From Me to We: The Evolution of Success in Sports and Business

by | Jun 12, 2023

Michael Jordan Passing

Individual Focus vs. Team Focus in Sports

At a conference a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing a sports psychologist speak about his experience of playing Premier League football (soccer). In telling how his career progressed from playing on amateur teams, then to lower-tier professional clubs, finally landing a spot on a Premier League team, he noted that his focus shifted.

Early in his career, he was focused on himself — building his skills, improving his fitness, and growing as a player. As a result, he developed into a good player. But to make it to the next level, his priority had to shift away from himself and towards making the team better.

It’s a common refrain in sports — do you want individual success (great stats, individual awards), or do you want to win championships? Winning a championship requires everyone, even the stars, to be focused on the team. In his book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, Phil Jackson says that when he joined the Bulls as head coach Michael Jordan was already the best player in the NBA, having just won his first MVP and the prior three scoring titles.

But for the Bulls to win championships, Jackson needed Jordan to score less and get other teammates involved more. Jordan followed his coach’s directions, and the Bulls went on to win six championships. Notably, the winning shot of the 1997 NBA championship was by the Bull’s Steve Kerr after receiving a pass from Jordan with seconds on the clock. Everyone thought Jordan would take the shot. You can check it out here:

Individual Focus vs. Team Focus in Business

What’s true in sports is also true in business. While early career success depends on building an individual base of skill and knowledge, later success requires primarily focusing on making everyone around you better — improving the team.

Sure, early in your career, you need to worry primarily about yourself and your own development: you work hard, gain experience, learn a lot, and develop solid skills. And I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be a good teammate — you should. But early in your career, you need to focus on becoming competent and individually valuable, and that means improving your individual skills. If Michael Jordan didn’t spend thousands of hours practicing and honing his skills he never would have been good enough to be on the team, let alone a great teammate.

But as you progress, primarily focusing on yourself and your own career won’t pay the dividends needed to have a thriving career. Success later in a career requires leadership, which at its core is all about other people and not about yourself. You must focus on making other people great and investing in their success.

Don’t worry that by focusing on others your own career will stagnate; paradoxically, the more you invest in others, the better your own career will go.


  1. I used to practice law and my wife is a legal recruiter. The most valuable partners in the firm are the ones who drive business for everyone else within the firm. They are great lawyers but even better at client development and relationships. They act as the quarterback within the firm and funnel work to various practice groups. They can also spot and develop talent within the group of associates who perform most of the work. A lawyer who can develop a “large book of business” and can move their “team” to another firm commands the highest compensation packages. This is, of course, assuming that the law firm is structured to compensate lawyers who originate but don’t perform the actual billable work.

  2. John – how do you feel this applies to the practice of law (at least private practice in a firm)?

    • Yeah, the practice of law seems to be its own beast. I only practiced law for a few years, so I don’t think I’m qualified to have insight into whether this applies or not. I wonder what the most successful lawyers do?


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