Michael T. Burr,
Recent news headlines have featured an unusual number of historic events. One day in January, for example, news organizations struggled with the question of whether to lead their coverage with the Senate impeachment trial, Brazil`s economic collapse, or the latest dogfights in the Iraqi no-fly zone.
Many chose instead to focus on the retirement of basketball superstar Michael Jordan.
At first, this seemed ludicrous to me. Each of the other stories should have, by rights, dwarfed in importance any sports story. But after giving the matter some thought, I began to understand the basis for the country`s-nay, the world`s-obsession with Michael Jordan.
The obvious analysis is that Jordan has served as the worthiest role model professional athletics has offered in recent memory. At a time when true leaders seem virtually absent, Jordan stands out as a true leader who is also a nice person. He not only redefined the pinnacle of his sport, he did so with awe-inspiring style, and even grace.
Leadership, style and grace all seem to be in unusually short supply these days, as evidenced by the astounding list of major governments, economies and organizations in disarray. From scandals in the White House, the Hague and the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, to collapsing financial and political systems in Brazil, Russia and Southeast Asia, the world seems to be on a fast-track to hell.
Closer to home, utilities face uncertainty and frustration as the slow process of deregulation meanders toward an unseen goal. Market consolidation and increased competition are driving both belt-tightening and improved customer service. As if the geopolitical situation weren`t scary enough.
In the midst of such chaos, Jordan stood as an icon of excellence and strength. Even while collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships and game earnings, Jordan seemed immune to criticism precisely because he avoided social or political arguments. In contrast to many other celebrities, Jordan defied pressure toward political correctness. Even after his father was gunned down in an apparent robbery, Jordan kept mum on gun control.
These are the signs of someone who understands his place in the universe. Undoubtedly this self-awareness and clear focus on the here and now served Jordan`s ability to perform under pressure.
Here, I think, is the crux of the matter. In Jordan, people saw a human being who carried out his career in tune with a higher melody. In short, Jordan represented the potential for excellence that we perceive in ourselves-as Joseph Campbell described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “the vitalizing image of the universal god-man who is actually immanent [i.e., inherent] and effective in all of us.”
Like all hero figures, Jordan symbolized the higher aspirations of humankind. Such symbols can serve to inspire individuals and companies undergoing painful transitions, facing the challenges of a free market, and pursuing excellence in a hostile world. Utilities struggling to succeed in a changing energy marketplace can use some extra inspiration.
But going a bit deeper than that, the focus and attitude Jordan demonstrated on and off the basketball court is instructive to anyone who strives to excel in a competitive environment-individuals and companies as well.
Translating Jordan`s example to the real world requires engaging in careful self-examination and analysis. On a company level, it means considering a company`s core values, and evaluating whether and how these values create and inform the corporate culture. On a personal level, this introspection can help one to understand his or her place in an organization, and indeed in the world.
In any case, a little “navel contempla- tion” can be very rewarding for those who seek clarity and serenity amid the sound and fury of a chaotic world. Just ask Michael Jordan.