to be like Mike and truly thrive requires the kind of focus and determination that made Mike the Mike that was not fit to be printed.

And those are just some of my musings on management.


Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at