Anyone could predict that Michael Jordan would be inducted into the National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall of Fame, as he was this month. But could you guess who is the first person he would credit, outside of his family, for providing the motivation that led to his extraordinary career?
Perhaps his college coach, the legendary Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina? Or perhaps Phil Jackson, Jordan’s coach with the Chicago Bulls during their championship years? Or a teammate, like Scotty Pippen, the only player who was with Jordan on all six of his championship teams?
No, the person he named in his speech on Sunday was LeRoy Smith, and you’d have to go back to Jordan’s freshman year of high school to find out why. Tracing this origin is interesting because it helps decode the motivational strategy that helped drive Jordan’s success and reveals techniques we can apply as well.
But before we get back to LeRoy Smith and Jordan in high school, let’s see how well Jordan’s motivational strategy worked for him. Here is a brief summary of Jordan’s extraordinary professional achievements:
- Ten NBA scoring titles, the most ever
- Ten times All-NBA 1St. equipment
- Nine times All-Defense 1St. Equipment
- Six-time NBA Finals MVP
- Highest scoring average in the NBA Finals: 33.4
- Five-time regular season MVP
- Highest regular season scoring average: 30.1
- Three-time All-Star Game MVP
- Three-time NBA steals leader
- Defensive Player of the Year
- Rookie of the Year
There was a well-known Nike ad line that accompanied Michael Jordan’s commercials during his prime: “Be like Mike.” We can’t become Jordan when it comes to basketball skills, but we can understand his motivational strategy, because that was the subject of his speech. He talked about how throughout his career he kept looking for someone else or something else to inspire him to have something to prove. And every time he tried it, he looked for the next thing to try.
As Jordan said, his competitive nature was a fire, but it took logs thrown into that fire to ignite his motivation to excel. In his speech he told story after story about how having something to prove was adding another log to that fire.
MJ’s motivational strategy: something to prove
So, here’s Michael Jordan’s motivational strategy: Have something to prove. For Jordan it was always something specific, something challenging and always something instead of nothing.
You might think that Michael Jordan has nothing to prove, especially when it comes to basketball. But that was not always true.
It started in high school when Jordan was cut from the varsity team, which brings us back to LeRoy Smith, the first person Jordan thanked for sparking his motivation. Smith was picked for the last spot on the team over Jordan.
Jordan kept in touch with Smith all these years and invited him to the Hall of Fame ceremony. As Jordan said in his speech: “When he made the team and I didn’t, I wanted to prove it not only to LeRoy Smith and to myself, but also to the coach who chose LeRoy over me; I wanted to make sure he understood, ‘You made a mistake my friend.
To make the team next year, Jordan started right away and worked fiercely to improve his skills and his understanding of the game. It was the beginning of a simple and powerful motivational strategy that he would use throughout his career.
In his speech, Jordan offered many more examples. For example, when Jordan took a one-year hiatus from basketball in 1994, he was visited by a former competitor named Bryan Russell. Russell asked him, “Why did you quit?
I can protect you, and I would have proved it. If I ever see you on the court again, I’ll shut you up.” Russell might even have been joking with Jordan, but Jordan seized on the jokes as a motivating impetus. He recognized it as the kind of thing that drives him. He was back on familiar ground. He had something new to prove, he was going to prove Russell wrong.
Jordan recounted meeting Russell on the court at the start of the NBA Finals a year later and reminding him, “Remember that conversation from last year, about how can you protect me? You’re about to get your chance.” How did it turn out? Later in that series came a sequence that would become one of the most famous video replays in basketball history, when Jordan hit a game-winning jump shot over Russell as the buzzer sounded. Jordan won three more NBA championships and was named MVP in each one.
How can you “be like Mike”
What is your “something to prove” that motivates you the most? Is it something you want to prove to others, such as a competitor, a detractor, or someone who underestimates you? Or maybe it’s something you want to prove to yourself, reach a career goal, a promotion, or a sales goal. Perhaps it involves taking on a fear and conquering it.
Whatever it is, vividly picture in your mind the triggering incident, like Michael Jordan did when LeRoy Smith beat him for a job, or Bryan Russell told Jordan he’d “shut him down” if he returned to basketball.
Imagine the decisive moment and write it down. Then start planning and working on it today, anything you can do to start developing and progressing against your challenge.
Pick something demanding and a healthy amount of time to work. Jordan’s first motivating incident had a time horizon of twelve months ahead. He had to wait a whole year for his next chance to make the team, but that also left him with a whole year to prepare and develop every day.
To do you Do you want so badly a year from now that every day is worth working for? Respond today and start working on it today, and you’ll be like Mike.