When Your Heart Isn’t in It: Leadership Lessons from Magic Johnson

The NBA icon quit a leadership role on live television last week, before even telling his boss. Johnson is a unique case, but his story raises important issues of authenticity and obligation in leadership.

You have to really not like a job to quit during an impromptu interview on live television.

Magic Johnson—a man who has lived in the public eye for more than 40 years and is one of the best-known sports figures in the world—did just that last week, leaving his role as the Los Angeles Lakers’ president of basketball operations suddenly and just before the team’s season finale.

Johnson’s call came after a difficult season in which the team failed to live up to high hopes after signing megastar LeBron James. But he revealed his decision publicly before even telling his boss, team owner Jeanie Buss. According to reports, his departure was prompted in part because he had no desire to fire Lakers coach Luke Walton.

From the press conference, it was clear that his heart wasn’t in the role.

“I like to be free,” Johnson said, according to NBA.com. “I’ve got a great life … what am I doing? I’ve got a beautiful life. I’m gonna go back to that beautiful life. I’m looking forward to it.”

It’s an unusual situation involving a big celebrity in the professional sports world, but it  nonetheless holds some important lessons for leaders and those who may be considering a leadership opportunity. Among them:

Don’t take a leadership role out of a sense of obligation. Johnson had a long history with the Lakers, the only team he ever played for during his 13-year NBA career. But he has pursued a variety of business opportunities outside of basketball, and his passion for the game perhaps wasn’t what it was after he won multiple NBA titles in the 1980s. If you’re considering accepting a leadership role because you think you have to, stop to reconsider. You might be wise to leave the opportunity to someone with more passion for the role.

Consider the message your actions send. Even with his Lakers legacy, Johnson’s live-TV quitting was a major slight to an organization that arguably gave him much of his profile and platform. GQ’s Nathaniel Friedman says Johnson is perhaps too famous to face real consequences for the slight. “Was it unprofessional to quit his job on national television? Absolutely. But it’s also such a goofy, heavy-handed move that it’s almost endearing,” Friedman wrote. Johnson can get away with it. Others probably can’t.

If you can’t be authentic, you can’t be effective.  Johnson described feeling frustrated that in his role with the Lakers he couldn’t speak freely about what was happening in the league because it could be seen as tampering with other players and teams—which would earn him a fine. Writing in Forbes, leadership expert Mark Murphy cited his research finding that people who felt like they were “putting on a show” at work were less likely to enjoy their job. “Magic Johnson is empathic, charming, and emotional,” Murphy wrote. “But being president of the Los Angeles Lakers required him to tamp down some of his effusiveness and empathy and instead act in a more distant and calculating way. And the research shows that a situation like that can be very tough.”

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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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